Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Panacea (Greens & Beans Chicken Soup)

There's something particularly unproductive about having a wracking, productive cough. This was not the piece I planned to write, this month, but as my cough and fever worsened over the weekend and into midweek, drastic measures were required. With a tiny apartment kitchen, I don't keep a lot of food in the house, so feeling too sick to run to the grocery can quickly take the food situation to critical levels. Luckily, Aaron came to my rescue with a vat of homemade chicken soup. This vegetable-forward recipe is one we've made for years and is perfect for days when you're sick or just suffering some late April chill (it is the cruelest month, after all).

Save us from this cruel month
Beans and greens are classic parts of the Mediterranean diet, which makes them some of the only things I'll eat right now as I prepare for swimsuit season. It's also quite slimming to feel too sick to eat, but the aromatic, herbal broth helps to stimulate the appetite. From minestrone to caldo verde, stewed greens and beans are paired in soup across the vast swathe of Iberio-Mediterranean nations and ash reshteh and chana saag even carry the tradition through Asia. A cheap and hearty combo, greens & beans packs in vitamins, iron, and fiber. Aaron and I prefer baby spinach or baby kale over the more traditional Italian escarole, because it's even easier to use. You just drop whole leaves into the soup, rather than needing to wash and chop them. For maximum texture and greenness, I like to put greens in the individual bowls and just wilt them by topping with hot soup before serving (you or the diner will have to stir them up after a few minutes).

The holy trio
This easy approach can be doubled-down on: rotisserie chicken and pre-chopped mirepoix (onions+celery+carrots) make this recipe a breeze of dropping ingredients into the pot, and that's an important factor when ill and cranky. Pre-made stock, rotisserie chicken, and fresh herbs also mean great depth of flavor with little time investment. Including fresh herbs and the leafy tops of the carrots and celery imparts a rich, green, herbal aroma that's pronounced enough to make an impact, but mild enough for tender stomachs. Whole stems of herbs like rosemary and thyme can be dropped into a soup and will shed their leaves (it just takes a moment to quickly fish the stems out after cooking). This helps establish a rugged look and feel while still being quite light.

Herbs & leafy greens FTW
A dash of nutmeg is the secret ingredient that makes this recipe sing. Nutmeg goes great with cheese, cream, and greens, in the latter case, producing an incredible harmonic flavor I'd describe as almost "bacon-y." It's also a somewhat less-used flavor, but is bright and peptic. So, while it may be a quick-and-dirty recipe for when you're down, paired with ginger ale and oyster crackers for convalescents, it can also go alongside crisp white wine, crusty bread, and artisanal cheese or butter for a rustically elegant dinner.

Greens & beans chicken soup
Depending on what you can stomach, this soup is even better with a 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes and freshly squeezed juice from a lemon. Serves 6-8.

1 large yellow onion, chopped
5 carrots, chopped (include some greens)
6 celery ribs, chopped (include some greens)
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 
1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh parsley 
8 cups chicken stock
Meat from 1 rotisserie chicken, coarsely shredded
1 (16-ounce) can white beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 lemon, freshly juiced (optional)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups fresh baby kale or baby spinach

Warm a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the olive oil and allow to warm for about a minute, then toss in onions, carrots, and celery. Sauté until the onions turn translucent, about five minutes, then add the garlic and herbs and cook for a minute or so more.

Sweating it out
Pour in the stock, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a low simmer. Allow to cook for about 15-20 minutes, until the carrots are beginning to go tender.

Fill it up
Add the beans, shredded chicken, and freshly grated nutmeg, then cook for about 10-15 minutes more, to warm through. Taste and adjust seasonings (here's where you'd add lemon and red pepper, if using).

Protein to-go!
Stir the greens into the pot just before serving or drop handfuls into serving bowls before ladling hot soup on top.

[This article also appeared in an April 2017 issue of the Williamsport Sun-Gazette]

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