Four distinct chicken soups from L to R – Basic soup with either Bisquick Dumplings or egg noodles; Italian inspired – cannellini beans, dried oregano, diced tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and fresh garlic; Asian inspired – Stir-fry oil, sesame oil, scallions (green onions,) mushrooms, spinach leaves
Freestyle Cooking takes a short trip around the world
In the second session of my Freestyle Cooking Class, I teach how to follow a recipe, then how to alter that recipe to create totally different dishes. Chicken soup is great to practice on because it’s hard to mess up, and starting with something familiar helps my students grasp the bigger picture of being a Freestyle Cook: you don’t need a recipe to make your food exactly as you like it.
Freestyle Cooking is what I dubbed a style of cooking that I live by. A lot of cooks out there are Freestylers without knowing it. We make it up as we go along. We almost never follow a recipe. We often can’t reproduce what we cook, and if we’re good at it, it tastes good, too.
The main goal of my Freestyle Cooking Class is for the students to learn how to cook on their own, without using a recipe for every meal. We all need to be able look through the fridge and pantry and pull together a healthy, appetizing meal; to throw together a meal like the lime chicken tacos I wrote about in my previous post. At the least, we want to plan a menu from our own ideas.
I can be pretty sure that everyone is familiar with the basic ingredients of chicken noodle soup: chicken, chicken broth, carrots, celery, onions, noodles, salt and pepper. If that were all you put in, it would be a nice tasting, healthy meal. Vegetables add flavor as much as salt and pepper, spices and herbs. We can let the food speak for itself by not boiling the flavor and texture out of vegetables. You should feel a little resistance as you bite into a piece of carrot or celery, and taste a sudden sweetness that contrasts with the savory of the chicken and broth.
If we’re going to add herbs, which ones? If you were in my class I would give you a chart of the most common herbs, spices, oils, etc. according to region. Maybe that will be another post. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Smell some herb and spice combinations. If it smells good to you, it will probably taste good, too. When it comes to this simple soup, the most important herb, in my opinion, for making a homey, American chicken noodle soup is fresh dill. I never make chicken noodle soup or chicken and dumplings without it. It’s just too perfect.
Try something new
But what if you’re in the mood for something new or different? I have this theory that basic dishes and comfort foods across the globe are just different versions of each other. Elaborate gourmet cooking may be impressive, but when it comes down to it, food is meant to nourish and keep us healthy and strong, and is essential to comfort. Food is like music; there are many melodies, but each era has its own sound, and each region its own flavor, and you don’t have to know the composer to enjoy either.
So, just what can you do with chicken soup? First, I’ll share my recipe for basic chicken noodle soup. The simplest variation is chicken and dumplings. –I cheat and use Bisquick. Although I prefer to make everything from scratch, I have yet to find a better recipe. I am very picky about the fluffiness factor. — Then I’ll show you how to create two more distinctly different soups with a few simple substitutions and additions. We prepare and eat three of these soups as part of the class, and I give my students the full recipes.
Here are some simple tips for exploring Freestyle Cooking
- Start with something you know
- Let the food speak for itself
- Play with herbs and spices – use your nose
- Learn a few good flavor combos and substitutions
Freestyle Chicken Noodle Soup
- 2 Tb olive oil
- 1 Tb butter
- 1 lg onion, chopped
- 3 lg carrot, peeled and sliced about ¼ ” thick
- 3 stalks celery, sliced ¼” thick
- coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
- 6 cups chicken broth
- 2 c shredded or chopped cooked chicken
- few sprigs fresh dill, chopped
- 12 oz. angel hair pasta, broken in half, or egg noodles
Either angel hair pasta or egg noodles boil right in the soup in the last four minutes of cooking. Thicker pasta will make the broth starchy, so I boil it in a different pot, then add it to the soup.
- Heat a large soup pot over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, add oil and butter. When butter melts, add onion, carrots and celery, season with salt and pepper. Sauté about 2 minutes.
- Add broth and chicken, increase heat and bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes. Add noodles, simmer 4 minutes more, or according to package directions.
VARIATION ONE– Chicken & Dumplings– Dumplings make the broth thick and creamy like a stew. DumplingIngredients 4 c Bisquick ¼ c fresh dill, chopped 2 c + milk
- Increase broth to 8 cups. Omit noodles.
- With Step 2, make dumplings: mix together Bisquick and dill, stir in milk until just moistened. Add more milk if necessary – Consistency should be thinner than drop biscuit dough.
- Drop dumpling dough by tablespoons onto simmering broth. Cover tightly and simmer for 20 minutes without lifting lid.
- Ladle 1 to 2 dumplings with veggies, chicken and broth into soup bowls.
VARIATION TWO–Italian Chicken Soup
- In Step 1, omit butter and celery, use 2 large carrots, and add 6 cloves of garlic, smashed and diced. Cook about 2 minutes, then add 2 15 oz. cans un-drained diced tomatoes and ½ TB dried oregano.
- In Step 2, don’t add chicken yet, add 2 15 oz. cans un-drained cannellini beans (sometimes called white kidney beans– can substitute navy beans or Great Northern if cannellini can’t be found.) Simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
- Next, add chicken and about ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped or torn. Simmer another 5 minutes.
- Optional toppings: Fresh grated Parmesan or hot seasoned oil: heat olive oil with minced fresh garlic and oregano according to taste.
VARIATION THREE–Japanese Skinny Soup— I grew up on a soup like this. My mom said it was called “Skinny Soup” because people who eat it stay skinny. It worked for me until I hit my forties, then it could no longer defeat the brownies.
- In Step 1, omit butter, add 2 tsp wok oil or stir-fry oil and ¼ tsp sesame oil. At this point, if you have a good wok oil/stir-fry oil you don’t need to add garlic and ginger, but you can if you like. You may need to if your oil isn’t pungent. Otherwise, sauté 2 large carrots, sliced thinly on the diagonal and 8 oz. sliced mushrooms for 2 minutes. (Mushrooms absorb oil quickly, add more oil as needed.)
- Don’t change Step 2.
- Once it comes to a boil, reduce heat to low/medium low and add coarsely chopped bok choy, Napa cabbage or spinach leaves, and 3 green onions, sliced about 1″ long. Simmer just until greens wilt.
- Optional but highly recommended: add frozen chicken pot stickers with the broth in Step 2 and simmer five minutes. Trader Joe’s has fantastic pot stickers in the freezer section. This takes it to a whole new level of yumminess. It’s quite impressive for company as well.
- Optional topping: 1 green onion, sliced thin.
- The Skinny Soup is more for lunch or a light supper, but with the pot stickers or somen or rice noodles it’s more filling.
These are just a few of the options you can create when you dive into Freestyle Cooking. It will open your kitchen and dining room to new worlds. I think chicken soup is on the menu for tonight!