- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It’s just not fair. Flu season has been navigated, we’ve finished off the last of that chicken soup, and things are actually starting to look promising outside. Then one of those late-winter colds swoops in and knocks our feet out from under us. For this, we’re going to need some extra-comforting comfort food.

These colds definitely have their stages. At first, it’s just a little cough or a sniffly nose, and we can still pretend that we’re not actually getting sick. We crave classic comfort during this denial period, and for this, there’s creamy chicken orzo casserole.

Think of this as chicken noodle soup in casserole form. However, because we’re all bored of that particular soup by this time, let’s add some cheese. It’s creamy, filling and easily spooned while wrapped in blankets on the couch.

If you’re edging into the “definitely sick” stage, you can skip much of the cooking in this recipe by purchasing precooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. You can also throw the onions and spinach into the mix without cooking them. The onions will stay a bit crunchy, but this can make a nice texture contrast to the smooth pasta and sauce.

Once that cold is truly and undeniably here to stay, a little bowl of brothy soup starts sounding like best idea ever. Egg drop soup might seem like an unlikely candidate, but give this one a try.

This soup is surprisingly light with simple flavors that are easy on the stomach yet still satisfying. Soft wisps of egg and tofu - or skip the tofu - give the soup a silky texture, while star anise and clove add their own warmth. Plus, the soup requires so little actual cooking that it’s easy to prepare even while coughing and sneezing.

This is also an easy recipe to mix and match. If you don’t have all the ingredients or each of the spices, don’t worry. You can use a bit of lemon peel instead of the lemon grass. Just use what you have, and your soup will still hit the spot.

If we’ve moved beyond the stage where food still has appeal and all we want to do is close our eyes until it’s over, there’s nothing quite like a hot toddy. The honey relieves a sore throat, the ginger settles the stomach, and that shot of bourbon helps relax tense muscles into welcome sleep.

Now that is most definitely what the doctor ordered.

Creamy chicken orzo casserole

Makes 8 servings

3 cups chicken broth

1 pound chicken breast (2 cups when cooked and shredded)

2 quarts water

2 tablespoons salt

1 1/4 cup (8 ounces) dried orzo

1/2 cup reserved pasta water or chicken broth

1 medium onion, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups baby spinach

1 cup cottage cheese

2 cups of your favorite cheese, shredded

2 teaspoons dried mustard

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with nonstick spray.

Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a pan with a lid. The pan should be big enough to cook all the chicken breast in a single layer. Once the broth is boiling, add the chicken and reduce to a simmer. Add more broth, if necessary, so the chicken is three-quarters submerged.

Cover the pan and cook for four minutes. Flip the chicken over, re-cover, and cook for another four minutes. Continue cooking for four minutes on each side until the chicken is cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Set the chicken on a clean plate to cool, and discard the broth. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, use your fingers to shred it into bite-sized pieces.

Meanwhile bring two quarts of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons of salt and the orzo. Cook for six minutes. The orzo should be mostly cooked but still a bit crunchy in the middle. Before draining, scoop out half a cup of the cooking water and set aside.

In the pan used to poach the chicken, heat the tablespoon of oil and cook the onion until translucent. Add the spinach and stir until it has wilted.

Combine the cottage cheese, 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese, dried mustard, and salt, to taste, in a medium bowl. Add the chicken, orzo, onion mixture and reserved pasta water. Stir until completely combined.

Pour into the casserole dish, cover with aluminum foil, and bake for 30 minutes. Remove cover, sprinkle on the reserved 1/2 cup of cheese and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes, until the edges have begun to brown and pull away from the sides of the pan. Allow the casserole to cool for 10 minutes before serving. Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated for up to one week.

Egg drop soup

This soup is best when eaten right away, so prepare only what you think you’ll eat immediately. Makes 2 servings.

1 lemon grass stem

2 star anise

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick, broken in half

4 cups chicken broth

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 to 5 spring onions, cut into rounds

7 ounces tofu ( 1/2 of a 14-ounce cube), cut into 1-inch lengths

2 large eggs

Cut the lemon grass stem into three pieces. Use the flat of your knife blade or the bottom of a mug to bruise the lemon grass along its length. Put the anise, cloves, peppercorns and cinnamon together into a tea bag.

Combine the broth, lemon grass and spice bag in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove spice bag and scoop out the lemon grass with a slotted spoon.

Add the soy sauce, spring onions and tofu. Simmer for 5 minutes. Taste and add more soy sauce or a bit of salt, if desired.

In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs until they are completely combined. Pour the eggs into the soup in a slow steady stream while whisking the broth gently. Ladle the soup into a bowl or mug. Sip slowly and feel soothed.

Honey-ginger whiskey toddy

Makes 1 serving.

Hot water

1 shot whiskey

1 tablespoon lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)

1 generous tablespoon honey

1/2 inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced into thin rounds

2 whole cloves

1 whole cinnamon stick

Bring the water to a boil and then let cool for two minutes. Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, honey, ginger and cloves in the bottom of your favorite mug, and top with hot water. Use the cinnamon stick to stir everything together. Take a sip and adjust the lemon juice or honey to your taste.

• Emma Christensen is a writer for Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn; go to http://thekitchn.com.

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