Wednesday, November 14, 2007
The evenings in Barcelona have become a little cool. A sweater isn't always enough. A girl sometimes needs warming up when she gets home. In other words, it's soup weather.
My favourite soup is plain old chicken. But, I confess, I'm a lazy cook. Lazy, but demanding. Or, at least, unwilling to give up the idea of cooking from scratch. The combination makes me an enthusiastic user of shortcuts.
I have two shortcuts for chicken soup, one of which presented itself to me in Barcelona. The first shortcut--known by cafeteria ladies the world over--is dispensing with a raw chicken. You can't do this if you need a pure chicken stock to use as a base for another dish--for that, you should stick with a classic stock recipe. But, if all you want is a little soup to eat all by your lonesome in your cozy Barcelona apartment, dispense away. I tend to use a partially intact chicken carcass that I've either roasted and half eaten the night before or bought at my local rotisserie and half eaten the night before. The three main advantages of this strategy are that there's no skimming or rinsing, both yucky jobs; that the precise flavour of the soup is always a bit of a surprise, being largely dependent on the way the roast chicken was originally spiced; and that you essentially get two meals from one bird.
The other shortcut is particular to Barcelona, as far as I know. It is a ready made package of herbs and vegetables sufficent for one pot of chicken soup. These packages invariably contain 2 or 3 large carrots, 2 or 3 ribs of celery (leaves intact), and 1 leek; usually a handful of parsely; and sometimes a parsnip, a turnip or a small piece of cabbage. The variety is part of the fun. And you don't have to comb the store for all the required ingredients. Laziness, the mother of invention.
So, here's what I do with my roast chicken and my package of vegetables. I peel the vegetables that need peeling, chop into 2-3 inch chunks and toss into a stock pot with the remainders of the roast chicken. I cover all this with cold water, throw in a tablespoon or so of salt, 3 or 4 whole peppercorns (if I feel like it) and sometimes a bay leaf. I might also add a quartered onion or two, although with the leek, it's not strictly necessary. I bring all this to a boil, reduce the heat and leave to simmer, partially covered, for about an hour and a half. If I remember, I check on it occasionally and season to taste as I go. If I don't remember, the water evaporates, the solids incinerate and the fire department has to be called in. In any case, when done, I cool the soup (when I don't, the next part of the process tends to burn a little), strain the liquid into a clean pot and proceed to pick out the still edible vegetables (i.e. the carrots, parsnips, turnips and cabbage, all the rest having more or less disintegrated) and the chicken. The chicken I shred, discarding bones and skin; the vegetables I chop into bite sized pieces. All this I throw into the pot with the stock. I check for seasoning one last time. Then I eat. Actually, I usually can't wait that long and tend to make myself a mini-bowl before I've gone through the cooling and straining process, but you can do as you like.
One of the things I love about chicken soup is that, like the missionary position, you can riff on it to your heart's content. I'm a big fan of cutting in a piece of fennel along with the other vegetables, which gives the final product a faint taste of anise. I also sometimes o.d. on parsnips, which makes the soup almost sugary sweet. When I'm feeling a little like Asian and if the stock is fairly pure to start with, I garnish with bird's eye chiles (one or two), beansprouts and chopped cilantro. Oh, and if I have them, I sometimes throw in a few fresh or frozen peas once the soup is ready. You can, of course, add noodles or rice or tomatoes or any number of fetish items. But you don't need to. The soup is delicious just as it is.