When the outside thermometer is frozen in the teens, soup and stew seem like the only sensible things to cook or to eat -- warming both the kitchen and the diners. Even better, add some fresh-baked bread and you've got a satisfying meal. We don't often eat dessert, but in honor of Valentine's Day, I added poached pears with chocolate sauce as the finishing touch to Wednesday's chicken soup supper.
When a dish is simple and has only a few ingredients, improving the quality of any of those ingredients can make an enormous difference. For chicken noodle soup, that means the stock and the noodles.
After taking an excellent knife skills class at Cooks Wares, I've been practicing dismembering chickens with my freshly-honed chef's knife and super-sharp Wusthof boning knife. Of course, Jacques Pepin could bone an entire chicken in the time it takes me to think about where exactly I'm going to make my first cut, but it's still a pleasure to work at developing some competency. Since I've switched to buying whole chickens at Findlay Market here in Cincinnati, I have plenty of backs and wings to use in stock this winter. The additional benefit: cups and quarts in the freezer for quick suppers, without the tinny, super-salty taste of canned.
Five or six years ago, I adopted the Cooks Illustrated method for making stock -- it doesn't take all day, but yields a rich, flavorful broth. Since my daughter absconded with The Best Recipe, and I haven't gotten around to replacing it, this is from memory. But the technique works well!
The trick is to cut the chicken into small pieces (say 3 inches), brown the chunks briefly, then sweat them, covered, in a heavy pot for about 20 minutes. At that point, there will be lots of savory juice in the pot. Add water, celery, parsley, carrots, an onion stuck with a couple of cloves, thyme (fresh if you have it), a bay leaf, pepper and a touch of salt (we're trying to cut back on sodium). The stock needs to simmer only briefly (30-60 minutes) before you can strain it and it's ready to use. Hmmm... I realize this sounds a bit cryptic, since there are no amounts, but this is really a recipe that doesn't require measuring. Just follow the terribly helpful instructions from an old cookbook: season to taste and cook until done.
After sweating and simmering, the chicken gives up all its goodness (really -- taste a bite, and you'll find it has no flavor left at all), so if you want flavorful chicken chunks in your soup, poach a fresh piece for 15 minutes or so.
Wednesday's Chicken Noodle Soup started with poaching half a breast in hot stock. While that was cooking, I diced a couple of small carrots, a couple of stems of celery, an onion, and a handful of Italian parsley. After removing the chicken, I added the carrots and celery and simmered for 20 minutes or so, before raising the temp and adding a couple of handfuls of the best egg noodles we've ever tasted.
Cincinnati seems to have a lot more interesting regional brands than Connecticut did (or maybe Connecticut's were mostly spagetti sauce). These noodles are from Das Dutchman Essenhaus. (It turns out there are a lot more Amish in Ohio than in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, but I guess they have a less active marketing department.)
After seeing that an "Amish" fresh cake at a local market contained margarine and about half a cup of food coloring, I've learned to read beyond the "Amish" on the label... but these truly are extraordinary noodles. The ingredient list? Wheat flour, egg yolks, water. Turns out the company makes a variety of noodles, and they're laminated, not extruded. Translation: toothsome, light noodles that taste homemade. If you're making a big batch of soup to have leftovers, you should probably cook the noodles separately and add on serving (although I never do). Otherwise, the noodles continue to absorb broth, and the soup will become more like stew. Yummy carbs, but not very soup-y.
When the noodles are about done (a solid 10 minutes, at least), I add a handful of frozen corn kernels and the diced chicken. Last night, I also added a carton of diced tomatoes, just because we've had the standard recipe a couple of times in the last month. If you've got stock in the fridge, you can whip this up in 45 minutes. Start by tossing Farmgirl's beer bread together and into the oven, and bread and soup will be ready at the same time. Simple, but oh, so delicious.