Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

I am not on my game. I somehow delayed posting again far longer than intended, as if Thanksgiving was 3 weeks long. Maybe it was, if you consider the brain space it occupied during those weeks. But here it is, December. The month of Christmas, the holiday season, whatever you’d like to call it. So I better catch up the pace.

Unfortunately, my brain is tired, and I haven’t even yet eaten. Sometimes dinner sounds like too much to do. As if the minutes laboring over the stove will exhaust me, I sit hungrily on the cough waiting for a bowl of mashed potatoes (that sounds really good) or pasta or cereal to appear before me, hot (or cold) and ready to go. Maybe even the spoon will elevate to my lips as in the Cheerios scene in the movie Matilda. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then please go watch Matilda promptly. I’ll hum the music- mmm hm mmm hm mm mm mmmm. No? The dancing? The flying, spiraling card deck? No? Bruce Bogtrotter? Someone feed me.

I made this soup a few weeks ago, in tribute to the dropping thermostat and the dog jackets now covering my closet floor. I’m already begrudging my winter coat, so a fair amount of time may have passed. In either case, I was really hell bent on replicating my favorite soup from Panera Bread, because it’s so creamy and delicious. I love creamy soup, but vegetably soup, and wild rice just makes it that much more interesting. I had tried making this soup once before, but failed in some capacity (I think I undercooked the rice), which left me forlorn. Maybe I couldn’t recreate the soup after all!? But winter encouraged me to try again. And this time: success!

This is a labor-intensive product, mostly in the manner of vegetable dicing and time spent waiting anxiously for rice to soften and stock to thicken. So, if you’re sitting on the couch at 7:30pm hungry, it’s not the time to make this. If, however, it’s blisteringly snowy, and an early Friday evening or even Sunday afternoon, go light your favorite fir-scented candle, turn on the Bing Crosby, and make this soup. I promise absolutely no disappointment. I actually promise joy. Holiday-laden, warm and comforting joy.

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Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

Serves 6-8

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. unsalted butter (I love Kerrygold)

4 carrots, diced

4 celery stalks, diced

1 yellow onion, diced

10 oz. mushrooms, sliced or diced

1 cup wild rice, uncooked

2 tsp. salt

2 tsp. fresh or dried thyme

1/2 tsp. oregano

1/2 tsp. rosemary

1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes

1/4 tsp. freshly-cracked black pepper

8 cups free-range chicken stock

1/2 cup milk, anything but skim

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the chicken thighs in a thin coat of olive oil and place in a baking dish, something that allows even space but not too much. Bake at 425 until cooked through, approximately 30 minutes. Once cooked, remove from the oven and cool. Once cooled slightly, shred with a fork.

Heat a large stock pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the diced carrots, celery, and onion to the melted butter. Sauté until the vegetables have started to soften, about 10 minutes. To the softened vegetables, add the sliced (or diced!) mushrooms, and sauté for an additional 5 minutes, until the mushrooms are just beginning to release their juices.

Next, add the cup of wild rice as well as the spices and seasonings. Stir well so that everything is mixed. Add the chicken stock to the pot and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the rice is soft and tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on the variety of rice.

In a mason jar, shake together the milk and flour (or whisk in a small bowl) to create a slurry. While actively whisking, add the thickening slurry to the soup. Allow the soup to simmer, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened to your liking. This takes approximately 5-10 minutes in most cases. Once thickened, add the shredded chicken to the pot and stir. Remove from heat and serve!

 

 

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Now go put on your music, make yourself some soup, and bring some crackers for dipping. If you finish the meal with hot chocolate, I applaud you.

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Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp and grits is one of those meals- delicacies, rather- that I never enjoyed until moving to North Carolina. There were a lot of firsts upon entering the South as a formerly-Midwestern girl. I remember the first time I saw the Atlantic ocean, the weekend before moving, staying in a beach-front hotel in Wilmington. The expanse of sand and water was so much greater than what I’d previously known to be a “beach”- the shores of Lake Michigan and the dunes of Northwest Indiana. Not that there’s anything less valuable or beautiful lakeside, but there is something different about salt-water air. I remember that first summer absolutely gasping for air, drowning in the intense humidity, and realizing my hair was actually kind of curly once saturated upon stepping outside. I noticed how much more friendly everyone was, how much more welcoming. I still feel like the South is the most inclusive and comforting of places, a recognition that some may disagree with. But I made such wonderful friends, met such driven yet kind people, and truly relished my time living there. I left for the city life and my Midwest “home” for grad school, but while Chicago is a different kind of excitement and comfort, it doesn’t quite feel right anymore.

I don’t remember the first time I ate shrimp and grits, I think it may have been at a nice restaurant with my family, or maybe a divey yet upscale hole-in-the-wall joint in Chapel Hill; either way, it immediately made a jump to one of my top 10 meals. I used to believe I didn’t like seafood, shrimp occasionally included, but shrimp and grits is definitely an expansion upon its nominative parts. The grits are creamy, cheesy, and indulgent; the shrimp spicy and succulent, usually swimming in a bit of broth with aromatics. It’s comfort food at its finest, and it wasn’t long before I was making it at home.

This version is a bit more elaborate than my usual weeknight shrimp and grits fare. Not that it’s overly labor-intensive, more just that I actually bought all of the ingredients and components I wanted to make it my version of perfect. I more often just throw together some pantry staples, a varying mix of the components listed below. So it’s worth mentioning that this can be prepared more simply, but if you’d really like to blow yourself away, go for the whole shebang.

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Shrimp and Grits

Serves 2 (could easily be doubled for 4)

To prepare grits:

  • 1/2 cup grits (or corn meal)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup water, reserved
  • 1/4 cup shredded cheese, a mix of cheddar and monterey jack
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

To prepare shrimp:

  • ~20 frozen shrimp, peeled and deveined, defrosted
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 tsp. red chili flake
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock

1 cup arugula, to serve

To prepare the grits, heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring chicken stock and milk, whisked together, to a boil. While whisking, slowly add the grits to the sauce pan. Reduce the heat to low, and continue to whisk the grits into the liquid until somewhat bound, about 2-3 minutes. Cover the sauce pan and simmer over low heat, stirring/whisking regularly, about every 2 minutes. Cook until the liquid is absorbed and the grits have softened. I used a fine corn meal, which cooks through in about 10 minutes. Depending on how coarse your corn meal, it may take longer. If needed, add up to 1 cup of water to thin the consistency as it cooks. I added about a 1/2 cup of water during cooking. Once the grits are finished, add the cheese, butter, and spices/seasonings and whisk to combine. Cover and let rest, removed from the heat.

To prepare the shrimp, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the butter, and, once melted, the minced shallot. Heat the shallots until translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and continue to sauté an additional 2-3 minutes, until the pepper has softened. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Add the shrimp to the pan, keeping evenly spaced with good contact to the bottom of the pan. Cook the first side for about 1 minute, then flip. Cook the shrimp for an additional minute, then deglaze the pan with the juice of 1 lemon and about 1/2 cup of chicken stock. The liquid should bubble violently and begin to reduce. Stir the shrimp mixture and cook until the liquid has reduced by about half, about 1 minute longer. Remove from heat and set aside.

To serve, scoop the warm grits onto a plate or shallow bowl. Top the grits with about a 1/2 cup of arugula, which will wilt slightly on contact. Add the shrimp, peppers, and aromatics to the grits, and pour some of the pan sauce over the top.

The grits will firm slightly on the outside, but, when attacked with a spoon, will yield that smooth, creamy interior. Devour at will.

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Show Brian this picture and tell me his mouth won’t start watering. You should probably double the recipe.

Pasta e Fagioli (Tuscan White Bean Soup)

Can we call Chicago “Chiberia” again? Anyways, it’s cold. And I really want soup. And I’ve never made beans from scratch before. And I had all these sad vegetables begging for a purpose. All of these thoughts were equating a challenge: hadn’t I seen a beautiful pasta e fagioli soup recipe somewhere once before? Couldn’t I make a huge pot to eat for weeks, allowing myself to satiate my never-ending soup desire? Yes, yes I had. And, more importantly, yes I could! This soup is up for interpretation. Just mentioning to coworkers, friends, other people (who seemed oddly too interested in what I was eating) that I made pasta e fagioli opened up a series of remarks and interpretations. “Oh, doesn’t that soup have tomatoes?” “Isn’t that soup made with meat?” “What is that green stuff in there?” There was a lot of inquisition for a simple bowl of soup. Especially since pasta e fagioli means simply pasta with beans. That’s it. This soup must have pasta, and it must have beans. It doesn’t need tomatoes (I decidedly chose to have a tomato-less broth), and it doesn’t need meat. I added some vegetables, because I can’t imagine soup without them, and I love the heartiness that greens impart. But one thing I did intend was for this to be a Tuscan inspired soup. In glorious memory of Tuscany- a dreamy 2 days in Florence, Italy on vacation too many years ago- I imagined a hearty, simple, and, most importantly, flavorful soup. This soup is not an immediate thirty-minute-meal. It also isn’t as complex as a bolognese, requiring simmering for days. It is in fact relatively simple, although some prep work is required, as well as a bit of patience. But the reward for such virtues! It seems to me the best food is made this way. Give anything time to blend together, and something exponential is created. This soup is quite literally the definition of “greater than the sum of its parts.”

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Pasta e Fagioli (Tuscan White Bean Soup)

Adapted from this recipe

Serves 8-12

Prepared cannellini beans

  • 1 lb. dried cannellini beans
  • 8 cups of water
  • 2 tbsp. salt

2 tbsp. olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

3 carrots, diced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 tbsp. dried thyme

1 tsp. dried rosemary

1 cup vegetable stock

1 Parmesan rind

8 oz. dried pasta (I used miniature shells)

4 cups Tuscan kale, cut into 3 in. strips

Salt & pepper to taste

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

To prepare the cannellini beans, combine dried beans, water, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Allow beans to soak for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight.

The night of cooking, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour the olive oil into a large (LARGE) Dutch oven over medium heat. To the olive oil, add onions and sauté until softened and caramelizing, about 15 minutes (if the onions are browning too quickly, reduce heat to low). To the onions, once caramelized, add diced celery and carrots. Increase the heat to medium and sauté the vegetables together until the celery and carrots are just softened, about 5 minutes further. Add the spices and minced garlic and sauté until fragrant, no more than 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with 1 cup of vegetable stock, using a rubber spatula to loosen any browned bits from the pan.

Drain and rinse the dried beans that have been softening (they will still be quite firm). Add the beans to the vegetable and stock mixture and mix. Pour several cups of water into the pot until covering the beans by about 1 inch. Add the Parmesan rind to the mixture. Cover the Dutch oven with its lid and slide it into the oven, which should be heated to 375 degrees F. Set a timer for 1 hour.

After an hour, check the soup to determine the doneness of the beans. You’re looking for a softened texture with just a hint of a bite. I tasted a bean each time I checked until I determined doneness. If the beans are not fully cooked, cover the pot and return to the oven. Check the beans every 15-20 minutes until they are the desired texture. I found an hour and a half to be an appropriate cooking time; it will take more or less time depending on your pot, your oven, your beans, etc.

Once the beans are cooked fully, remove the pot from the oven and return it to the stovetop. Heat the soup over medium heat until simmering, which should happen very quickly. Add pasta to the simmering broth, adding water if the soup seems too thick. Cook the pasta for the recommended time. At about 1 minute until the pasta is considered “done,” add the kale ribbons and stir until wilted. Remove the Parmesan rind from the pot. Taste and season, being careful not to over-salt (the Parmesan will impart a salty flavor).

Serve in a soup bowl with an ample grating of fresh Parmesan. Inhale the comforting fumes, warm your hands on the sides of the bowl, and imagine that just for a second you don’t live in the freezing-cold Midwest. Then, eat your soup and decide you don’t care. Soup solves life’s problems.

Although this soup is somewhat labor intensive, a much easier version could be accomplished with using canned cannellini beans. This would require simply adding about 2-3 cans (rinsed) cannellini beans to the vegetables after deglazing, and adding several cups of vegetable stock until the appropriate bean-to-stock ratio is achieved. A Parmesan rind can be added, although it won’t have as much time to release its flavor. This soup could be simmered for 15-20 minutes until adding the pasta and resuming the original recipe, meaning the start-to-finish time would probably be more like 45 minutes, rather than 2+ (26+) hours. However, it will be missing that slow-simmered quality, which is really what makes this simple soup delicious pasta e fagioli. But, some weeknights call for speed. This recipe can also be halved, quartered, etc. much more simply with canned beans, or, alternatively, using only 1/2 the bag of dried beans at the onset. In total, it’s a very adaptable recipe; although, you’ll be glad to have the leftovers in your freezer come Polar Vortex 3.

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What’s better than warm soup in a large mug?

Tuna and Mushroom Casserole

It’s finally warming up in Chicago, and by that I mean walking the line of below- and above-freezing, but it feels like Spring in Chiberia (colloquial internet term applicable for the next 15 minutes). And now, of course, I want pasta again. I never said my cravings were logical. It is still rather cold, so eating these kind of heavy comfort foods definitely satisfies in that deep, nap-producing way. In fact, I think I’ve mistakenly taken a nap every time I’ve eaten this meal. So, I guess this bears warning: do not eat pasta casseroles unless you can theoretically take a nap afterwards. My mom is probably noticing immediately that I’m reproducing a classic weeknight meal growing up: Tuna Noodle (Meddle, per our pronunciation) Casserole. It’s a midwestern classic, pairing up a bunch of I-always-have-this canned foods and egg pasta. And while the mid-century recipe of course provided my inspiration, I couldn’t help but elevate this to a from-scratch, vegetable-heavy modern version with a little more flavor and a little less sodium. It takes longer, though, so I’m definitely not knocking the original prep, which I believe was mostly dump, stir, microwave, bake. I promise preparing from scratch is worth it, though, and certainly not overly labor intensive. We’ll see if I can convince anyone in my family to go at it the “hard” way.

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Tuna and Mushroom Casserole

Serves 4-6

8 oz. whole wheat egg noodles

1 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 yellow onion, diced

16 oz. white and cremini mushrooms, sliced

2 cups spinach

1/2 tsp. dried parsley

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

Salt & pepper to taste

1/4 cup flour

1 can tuna, ideally sustainably caught, drained

1 cup milk

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup breadcrumbs (or crushed crackers if you want to stick with the classics)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions, usually about 7-10 minutes. Undercook the pasta by a minute or two to maintain texture after baking. Once pasta is cooked, set aside.

In a large and deep oven-safe saute pan or Dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent, approximately 5-8 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms and saute until softened, browning, and releasing their juices, about 5-10 minutes longer. Add spinach and seasonings and mix. Toss 1/4 cup of flour over the vegetable mixture and stir until incorporated and no longer visible, about 1-2 minutes. Mix the milk and stock together and pour over the vegetables, using a rubber spatula to loosen the browning bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring the liquids to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer until thickened, about 5-10 minutes (we’re aiming for cream of mushroom soup consistency). Once thickened, add tuna and stir until fully incorporated.

Add the pasta to the vegetables and tuna. Spread the pasta mixture evenly throughout the pan and sprinkle breadcrumbs or crushed crackers on top. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

Scoop into bowls and serve hot, being careful not to burn yourself on the pan handle, which I definitely did. Caution aside, this is the kind of food best eaten on the couch in your pajamas, so that when you’re finished, you can easily slip into nap position. It may be warm and heavy, but laden with as many vegetables as noodles, it’s pretty healthy nonetheless. It’s also horribly not photogenic, but don’t judge; it was good sustenance for our grandparents, and it’s good enough for me (and you, Brian).