Saturday, April 14, 2012

Soup's On!

I love soup! It can be cozy and comforting, or elegant, or refreshing. If you’re interested in improving your cooking skills and don’t know where to start, soups incorporate a number of basic skills, and is relatively hard to really mess up.  Soups are easy to make for a crowd or for freezing meals for later in the week.  You can make soups with relatively few ingredients, most of which we all have on hand. Oh! And pretty economical, too, depending on your ingredients.

So, have I sold you yet?

It’s also easy for entertaining. Make a nice pot of soup, toss together a green salad, some tasty bread, and voilà! You have a great meal, with minimal last-minute preparation, that allows you, the host, to enjoy your guests without sweating a complicated multi-course meal. People will rave, and you can bask in the glow of their adoration.

Last year, during January, I had Soupapalooza, where each Sunday, I would make a big pot of soup and issue a general invitation to my friends in the neighborhood to come over, hang out, and eat some soup.  It was great!  To be honest, I got the idea from an article I read in Bon Appétit, so I can't claim credit for the original idea.

When I was growing up, my mom would make what us kids called her famous “3-day soup.” The type of soup varied, but she made a big pot that we would have to eat for lunch and dinner over the course of three days.  True story. You’d think that would turn me off from soup forever, but no.  Probably because there are endless variations to soup, so I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

One of my favorite soups she made was Chicken and Wild Rice Soup. So, in honor of her (and the fact that I had some extra wild rice hanging around), that’s what I’m making.

Just in case you’re not sure what wild rice looks like, here’s a picture:

It has long, black grains, and takes a while longer to cook than regular white or brown rice. That plastic tub behind it is homemade chicken stock.  I’ll usually make that out of a leftover carcass after I’ve roasted a chicken, but there are a lot of good quality stocks and broths out there, so don’t feel you have to make your own.  I’ll save the roasting of chickens and corresponding making of stock for another post.

So, another important part of soup is making sure your veggies are chopped to relatively the same size bits so that they can cook at the same rate.  If you’re going to blend the soup later so that it’s smooth, the size of the veggies aren’t as important, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

Here are the components of the mirepoix (that’s a fancy term for chopped up celery, onion and carrots):

You may notice that the carrots seem to be in bigger chunks than the onions or celery. I did that because I like my carrots to have a little bit of bite to them, so I don’t want them as soft as the other veggies.

The other key part of a soup, one that elevates it from simply good to excellent, I think, is seasoning, which means actually tasting the soup.  It’s a tough job but someone has to do it.  Speaking of seasoning, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Penzey’s Spices, my all-time favorite place to get spices. They have a store about 40 minutes from me, so I don’t go there often, but they also have a great mail order business. When I do make a special pilgrimage, I’ll spend an hour there, just smelling all the amazing spices and herbs, and usually spending a bundle!  (I swear I’m not a paid spokesperson, just a fan!) But I digress…

Okay, so after a few more steps like sautéing the veggies, dumping in the chicken stock and some water along with some chopped up cooked chicken and wild rice (I realize that other food blogs will have pictures of all these steps, but it's really just dumping the stuff into a pot and letting it cook, and you don't really need pictures of that, do you?), you’ll get something that looks like this:

It’s delicious and creamy, with big chunks of chicken and carrots. The wild rice gives it a little nutty earthiness.

Are you hungry?  Excellent!  Get cookin’!  Here’s the recipe:

Chicken and Wild Rice Soup


1 Tbsp butter
1 onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, chopped
1 long stalk of celery, chopped
4 cups of chicken broth or stock
2 cups water
3 cups cooked chicken breast (about 2 breasts), shredded or chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 cup wild rice, cooked **
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
½ cup flour
1 ½ cups cream
a couple drops of sriracha hot sauce (a couple drops of Tabasco will do, too)
salt and pepper to taste

1.              Melt 1 Tbsp butter in  a large pot (at least a 4 or 5 quart soup pot) over medium heat, then add onion, carrots, and celery.  Saute (cook) for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the veggies don’t brown.
2.              Add stock, water, chicken and rice to the pot and bring to boil, then turn down to a simmer (the liquid should not be bubbling, but just shivering around a bit).  Simmer for 10 minutes.
3.              While the soup is simmering, you’re going to make a roux: in a separate, small (2 quart) saucepan, melt the ¼ cup butter over medium-low heat, then sprinkle the flour over the melted butter, whisking until it forms a smooth, pasty kind of mixture.  Let that cook, still whisking, for 2-3 minutes (you’re cooking out the flour taste), then add the cream and whisk like crazy until the flour/butter paste is completely incorporated into the cream.  Let this cook on low heat for 5 minutes, or until it’s thickened, stirring occasionally. (NOTE: you could skip this step all together, if you want a less thick soup, and just add the cream to the soup after it’s cooked the 10 minutes called for in step 2).
4.              Add the roux/cream mixture to the chicken/rice soup mixture and stir to incorporate all the ingredients.
5.              Season to taste with salt and pepper.  I also added a little Sriracha sauce to the soup, which gave it a subtle kick.  Be sure to taste the soup BEFORE you add any more seasoning – commercial stocks and broths can have a lot of salt already added to it, and if you used chicken from a store-bought roasted chicken, those tend to be salty, too.  So taste, then season, then taste again.

**Cook the wild rice according to package directions, or use leftover wild rice, if you have it. Essentially you should have 2 or 3 cups of cooked rice before you add it to the soup. If you’re making the rice from raw, then allow a good 45 minutes to cook it before you can add it to the soup.

This should serve 6-8 people, depending on how hungry they all are.   And it should take you 30 to 60 minutes to make.  Why the huge disparity? Depends on if your chicken and rice have already been cooked, and how long it takes you to chop stuff.

This recipe (as most soups) is really versatile. For instance, you could up the veggie to chicken ratio, or cut back on the rice.  If you have to cook your chicken, intensify your broth by poaching the chicken in it, then remove the chicken to slice it up (just make sure you boil the chicken stock after removing the cooked chicken for 10 minutes – doesn’t have to be a big, rolling boil, but you want to make sure you cook out any bacterial that the raw chicken might have had). You could throw in mushrooms or corn.  You could add a cup of white wine to the veggies and cook a bit before adding the stock..  Lots of variety.  Make it your own and have fun.  After all, that’s what cooking’s all about, right?

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