Monday, March 12, 2012

What’s Greek for Chicken Noodle Soup? Avgolemono

Avgolemono Soup
Moving to Los Angeles from New York City I expected to find good Mexican food in my new beach town.  What I didn’t expect was the discovery of delicious, authentic Greek cuisine.

Old Venice came first.  For a few months after settling in I would satisfy my occasional takeout craving with their hearty kebabs and a soup called avgolemono- a special I prayed would be available each time I visited.

Before Old Venice, I had never had avgolemono but the combination of chicken and rice in broth is as familiar and comforting as soup can be.  What made this soup unique was the intense tang of lemon juice and a silky thickness that I would learn comes from eggs. 

One night, just months after relocating, Old Venice burnt down, the victim of a fire started at a taqueria next door.  It would be years before they reopened.  Lucky for me a new Greek restaurant had moved into town about the same time.  Petroselevated the neighborhood Greek restaurant to a higher end experience, the menu something of a mix of health minded beach culture and the namesake owner’s obsession with authentically Greek ingredients[1].

Poaching Chicken for the Broth
Old Venice eventually reopened and Petros continued to attract the well-healed, bronzed denizens of the beach cities.  I kept going to both- Old Venice for its unpretentious, homey food and Petros for its devotion to quality ingredients.  Their differences never bothered me much except in one respect: the avgolemono soup.

The flavors were similar but the execution vastly different.  Old Venice’s, made with rice and seasoned minimally with a bit of dill, is the picture of simple perfection.  The soup at Petros on the other hand is made with orzo instead of rice.  It is thinner and soupier, studded with a fine dice of aromatic vegetables. 

A little research revealed neither of the approaches is wrong.  Avgolemono soup seems to be made as often with orzo as it is with rice.  Recipes vary from 2 to 4 eggs for the same quantity of broth, a difference that would drastically change the thickness.  And the vegetables appear optional- either used to season a long simmered broth with the poaching chicken and then discarded, or finely chopped and added toward the end. 

Whipped Egg Whites, Yolks, Lemon Juice
I now live across the country from my old go-to sources for avgolemono but the craving still hits from time to time.  Last weekend I decided to go all out, making avgolemono the way I think my grandmother would have, if my grandma had been Greek.

I poached a whole chicken in water to make the broth instead of buying precooked chicken and stock.  I discarded the vegetables instead of keeping them in.  Rice beat out orzo because I already had lots of rice in the pantry.  And I went for three eggs, splitting the difference. 

The final soup was thick and creamy, intensely lemony with the rustic look of the one at Old Venice.  But I had taken the long route, poaching the whole chicken and making my own broth, an attention to quality that was reminiscent of Petros.  Most importantly, it was soothing, filling and tasty.  I think even Petros’ mother would have approved.

Avgolemono Soup
Time: 1 hr. 45 minutes
 Servings: 6

1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs.
10 cups water
1 carrot
2 stalks celery
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
2 sprigs thyme
¾ cup white rice
½ cup lemon juice, about 4-5 juicy lemons
3 eggs
½ cup chopped parsley or dill
Olive oil

Cut the chicken into quarters.  Remove skin and discard.  Place chicken pieces in a large soup pot and cover with 10 cups of cold water.  Peel the carrot and cut in two pieces.  Cut each celery stalk in half. Cut the onion in quarters.  Peel the garlic.  Add all the veg to the pot with the chicken.  Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer half covered with a lid for about one hour, occasionally using a small ladle to skim off foam and fat the floats to the top.  After an hour remove chicken to a platter and let cool slightly until it is safe to handle.  Use tongs or slotted spoon to remove the veg and discard it.  Bring broth back to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add rice.  Cook rice for about 20 minutes until tender.  Meanwhile, chop 1 ½ cups of chicken, about one leg and one breast.  Reserve the remaining chicken for another use. Juice lemons. Separate eggs.  Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.  Whisk egg yolk with the lemon juice.  Fold lemon-yolk mixture into the egg whites.  Remove 1 cup of broth from the soup and slowly pour into the egg-lemon mixture, whisking constantly.  Return egg-lemon mixture to the soup pot in a steady stream, whisking constantly.  Bring the soup back to a simmer continuing to whisk until broth has thickened.  Stir in chopped chicken and herbs.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.  Ladle into bowls and serve with a drizzle of olive oil. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] It is impossible to prove true the owner’s claim of smuggling everything from the oregano to feta back in his suitcase from regular trips to Greece, but I can confirm his mother made appearances in the kitchen, flown in to give the chefs training on everything from homemade phyllo to her special recipe for keftethes, a type of meatball.

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