Friday, October 23, 2009

Easy Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup with Barley and Potatoes

Chicken soup is one of those meals that seems like it might be complicated, but it definitely doesn't have to be. Apparently Ina Garten's recipe requires hours of work, tons of ingredients, and a 14-20 quart stockpot. If you have that, then great! I don't, but I can still make a good pot of soup with minimal effort.

The first step is making the stock. Stock is made by cooking meat with the bones still in it. Broth is made from boneless meat cooked in water. Stock is superior because some of the gelatin from the bones infuses the broth and adds a silky mouth-feel and body to the soup. The absolute cheapest way to make stock is to use the carcass from a roasted chicken or turkey. (Yes, I do make soup from the Thanksgiving turkey.) Just drop your carcass into a pot large enough to hold it, and cover with water. Add a bay leaf if you have one, one teaspoon of onion powder (or 1/4 of an onion, diced) and 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder (or a minced garlic clove). Simmer for at least three hours, or all day in a crockpot on the low setting. Then pull out your carcass and bay leaf. While that cools a bit, strain your stock. If you have the room, you can pour the whole pot of stock through a strainer. If you don't, just ladle the stock repeatedly through a strainer until most of the bits are in the strainer, not your pot. If you don't have a carcass handy, you can make stock from chicken thighs or a whole chicken. This way you will have a lot of chicken you can add to the soup or save for other uses (like chicken chili, chicken pot pie, etc.).

Once your stock is ready, peel and chop 3 carrots and 2 stalks of celery. Add these to your pot along with 1 cup of pearl barley. For even richer flavor, add a can of vegetable stock (or a vegetable bouillon cube). Simmer for half an hour, then peel and chop 5 small to medium potatoes. (Reds and Yukon Golds are ideal for soup and don't require peeling, but Russets are cheaper. Reds and Yukon Golds hold their shape better and don't melt into the soup as much.) Add your potatoes to the pot along with 1/2 cup of chopped chicken from the bones. Simmer at least 20 minutes, until potatoes and carrots are fork tender.

Now it's time to season the soup. Spoon out a little of the broth and taste it. Odds are that you will need some salt and pepper. I prefer kosher salt, which provides more punch with less salt, and freshly cracked pepper, but use what you have. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the pot. You probably won't need more than 1/2 tsp of pepper. Stir in the seasonings and taste again. If the soup tastes watery, add a cube of chicken bouillon if you have it. Bland? Add more salt. Keep in mind that potatoes soak up salt, so you'll need more salt in a recipe with potatoes.

What if you don't like potatoes? Or barley? Skip adding both and toss in 1.5 cups of your choice of pasta. I like Cars or alphabet pasta for my toddler, or Barilla mini shaped pastas. These all easily fit on a spoon and are less messy than long noodles.

This pot will serve six and is easily doubled. Just use a bigger pot with more water, simmer the chicken longer, and add additional broth or bouillon. If you want a lower-fat soup, make the stock a day ahead and chill it in the refrigerator overnight. By morning the fat will solidify on the surface, making it easy to remove. 

Ladle into bowls and enjoy with crackers or biscuits.

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