- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Wherever there are chickens, cooks have created chicken soups. They vary greatly in their components, their seasonings, and how they are served — as a prelude to dinner or as an entire meal.

Chickens were first domesticated in the region that is now Thailand and Vietnam, bred from a wild bird that was found in India and Southeast Asia. Thus, rice lends substance to some Asian chicken soups instead of noodles.

European chicken soups range from subtle Italian tortellini in brodo to nourishing chicken minestrone with legumes; from Latvian beet and chicken soup with sauteed carrots, potatoes and sweet pickles to hearty Hungarian chicken soup with kohlrabi, mushrooms and liver dumplings.

At cooking school in Paris, the chefs guided us in cooking several types of basic chicken soup. We often made stock from chicken backs, wing tips and necks simmered for hours with onions, carrots and a bouquet garni of thyme sprigs, bay leaves and parsley stems.

With the addition of lightly cooked vegetables, a bit of rice or a splash of Madeira, the stock or broth could be turned into chicken soup. It could be transformed into ultrarefined chicken consomme by being strained, clarified, then strained again.

Clear chicken soup was important to my mother too, although she didn’t go through the clarifying process. She simply skimmed the soup carefully of fat and foam and cooked any starchy extras, like noodles, rice or matzo balls, separately to avoid clouding the soup.

Cooks in the Middle East are fond of substantial chicken soups, from garlicky, cardamom-scented Egyptian soup with greens to Persian chicken soup with mung beans, rice and mint. My Yemen-born mother-in-law taught me how to make her wonderful, spicy chicken soup — a golden broth accented with cumin, turmeric and garlic and served with plenty of homemade pita bread and a pungent chili-garlic relish.

New World cooks south of the U.S. border have come up with their own versions of chicken soup. One of the specials in my favorite Los Angeles Latino supermarket, Vallarta, is caldo de pollo, served in a big soup bowl containing chicken drumsticks, carrots and Mexican zucchini slices, accompanied by tortillas, yellow Mexican rice, cilantro and lime wedges. This savory soup is mild in flavor, but Mexican cooks make spicy chicken soups too, like my friend Leticia Ortega’s chicken pozole with hominy, green chilies, tomatillos and cilantro.

For our winter menus, my husband and I often follow our chicken soup diet. Modeled on the main-course soups popular from the Mideast to Mexico, ours have a higher proportion of vegetables than traditional soups do. For protein, we include a little skinless chicken or add tofu cubes or chickpeas. We finish our meal-in-a-bowl with an accent of fresh herbs — thyme leaves or flat-leaf parsley for a European touch, fresh dill like my Polish-born mother, cilantro like my mother-in-law, or whole basil sprigs in the Vietnamese manner.

Making homemade chicken broth is not much work, as it simmers unattended. When you’re in a rush, start your soup with prepared chicken broth. For better taste, I opt for broth that is sodium-free or lightly salted. To intensify the soup’s flavor, I cook boneless chicken in the broth or add strips of leftover cooked chicken to the finished soup.

Just about any vegetable benefits from chicken soup’s rich flavor. Mushrooms top my list of valuable vegetables — those with lots of taste and nutrients for little toil; packaged sliced ones can go directly into the pot. Most of the time, I add a trio of aromatic vegetables — onions, carrots and celery — but I don’t chop them fine. It’s amazing how quickly a rough-cut onion or a thick-sliced carrot cooks in soup. Ten or 15 minutes is enough.

You can make a tasty soup without cutting a single vegetable. Begin with packaged carrot and celery sticks, peeled baby carrots, or bagged refrigerated or frozen diced onions. Simpler still, buy frozen stew vegetables and add your favorite frozen green vegetable or medley of vegetables. Any kind of canned bean is an excellent last-minute addition; so is a small amount of diced canned tomatoes. For extra zest, I might finish my soup with a spoonful of curry sauce from a jar. This simple touch does wonders for the flavor and turns my quick soup into a warming entree that recalls my mother-in-law’s satisfying, long-simmered soups.

Here are some tips:

• For best results, make soup from chicken pieces with bones. Dark meat pieces and wings give more flavor to the soup than chicken breasts.

• If you use skinless chicken pieces, you’ll have less fat to skim from the broth.

• Skim the fat thoroughly from the broth as it simmers and after it cools.

• If you make the broth in advance and refrigerate it, the fat will solidify and will be much easier to remove.

Thai chicken noodle soup with roasted peanuts

I learned to make this simple noodle soup from my friend Somchit Singchalee, a Thai chef.

1 medium leek, split, cleaned

2 pounds chicken pieces

2 carrots, sliced

2 celery stalks, sliced, plus whole green tops

1 medium onion, halved, sliced

2 quarts water

Pinch of salt

½ pound dried rice noodles or rice sticks

Seasoning Sauce (see below)

4 large bok choy leaves, green part only, rinsed, cut in bite-size pieces

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 to 2½ cups bean sprouts, rinsed, ends removed

1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, green onion or both

½ cup chopped toasted peanuts

Use white, light green and 2 inches of dark green of leek. Slice it and put in a soup pot. Add chicken, carrots, celery, onion, water and salt. Bring to a simmer and skim off the foam. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour or until chicken is tender. Discard celery tops and chicken skin and bones; cut meat in thin strips.

Put rice noodles in a large bowl, cover with hot water, and let soak 10 minutes. Remove noodles and rinse in a colander. Add them to a saucepan of boiling water and simmer, lifting strands often with tongs, for 30 to 60 seconds or until just tender. Rinse with hot water and drain.

Prepare Seasoning Sauce. Skim fat from soup. Bring soup to simmer, add bok choy and cook uncovered for 2 minutes. Add chicken and reheat gently. Stir in 2 tablespoons soy sauce.

Put noodles and sprouts in soup bowls. Ladle soup into bowls. Add 1 teaspoon seasoning sauce to each bowl. Sprinkle each bowl with cilantro and 1 tablespoon peanuts. Serve remaining sauce and more peanuts separately. Makes 4 or 5 servings.

Seasoning sauce: In a bowl, mix 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes, 4 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons rice vinegar, 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons Asian (toasted) sesame oil.

Main-course minestrone

½ cup dried white beans, such as Great Northern beans, sorted and rinsed

3 quarts water

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

2 stalks celery, cut in thin slices

28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped

½ teaspoon dried leaf thyme, crumbled

2 pounds chicken pieces

2 small carrots, peeled and diced

1 large potato, peeled and diced

4 Swiss chard leaves, cut in thin strips (optional)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 small zucchini (about 1 pound), cut in cubes

½ pound peas, shelled, or ½ cup frozen peas

1 cup medium noodles

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for serving)

Put beans in a large saucepan with 5 cups water. Bring to boil over medium heat and simmer, partially covered, for 1 hour, adding hot water occasionally so beans remain covered with liquid. Drain beans, reserving 3/4 cup liquid. Pour reserved liquid over beans.

Heat oil in large saucepan. Add onions and cook over low heat for 10 minutes or until light golden. Add celery, tomatoes and thyme, and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes.

Add chicken, carrots, potato, chard, beans in their reserved liquid, remaining 7 cups water, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 40 minutes or until beans are tender. Add zucchini and simmer until chicken is tender, about 10 minutes. Remove chicken, discard skin and bones, and return meat to pot. Add peas and noodles to soup and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately. Serve grated cheese separately. Makes 6 main-course or 8 to 10 appetizer servings.

Note: If you like, substitute a 15-ounce can white beans, drained, for the dried beans. Follow the recipe, beginning with the second paragraph. Combine the drained white beans with 3/4 cup water and add them to the soup along with the peas.

Chicken tortilla soup with corn

This soup is made in different ways throughout Mexico — it might contain only tomatoes and onion, or might include zucchini, carrots, chiles or sweet peppers. I find that corn complements the corn tortillas.

For a more substantial soup, stir in 1 to 2 cups cooked chicken strips.

6 corn tortillas, preferably stale

5 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 long mild green chiles (California or Anaheim chiles), diced small (see note below)

2 large garlic cloves, minced

4 cups chicken broth

14-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

1 ear of corn, kernels removed, or 1 cup frozen kernels

3/4 cup finely diced fresh tomatoes

1/3 cup plus 1 coarsely chopped cilantro

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Pure chili powder or cayenne pepper to taste

If tortillas are not stale, let stand about 30 minutes unwrapped in 1 layer until dry. Cut tortillas in half, then each half in strips about 1/4 inch wide. Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a heavy medium-size saute pan over medium-high heat; test with one tortilla strip — when oil is hot enough, it should bubble around the strip. Add half of strips to pan and fry 2 to 3 minutes until slightly darker and firmer but not crisp; do not brown. Do not stir too often or strips will break up. Turn off heat and quickly transfer tortilla strips with slotted spoon to paper towels. Reheat oil slightly and fry remaining strips; remove to paper towels.

In a large saucepan heat 1 tablespoon oil. Add onion and chiles and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until light brown. Add garlic and saute for ½ minute. Add broth and canned tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Add corn and simmer for 5 minutes or until tender.

Just before serving, add diced fresh tomatoes, 1/3 cup cilantro, salt, pepper and chile powder to taste. Serve soup sprinkled with tortilla strips and remaining cilantro. Makes 4 servings.

Note: If green chilies are not available, substitute 1 cup diced green bell peppers or canned mild green chilies.

My mother-in-law’s spicy chicken soup

2½ to 3 pounds chicken pieces, fat and skin removed

Salt and freshly ground pepper

5 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons turmeric

1 large onion, whole or sliced

4 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

About 2 quarts water

6 medium-sized boiling potatoes

4 carrots, peeled and cut in 2-inch lengths

3 zucchini or pale green soft-shelled zucchini-shaped squash (Mexican squash, white squash or Middle Eastern squash), halved and cut in 1-inch slices

6 to 8 ounces mushrooms, cut in thick slices (optional)

Put chicken in a large pot. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, cumin and turmeric. Add onion, garlic and water. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, skimming foam occasionally, for 1 hour.

Peel potatoes, if desired, and halve them. Add potatoes and carrots to soup and simmer for 20 minutes. Add zucchini and mushrooms, and bring to a simmer.

Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Skim off fat. Taste and adjust seasoning; season generously with black pepper.

Serve chicken pieces in soup; or remove meat from bones and return meat to soup in wide strips. Serve soup in fairly shallow bowls. Makes 6 servings.

Faye Levy’s “Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home” (Morrow) was published this month.

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