Chicken Noodle Soup
… without the soup
I was browsing the cooking section of my local Books Inc on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. I had a list of potential books on cooking, but none appealed to me at the time. I spied a copy of Mouth Wide Open by John Thorne and bought it without looking inside. I know John Thorne, not personally to be sure, but I have his books Outlaw Cook and A Serious Pig and I once received his Simple Cooking newsletter, a gift from son Eric. Sadly, I allowed the subscription to expire. I guess I’d rather read books… newsletters tend to get misplaced. And I’d rather read books about cooking than cookbooks.
John Thorne writes the way I write — except way better. He takes a subject and explores it and usually invents something to suit his whims. In Mouth Wide Open, he addresses subjects such as Cod and Potatoes, The Grist on Grits, Go Fry an Egg, Swedish Meatballs, and my current delight, Noodle Chicken… comfort food, but comfort food with wit, substance and personality. He cooks the way I cook when I do breakfast or lunch for myself… I’ve got this and that… I wonder how those would go together? And what else might go with them?
One doesn’t necessarily read his books from cover to cover, but by skipping around, seeking out what’s interesting, or landing on a subject you know nothing about. I came upon his Two With the Flu chapter… what’s that about… probably chicken soup. I was right, but he took an entirely new approach. Regular chicken soup is a time tested method handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter or son: poach a chicken in a pot of water, pick off the meat and put back in the (now) broth, add carrots and celery and sometimes potatoes and noodles. There, chicken soup.
Tom Colicchio in the Stock Making chapter of his book, Think Like a Chef, has a twist where he puts his chicken in water, brings it to a boil and then pours off the water and starts over. “Pouring off the original water after the first boil will remove all of the blood and a lot of the coagulated protiens, which form a gray scum on the surface. Don’t worry that you’re throwing out flavor, you’re not. The bones need to cook a good deal longer to extract flavor.” His method — I call it “the Colicchio method” (duh!) — works well and I get a nice clear broth without scumming. I hate scumming, it’s never ending.
John Thorne takes an entirely different approach. He cooks his meat in a Ziplock plastic bag at relatively low temperature for a long time. Sort of a poor man’s sous-vide. “The method … has three unique advantages: (1) The meat’s juices and flavor are neither diluted nor lost during the cooking process; (2) the scum produced in the cooking clings to the side of the bag, eliminating the need for skimming; and (3) the meat can be cooked in a small amount of liquid with no worry that it will overcook or dry out.”
Bingo. I’m hooked. I have to do this.
Thorne invented this dish, bored and stiff from being in bed with the flu, to be made with ingredients on hand with as little effort as possible. “…what I really wanted was chicken noodle soup… but without the tedium of downing spoonful after spoonful of broth. In other words I craved chicken noodle soup without the soup. Let’s call it… noodle chicken.” He had chicken already cooked in his poach-inna-pouch method, and he had Japanese somen noodles. “The noodles, being Japanese naturally suggested soy sauce, minced ginger and garlic, slivered scallions.”
Having neither the flu nor cook-ahead chicken on hand, I procured the ingredients and started from the beginning.
From Mouth Wide Open by John Thorne and Matt Lewis Thorne
Fill a large pot about half full of hot tap water and set it on the stove. Turn the flame to high. Meanwhile, put the pieces of meat into a quart-size microwavable ziplock bag. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of kosher salt in 1 cup of water. Pour this over the meat. Tie the bag shut after forcing out as much air as possible. Lower this into the water on the stove. Insert a thermometer into the water (we use instant read and hold it in place with the pot’s cover). Bring the temperature up to 170°F and then adjust the heat to keep it there (a 5°F fluctuation in either direction is of no concern).Once this temperature has been reached, cook chicken for 3 hours, or beef for 8 hours.
When the meat is ready, grasp the knot of the bag with a pair of kitchen tongs. Lift the bag out and set it into a shallow bowl. Gingerly untie the knot and open the bag. Let its contents cool for 20 minutes. Remove the meat and shred it, discarding any bone, pieces of fat, or cartilage. Put the shredded meat into a bowl. Fold the top of the cooking bag over until it reaches about halfway down the bags side. Now close one hand tightly around the top of the bag and hold the bottom firmly with the other. Invert it over the bowl of meat and loosen your fingers enough to allow the broth to stream into the bowl, closing off the flow when it reaches the fat. Reserve abut a tablespoon of fat separately (if desired) and discard the rest. Refrigerate the bowl of meat and broth and cover when cool. This can be done a couple of days before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
Serves 2 with the flu.
1 tablespoon each of chicken fat and peanut oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon sugar (optional)
6 large leaves Napa or Chinese cabbage
6 scallions, including green tops, cut in 2 inch lengths and split
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, peeled (see note) and cut into half inch strips.
4 chicken thighs, cooked and shredded as above, with accompanying broth (see note)
1 inch chunk ginger peeled and grated or minced (see note)
1 teaspoon fresh chile paste or hot sauce to taste (see note)
1/2 pound Japanese somen noodles (see note)
Fill a pasta pot with 4 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons of salt. In a separate medium size pot, put in the chicken fat and peanut oil, 1 teaspoon salt, the soy sauce and the sugar and begin to heat over a medium low flame.
Cut the thick white stems of the cabbage into 1/2 inch strips. When you reach the green leaves, cut these in half from top to bottom, then into 1/2 inch strips. Keep the stems and leaves separate.
When the oil in the pot is hot and the soy sauce has begun to release its odor, add the cabbage stem pieces, the scallion strips and the garlic. Stir all this occasionally for several minutes until the scallions are wilted and soft and the cabbage stems tender.
Add the pepper strips and cabbage leaves to the pot. Mix well and cook another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the leaves have wilted. Add the chicken meat and jellied broth. Turn heat up to medium.
When the chicken jelly has melted, stir in the minced ginger and the fresh chile paste. Continue cooking until the chicken meat is heated through. Taste the broth for seasoning, adjusting as necessary.
Strew the noodle into the roiling salted water. Cook until tender — about 3 minutes — and pour out into a colander. Shake out any excess water and divide the noodles between two large soup bowls. Ladle over the chicken mixture and serve at once. Chopsticks are optional.
Bell Pepper: Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin from the pepper. (Doing this makes a real difference to the finished dish.) [My note: I learned this a few years ago from Jacques Pepin… now, if not roasting, I always peel my peppers.]
Ginger: Crushing ginger in a garlic press makes sense, since gingerroot is full of coarse fibers that add nothing to a dish. Peel and cut the ginger into garlic size pieces and crush away.
Fresh Chile Paste: Sometimes called sambal oelek, these can be found in Asian Grocery stores and some supermarkets. Look for the gold label with a red rooster on it and a simple list of ingredients — fresh chile paste, vinegar, salt, and preservatives. To temper the fire, sieve out the seeds. [Easier said than done./m]
Somen Noodles: These thin white noodles, made of wheat, are related to udon noodles but are noticeably thinner — a delicate wisp of a noodle that still manages to retain a distinct texture and delicious taste. They are divided — within the cellophane packaging itself — into neat little bundles, each bound with a ribbon. These noodles cook very quickly, don’t let them get mushy.
noodle chicken served with arugula salad
That was just great. The broth rich, hearty and pure, the meat tasty and just the right texture, and the supporting cast of vegetables and aromatics brighten and round out the dish. It was well worth the time and effort, although once one has the chicken and broth in the fridge, there is little effort in making the actual soup.
CHICKEN AND EGG
“But wait… there’s more!” as they say on the late night infomercials. In spite of the recipe being for two with the flu, we had a cup or so of soup leftover. I stuck that in the fridge. The next morning I retrieved the once-again-jellied chicken mixture and plopped it in my small skillet to slowly melt back into noodle chicken.
I made a bit of a well, dropped in an egg and put the pan in the oven at 400°F for a little over three minutes. There’s breakfast (not sure why the yolk developed the unsightly blister). The Noodle Chicken was as good as ever and the egg added a richness very appropriate for breakfast. One might call it a chicken-and-egg episode.
Thorne has an accompanying recipe for Noodle Beef. The beef takes eight hours to poach, but based on the results with the chicken, I’m ready to embark on a beef adventure. I can cook a batch of chicken while the beef is cooking.
After the success of Noodle Chicken, I wondered if the slow cooker could be made to keep the temperature at a constant 170°F. That would be require way less attention than having to monitor a pot on a flame. I filled the slow cooker with water, set it on LOW and monitored the temperature.
30 minutes, 93°F
60 minutes, 120°F
90 minutes, 142°F
120 minutes, 161°F
180 minutes, 186°F
OK, I get it. It warms up much too slowly and then evens out well above 170°F. I’m not sure what is magic about 170, but it worked well for the chicken. Interestingly, fresh mozzarella cheese is also formed at 170°F.