Thursday, December 12, 2013

Something Simple: Chicken Soup with Rice

Ok, it's not actually rice. It's Orzo, but Abby and Michael love the book "Chicken Soup with Rice," and since Orzo does look quite a bit like rice, that's what we call it. But that's not the point.

The point is that there are some things you should make at home, just like there are some things you should buy at the store. Chicken stock is one of those things that, to whatever extent possible, you should make at home and store for use. We've found a few decent enough brands of store-made stuff (Trader Joe's Organic Free Range is a definite contender), but really, nothing compares to the stuff that you make at home.

Don't have all day to spend slaving over a massive simmering pot of stock (especially in the warm summer months)? Well, neither do I--since this is the 21st century, I make mine with science.

Although, actually, since I made that post, I've gotten even more frugal with my stock (and yet continue to yield impressive results). Instead of buying thighs or drumsticks, I'll save the carcasses of two whole chickens after I've carved them up (either raw, or after I roasted the bird whole). I put them in the freezer (sometimes two to a bag, depending on my prep schedule) and they come out to a little more than 3 pounds of meat and bone. I generally don't have any leeks around, but toss in an extra onion (still sliced very thin or even with a mandoline) and sometimes a bay leaf. The results are always amazing--thick, rich stock loaded with gelatin, which gives that amazing silky mouthfeel you want in a soup. Also makes for outstanding risotto.

Don't have a pressure cooker? Take the same chicken carcass (or two) and put it in a big pot--one of the ones whose lid you still have lying around. Toss in some quartered, chopped, or sliced onions and carrot; some herbs (whatever you have around--a tablespoon of dried stuff if that's all), a few garlic cloves, some black pepper corns, and a bay leaf. Fill it with filtered water (Really? Yes, really.) and put it on the stove to bring to a boil. Give it a few minutes to simmer and skim off any nasty foam on the top, tossing it out in the garbage. Put the lid on and stick it in the oven at 225 degrees for a few hours (or overnight if you feel like it)--unless the pot lid is made of plastic that can't handle boiling temperatures (get yourself a new pot), it should be fine. When it's done, pour the stock out through a strainer or some cheese cloth into another container. There, you've got stock better than anything you'll find in the store.

But back to the soup. I had to leave the house for most of the day today, and wanted to leave Sharon something good to eat for lunch. Last week I made a batch of chicken soup from the last of the brined chicken breasts in the fridge, as well as some vegetables. I wasn't so lucky today to have solid pieces of chicken, but there's more than enough chicken (both in flavor and nutrition) in the two quarts of stock I had sitting in the fridge, so I got to work.

One day when I grow up and leave IT, every morning will look this good. 
Way too often, people think that they need to cook from a recipe. You don't. Well, maybe you do right now, but the more you practice and pay attention to what you're doing, the more you'll notice a lot of clear trends between recipes, and you'll start to rely on them less. In the fridge this morning, I saw that I had chicken stock, carrots, celery, and onions (ok, not in the fridge, but you get the idea). Those, along with some salt and pepper are all I really need for soup. Of course, the fact that I'm using good homemade stock means that I'm going to have a big advantage over someone using something like Swanson's (really, guys, nothing against them, but give one of the home recipes a try and tell me it isn't light years ahead of most stuff you get at the store).

The point is not to get too hung up on the specifics--If I had a leek or maybe some fennel in the fridge, I could throw that in the soup and it would be good. Hell, even if you have a bag of salad greens (not the crisp ones like romaine, though), you can throw them in for some texture and even more nutrition. That's what's great about soup--you can make it with all sorts of things you have on hand.

Put the pot on the heat, let it warm up a bit before adding a couple tablespoons of olive oil and then tossing in the carrots with some salt to help the sweat.

I did the carrots first mostly because I was in a hurry, but also because they take longer to soften on the heat. Of course, if I wanted them to soften faster (as we do in some other soups), I could slice them thinner or mince them. But for a soup like this (that is, one meant for my wife to eat), we're going to want nice thick slices of carrot to enjoy.

And then the celery.

Can't tell you how good this smells. 

When I was a kid, I somehow always thought of celery as being a flavorless kind of vegetable. Possibly because of the white, dull ones that we would sometimes get as a snack at lunch in school. Of course, now I know how much flavor there is in there (either raw or cooked), and I love adding them to a soup like this. Four stalks cut down the middle and then sliced together gave me just the size I wanted for the soup.

And then... hmm... hey, you do know how to chop an onion, right? I mean, you're an educated adult, of course you must know how to do it. Well, just in case we have any younger readers who are still a little fuzzy on how to do this, allow me to demonstrate. First things first: slice it straight through the stem.

See? Easy. Now peel off the tight brown skin. See? More easiness--way better than trying to do it when it's all wrapped around the onion in one big piece. Then you're left with this.

Oh, you sexy thing. 

Here's where you might think I get a little gimmicky, but in truth, this is the fastest way to get nice, even, consistent chopped onions (and without spraying a fine mist of onion juice into your eyes). You want to slice off the brown end...

Just like that. 

And then make a series of slices along the long axis of the onion, dividing it into wedges.

It's called a "fan cut." Just ask my two-year-old. No, seriously. 

The important thing is to keep the knife moving while you do this--don't just press it directly against the onion. Put the middle of the blade against the side of the onion and slowly slice down while you bring the point closer in towards the stem (but don't cut the stem). With your other hand, make sure you get a good hold of the onion, and keep your fingertips pulled inwards so that the side of the blade only touches your knuckles--trust me, it's much safer.

This is where I give you the life lesson: you're going to be bad at this the first time you try it, and that's ok. You'll probably cut too shallow (and end up with some pieces that are too big) or too deep (and cut the thing apart). The most important thing is to keep a good solid grip on your knife and keep it moving. Seriously, it's going to blow your mind when you realize how much better your knife works when you are using it to slice rather than chop like an ax. Just keep at it and remember: onions are cheap to practice on.

Just let your significant other know you're going to be practicing. 

Once you have the fan cut done, turn it and (still keeping your free hand's fingertips pulled in), you can quickly chop through the other slices you've made, leaving you with evenly-sized pieces of onion.

Note the little bit of stem at the bottom--that's the one piece that we throw away; the rest of it gets seasoned and thrown into the pot with the carrot and celery. We sweat them at a good medium-low temperature, stirring every few minutes and making sure that nothing browns--the point of the sweat is to gently cook them, pulling out some moisture and bringing out flavors without full-on browning. But you know what? If you happen to walk away for a few minutes and come back to a few brown pieces of vegetable in your pot?

That's ok.

First of all, it's ok because browned (heartily cooked) is different from black (burnt). Give it a good stir--when you add the chicken stock, you'll be able to scrape up the brown bits and they'll add a little more flavor to the broth.

But more important--it's ok because we're not cooking for the flippin' queen here, are we? We're throwing together a quick soup out of stuff we found in the fridge, and we're not going to let a little something like overly-brown vegetables ruin our day.

Now, before we add our stock (you put it in a saucepan to heat up while the vegetables are sweating, right? Because that will save you a ton of time), there's one more thing we want to add, and I have to admit, it's a bit of a confession of mine.

Pictured above: the hand of a very bad person. 

There are a lot of times when I'm more than happy to peel, chop, mince, crush, and otherwise prepare garlic. But not on a day when I have some of this lying around. Note once again that not all brands are created equal--Trader Joe's is preserved with Vitamin C and nothing else. It's very good stuff, and it saves me a lot of hassle in the kitchen being able to toss a quick teaspoon or two into a dish.

Do I use it in everything? No.

Do I use it when I'm throwing together soup out of what I found in the fridge?

Hell yes, I do.

And in it goes. Note that if we were sauteing with oil at high heat, we would have a very short window in which to cook garlic before it would get very bitter. This is another good reason to keep the heat relatively low--we can draw out some flavor before we add the stock.

Once it's added, bring it to a simmer (which should take no time at all if you heated the stock before putting it into the pot with the vegetables), cover and let slowly simmer for a good half-hour or so. At that point, if you're not too carb-phobic (or are willing to indulge your wife), you might measure out the aforementioned orzo and toss it into the pot.

Another good reason to use the kitchen scale--keep pasta in airtight containers and add just what you need. 

Orzo generally takes 9 minutes, and I'd give it that long to simmer gently before serving. Of course, they'll continue to swell in the broth as the day goes on (whether sitting out or refrigerated), but in the end you'll have something that looks like...


You know, I really do need to get better at remembering to take a picture just before serving.

Oh well--it was just Chicken Soup with Rice.

Update: Pictures of the leftovers have been identified for posterity.

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