A medieval chicken soup

No, it's not another comment on the Euro crisis, the Middle East situation or the mess in Belgium (though it could be!). It's just a plain, simple recipe, far away from Nouvelle Cuisine and inspired from an older time than Escoffier and classical cuisine - much older, the Middle Ages actually.

Two years ago, as we spent a couple of weeks in Touraine going around all the various Renaissance castles and gardens, I came across some neat restaurants serving medieval cuisine (or so they pretended!). I was so intrigued that I picked up a couple of cookbooks about medieval cuisine to study it.

Fascinating! Not everything our forefathers ate six hundred years ago is good or in line with contemporary tastes but it's worth digging into.

It would seem that much of medieval cuisine was characterized by a lavish use of meat broths variously done and lots and lots of herbs. And for making sauces, medieval cooks tended to use bread as a thickener rather than wheat flour as we do now. Chinese cuisine of course uses corn flour to thicken gravies - possibly rice flour in older-style recipes - and it would seem natural that Europeans should have used bread, the classic food of Western civilization. Some of them still do, for example the Spaniards when they make Gazpacho which, as everyone knows, is thickened with bread.

By the way, if you try to use bread as a thickener, I've noticed through trial and error that the traditional method for thickening Gazpacho - slices of stale bread soaked in water and then squeezed dry before adding to the vegetable mix - is by far the best. Any short cut you might be tempted to use, such as throwing slices of bread directly in the mix and then reduce everything to a pulp,doesn't give a satisfactory result: your soup or sauce might present itself as thick as you might want it to be, but you'll find it hard to digest. I don't know why, but the step of soaking bread in water and squeezing it dry is somehow essential. Maybe with the water running off, it gets rid of some indigestible elements in the bread (perhaps yeast?), but whatever it is, it makes quite a difference for your internal hydraulics!

Now to my recipe. I use no oil of any kind to cook it - only add a little olive oil at the end when it's done. As to the ingredients, they're very simple: a chicken in pieces (I use only the breast, whole, but you can put in legs or whatever you like) and every fresh vegetable you can find...

It's a little like the Irish Stew in Three Men in a Boat where the dog adds a rat he found floating in the Thames (and that's when you realize half-way through the book that the protagonists are not four but really three men in a boat as in the title - the fourth voice belonging to the dog!). Well, I'm not suggesting you add a rat to it, but it's important to use vegetables that are in season. It's a medieval recipe after all, and they didn't transport exotic produce from abroad. Speaking of exotic produce, that's why potatoes or tomatoes are optionals: medieval cooks probably didn't use them but I do simply because I love them and I am no purist: I'll tweak any recipe to make it better tasting!

Here is the way I did it yesterday (for 3 to 4 persons). I served it lukewarm and it was just the right thing for a summer evening. But it would work equally well in winter if you served it piping hot.

Ingredients:
250 g or half-a-pound of chicken meat or more if desired in big pieces (I used breast and cut it in 4 chunks)
1 big onion chopped plus 3 or 4 spring onions whole
1 leek in chunks
1 big carrot scraped and cut in thick slices
1 or 2 large potatoes peeled and cubed
2 celery stems in chunks
4 or 5 big pieces of cauliflower (that's an important medieval type veggie - can be replaced by any sort of cabbage)
1 large tomato peeled and cut in 4 pieces or use a handful of cherry tomatoes whole (they're very tasty when cooked and to make it easy to peel, throw them in together with the other veggies without peeling them; let them boil a couple of minutes then fish them out with a slotted spoon; run cold water over them to cool them down and peel off the skin: it comes off very easily; at that point slice them in half and return to the soup)
1 zucchini in big chunks
Some green beans cut in pieces, fresh peas, watercress or spinach leaves or whatever greens you may have at hand (you need a green touch for your eyes...and taste!)
salt and pepper (instead of salt I use a Knorr cube or you can add consommé or ready-made chicken broth - whatever broth works best for you but not too much of it: remember you've got chicken meat in your soup, and you don't want to smother your chicken!)

To thicken and finish the soup:
Parsley, lots of it (a handful!)
2 Bread slices soaked in water and squeezed dry
1 spoonful of wine vinegar (to taste)
1 spoonful olive oil (to taste)


Method

This is the big difference with the way one makes Italian Minestrone (where you start off by frying onion in olive oil and then add the vegetables): here, you put all the vegetables together in your pot and you barely cover with cold water. Flavour it with either salt and pepper or broth, but always remember to grind pepper from your pepper mill (the industrial ground variety has little flavour).

Bring to a boil and at that point add the chicken meat making sure it is immediately covered in the boiling liquid and turns white (this prevents the meat juice from escaping and turning the meat dry). Let everything simmer with a lid half on. It will cook very quickly - in about 20 minutes (I like my veggies slightly crisp and in any case chicken meat cooks fast - you don't want to overcook or everything will get stringy and sad-looking).

When it's done, you'll notice you have a soup with little liquid - that's the way it should be and DON'T ADD water! This isn't really a soup - more like a stew and now you need to thicken that liquid. Ladle some of it into your osterizer where you've placed the bread and parsley and switch the machine on, pouring from the top a little vinegar and oil. Taste and see if you like it. It has to have a fresh taste, the way Gazpacho does (it's the vinegar that does it) but not too much.

Then put it back in your pot and swirl it. And don't cook it anymore or you'll lose the fresh flavour of the parsley. Serve it in a deep earthenware dish if you've got one (that makes it look more medieval), taking care to place the pieces of chicken in the middle so people can see them and easily help themselves.

Ad I said before, if it's summer, don't heat it up: it's very nice at room temperature. And it certainly makes the life of a hostess easier when she's got guests to look after!

P.S. You can experiment with additional herbs other than parsley (for example tarragon). Let me know how it comes out!

P.P.S. Since it's a cross between a soup and a stew, I think a new word should be made up for it: a chicken "stoup" or "stoop"...How does that strike you?
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