Soup with a twist

February 9th, 2010

Lemons ready.... for soup

There is a point in winter when my soup répertoire sags a little. What root can be added, what spice and snap can I stir in?  A perk-up for chicken or vegetable soup is in order. When one eats soup every day (in provincial France, still very common), before or as the evening meal, there must be something beyond tourain (a garlic-infused broth with slices of yesterday’s baguette) or soupe au pistou (many vegetables in a savory broth, somewhat like minestrone).  These are basics – along with velouté de potimarron (winter squash purée) and châtaigne (chestnut cream) -  filling soups for workers’ lunches in auberges and restaurants routiers (truck stops) across the southwest. There’s nothing wrong with those if you are chopping wood or building a barn.  Let’s simply say I’m looking to lighten up a first course soup. To do just that I look south to Greece…. and find lemons.

Whether this Mediterranean combination of eggs and lemons is a silky soup or a sauce, Avgolemono wakes up any bored diner’s tastebuds. Whisk eggs and lemon juice, stir into a chicken broth, heat through and serve – what could be easier?  I first tasted avgolemono (stress middle syllable…avgo Le mono) in a Greek Taverna in Chicago – on Halsted Street as I recall,  it seems eons ago – where my papilles (taste buds) were duly impressed.  And it was an introduction to pastina, tiny oval pastas that look like rice.  Most recipes begin with: cook a three pound chicken, etc. , but you could easily base this on last month’s basic soup stock (post of January 22), and add a cupful of chopped chicken or serve salted chicken on the side.  As with any use of fresh eggs, temperatures need to be watched carefully so curdling doesn’t spoil the soup.  Use white rice or pastina - i prefer “langue des oiseaux“, birds tongues pastina available in specialty shops selling Mediterranean products.

To serve 4, once you have  heated 4 cups of broth in a small soup pot, toss in 1/3 cup of pastina or long grain white rice to cook, covered for 20 minutes while you whisk the avgolemono in a bowl:

2 large, fresh eggs, whisked for 3 minutes

juice of 1 or 2 lemons (2 if you like it tart) & thin lemon slices for garnish; 1 lemon yields about 1/4 cup juice

Add the lemon juice to the eggs, beating constantly – then gradually blend in 1 cup of hot stock from the soup pot, continue beating without interruption, and pour this mixture into the soup, stirring (for 5 to 10 minutes) as it thickens slightly. It should be satiny smooth and the pastina or rice translucent at this point. This last-minute trick depends on the cook’s concentration, stirring as the soup warms. Garnish each bowl with a lemon slice or parsley sprig.

Avgolemono as a sauce can be made in a similar way, using a double boiler or dish over (never touching the water) a pan of boiling water.  Myrsini Lambraki* suggests sauce proportions of 1 egg to the juice of 1 lemon, a pinch of salt and 1/2 cup or more of the vegetable stock whisked in to the desired thickness.  Separate the whites and yolks for a frothier sauce, and serve on fish, asparagus, courgettes, broccoli or cauliflower (this is superb).  A Greek friend warns – never serve avgolemono with tomatoes or garlic, but suggests topping each serving with cracked black pepper or minced Greek oregano.  That, or a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint on top will transport you to a taverna table overlooking the Agean.

*Myrsini Lambraki’s useful Cretan Cuisine for Everyone, published by Myrsini Edition in 2005, emphasizes vegetables and explains the principles of the Mediterranean diet pyramid.

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