March 29, 2009

For What Ails You (and Me): Chicken Alphabet Soup

Big surprise, it's soup again.

I am constitutionally averse to tossing out the bones of a roasted chicken. Even if I don't have any immediate need for soup or stock, I would feel too wretched about discarding good food to allow myself to simply bag them up and put them in the garbage. At the very least, if completely knackered, I'll wrap them well and toss them into the freezer for future efforts. I inherited this behaviour from my mother, whom I cheerfully blame for a lot of my culinary quirks.

In the throes of the latest rounds of cold and 'flu and other things that go "sneeze" in the night (as well as cough, *snork*, hack), I decided it was time to put some culinary prescriptions into play. After all, isn't scientific investigation itself proving the value of a good homemade vat of chicken soup? Is it called "Jewish Penicillin" for nothing?

Frankly, even if it contains no medicinal value whatsoever, it counts as fluids (always a plus for the ill and infirm), and is both warming and comforting. Really, there's no downside at all, other than that you have to feel well enough to actually make it.

Fortunately, it's not hard.

I bought a free-range, organic chicken from the market, and roasted it up for dinner. We ate the choicest selections with some creamy Parmesan orzo and some broccoli and when the chicken had cooled sufficiently after dinner, I pulled the remaining meat from the bones and set it aside in the fridge. I poured off the accumulated juices and fat from the cast iron frying pan (the vessel in which I always roast my chickens) into a container in the fridge, and then bundled up the skin and bones. I wasn't nearly well enough to begin stock making at that point.

The next morning was Sunday, which meant that I could take my time. I simmered the bones with filtered water, bay leaves, a few sprigs of fresh thyme, a carrot, a bit of celery, a quartered onion, and some garlic. I didn't salt it, because there was already salt clinging to the skin, and you can always add more salt later. I brought the whole pot up to the barest of simmers, and let it carry on unmolested for a couple of hours, checking periodically to ensure that it wasn't boiling (which gives you a cloudy, opaque stock). Finally, I scraped away the chicken fat from the reserved drippings (reserve for later uses) and added the gelatinized dark goodness of the accumulated roast chicken juices into the stock.

When it was finished, I cooled it with the bones in the stock, then fished them out and strained the stock. One roasting chicken gave me about six cups of stock, but your mileage may vary depending on the size of your chicken.

From there, it was simple to assemble a classic comfort food. I still had some alphabet pasta left from my Alphabet Soup endeavor, so I went with that. The rest of the ingredients were, essentially, the same flavours that went into the soup. There's a reason for that - they are quite delicious. However, in the soup-making stage, they are cooked only until tender, not until exhausted. Simple soup-making: saute your aromatic vegetables and herbs in a little fat (the roast-rendered chicken fat, in this case), and once they are edging towards tender, add your stock. Add the pasta, bring it up to a gentle simmer, and once the pasta is cooked, add the reserved chicken meat, which you have chopped into soup-sized pieces.

Did I get better faster? Maybe. Did I feel better? Immediately!

March 14, 2009

Mexican Chickpea Salad

It may not seem like salad weather to everyone out there, with the sudden, aggressive return of sub-zero temperatures. The poor cherry trees are obviously trying to be on time with the pink blossoms, but winter's grim determination to keep a grip on us is thwarting their best efforts.

However, this may be when we need salad the most - especially those of us who recently returned from sunnier climes, and can hardly believe the rude shock of snow on the ground in March, for crying out loud. Best of all, this salad gives double value with the freshness of the spinach and the heartiness of the chickpeas, making it a good transitional salad/side dish for, oh say, a lovely achiote-rubbed pork tenderloin (which I failed to photograph, sorry).

This recipe was engineered by Palle, who has been researching traditional Yucatecan food since we returned from Mexico. Some tweaks and substitutions were necessary - for example, classically the salad would be made with chaya, an indigenous Mexican plant that is used for everything from stuffing chicken to being pureed into a sweet, lime-juice based cold beverage. Without access to chaya, he opted for baby spinach. I note that apparently chaya is toxic when raw, so I imagine that this recipe would be made with chaya leaves that had been simmered properly, first. Not under that restriction, we went with raw for the spinach.

Mexican Chickpea Salad

19 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup diced red onion

Dressing #1
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
¼ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cayenne (or other hot) pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups baby spinach leaves (or prepared chaya, if available)

Dressing #2:
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 tablespoons fresh lime juice
½ teaspoon finely grated lime zest
¼ teaspoon honey

In a medium bowl, combine chickpeas, cilantro and onion.

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lime juice and zest, cumin, cayenne, salt and black pepper. Pour the dressing over the chickpea mixture and toss to coat evenly.

In another small bowl, stir together the yogurt, lime juice and zest, and honey.

Serve the chickpea salad over a bed of spinach leaves. Top with a drizzle of the yogurt dressing.

I'm pleased to report that any leftovers can be mixed all together and are equally delicious the next day. Also worth noting, the yogurt dressing on its own would make a delicious veggie dip, or even as a drizzle for kebabs, or in a nice pita sandwich stuffed with grilled things.

March 07, 2009

Rose Meringues to sweeten a milestone

A couple of weeks ago, I had a milestone birthday. It didn't exactly get lost in the shuffle, but it was a lower key event than I had originally contemplated - partly because I had just gotten back from a hectic ten days in Mexico, and was still doing laundry and catching up on sleep.

Fortunately for me, a friend was having a party the night before my birthday, so I got to see all of my friends with only minimal effort. Also fortunately for me, one week later, another friend was experiencing the exact same milestone, and she had a little get-together at her home.

I love to bring food to parties - no real surprise there. This time, I wanted something special, and because one member of the party-household is gluten-free, I needed a gluten-free special birthday treat. Ideally, one that I could put together relatively at the last moment.

Enter the meringue.

I don't tend to post much in the way of sweets, here. I really cut back on sugar a few years ago, and I tend not to do as much baking, anymore. My favourite kind of baking these days is where I get to make something fun and take it to share with other people, which helps regulate how much of it I end up eating. I still like desserts, but I like to share them.

These little babies are simply delicious - crisp shells with marshmallowy interiors. And, happily, gluten-free. Best made on a dry, sunny day, as meringue is hygroscopic, and will become a sticky mess if there's any humidity.

Rose Meringues
Recipe adapted from Laura Calder's French Food at Home

4 large egg whites
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon rosewater
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
2/3 cup icing sugar (if you want these to be gluten-free, check the brand)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
3 drops red food colouring

Whip the egg whites and salt into soft peaks that only just stands up on its own. Add the rosewater and continue whipping into stiff peaks. Combine the white sugar and the cream of tartar and add by the tablespoon into the egg whites, while continuing to whip. When the sugar has dissolved and the meringue is stiff, combine the cornstarch and the icing sugar and sift into the meringue, folding carefully until it is completely incorporated. Add the red colouring, and continue to fold until everything is a lovely pink and there are no streaks of colour.

Spoon the meringues onto a baking sheet lined with tinfoil (I got about 18 large meringues), and bake at the very low temperature of 225 F for 1 1/2 hours. The tops should be crisp when tapped. Allow to cool on trays (do not try to remove them from the foil until they are cooled, or you will probably wreck them). When completely cool, you can store them for a couple of days in an air-tight container. Theoretically.

These were readily marveled at and devoured by party guests, some of whom were fairly amazed at the sweet and clean floral taste.