Friday, 18 March 2011

Chicken soup for the soul.

I seem to always be cooking heavy, rich meals to fill my man's belly. He says he likes "shovel-able" food; stuff that takes little effort to take from plate to fork to mouth. That's all well and good, (very satisfying, in fact, during the cold winter that we've been having), but with the scent of spring in the air and the beginnings of leaves on the trees, I wanted something fresh to fill my bowl.

Chicken noodle soup is a meal that lifts my spirits. The zingy citrus kick that comes from the lemon juice, the deep savoury flavours that come from the sesame oil and the soya sauce... This is a thing of beauty.

As usual, this is also a meal of frugality. It makes me quite angry to think of all the households across the world that throw away the carcass of the bird that they ate for sunday lunch. How wasteful. They obviously have never been taught how to make stock! It's the simplest thing, and yet it's so rewarding.

The result of this process can be used in countless different ways. Use the stock to make a casserole for a really meaty flavour, or to make a risotto that's so much more thick and glutenous than anything you could  achieve with a cube.

You could always simply use the stock to make an incredible soup, full of flavour and goodness. That's what I've done with it on this occasion.

I am not suggesting by any means that we should always use real stock in the place of a  cube when cooking, as that would make so many dishes arduous and expensive to make on a weekday. Some things, however, really need to be made with real stock. For chicken noodle soup, the broth is the focal point of the meal; it's where all of the flavour lies. Even with the best ready-made stock that you can buy, you'll never find anything as satisfying as the one you that make yourself. So roll up your sleeves guys, it's soup time!

Chicken noodle soup.

Two chicken breasts, skin removed
Soya sauce
Sesame oil (not really crucial but does give an authentic flavour)
A few cloves of garlic
Two onions
A few bay leaves
About 8 peppercorns
Chinese five spice
Chilli, (either fresh or frozen, I use frozen)
Any veg you fancy, (I used mushrooms, frozen peas and fresh spinach)
1 nest of noodles per person
A chicken carcass, leftover from your roast chicken

Find your biggest saucepan and put your chicken carcass in there. Add one onion, halved (don't bother with peeling; you won't be eating it, it's just for flavour), a couple of bay leaves, a few peppercorns, if you have them, and some salt. You can put anything else in there that you like, or that you have lying around: celery, leftover leeks, leftover carrots, tomatoes, lemon halves. I actually put the rind from a block of parmesan into this batch, it's a good way to use it up and lends a great depth of flavour to the stock.

Fill the pan up with water and set it to boil, then turn the heat down. As the lovely Nigel Slater says: "this is important - the liquid bubbles only very gently. What you should hear is a blob, blip, blop rather than hubble bubble." Well said Nigel! Follow this advice and leave the pan for about an hour and a half or two hours. The liquid should be a clear amber colour and should smell richly chicken-y. You can do this a few days in advance if you like. I sometimes set my stock boiling while I'm watching a film or something, it's a really low maintenance thing to cook.

Marinate the chicken. Pop the breasts into a normal soup bowl and add a tablespoon or two of soya sauce, another few tablespoons of sunflower oil and a teaspoon of chinese five spice. Mix that up and put it in the fridge for an hour or two until you need it again.

Once your stock is nearly ready, or whenever if you made the stock the night before, start preparing the veggies for the soup. Slice your onion and your garlic and put them into your second largest saucepan with a glug of sunflower oil. Fry them on a medium heat, stirring often, so that they turn a beautiful golden colour. Chuck your veg and the chilli in there, (apart from frozen peas and spinach if you're using them, as they're best to go in last), let it all cook for a few minutes. Once it's looking lovely and flavoursome, add some chinese five spice and some sesame oil. It'll start to smell lovely now.
Pour your stock in there and mix it all up. Get it boiling and add some soya sauce, before throwing your noodles in too.

Give your noodles a few minutes to cook, mine needed 4 but check the instructions on your packet. Your soup is nearly ready! Let it simmer while heat up a griddle pan - or a frying pan if you don't have one, it's only to make pretty ridges in the meat.

Thank you to Mr Meat's mum for the beautiful Le Creuset griddle pan that she bought me. It goes to excellent use.

One your pan is lovely and hot, carefully lay your chicken breasts into it and don't touch them for a few minutes. You don't need to put oil in the pan, you put oil in the marinade, remember?

I don't know about you, but I find it really hard to judge when chicken breasts are cooked, so I tend to err on the side of caution in terms of timings, and I cut into the meat just before serving to check that it's not pink in the middle.

After about 5 minutes, turn the chicken over, if you're using a griddle, it should have beautiful lines on it. I put a little slice of lemon on mine to impart a little bit of flavour. Plus it looks pretty in a photograph.

When your chicken is cooked through, put your last minute vegetables into the soup, if you're using any. Things like spinach will only need a couple of minutes. Take your cooked breasts and lay them on a chopping board, slice them thickly with a sharp knife - this is a good time to check that there are no pink bits in there.

Take a few forkfuls of noodles and put them into a shallow bowl, lay your sliced chicken on top and cover the whole thing with a couple of ladlefuls of broth. Your delicious dinner is ready. Enjoy!

I make this meal out to cost £5.77. The chicken breasts are the expensive part, without a doubt. There are a few ways around that.

  • You could use leftover shredded meat from a roast chicken. 
  • You could use any cut of chicken, including thigh which is very cheap.
  •  You could do what I did: buy a whole chicken on sale and joint it yourself. 
My whole chicken was £3, therefore the breasts come to about £1.50. The real cost of this meal for me was £4.27, and there are plenty of leftover noodles for my lunch today.

I wonder if Mr Meat enjoyed his dinner?

Ah. That'll be a yes then.

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