For me, spice = comfort. I don’t crave doughy, bland foods when I want comfort food. If I feel a cold coming on, or I stayed up too late reading (and the alarm clock still went off at 6:45 am as it does, alas, every weekday), or the wine was so good the night before that I poured one glass too many, my thoughts turn to chili peppers, wasabi, horseradish and Tabasco sauce.
Yes, I love macaroni and cheese and the occasional egg-on-a-roll-to-go. But what really makes me feel good is a piping hot, nose-burning bowl of spiked chicken soup, full of floating spicy bits and the flavors of Mexico. In this holiday countdown week, my kitchen counter cluttered with cookie making and dust-clouds of confectioner’s sugar (gift-making galore), I made a pot of this soup for dinner and leftovers. Everyone should have this at the ready in the freezer.
It has the virtues of good medicine with the added benefit of being a one-pot wonder: protein, starch and many vegetables all in one place. Unfussy yet colorful, full of varied flavors that pop in your mouth. The base is a rather mundane chicken soup (reserve some for the picky eaters in your house). The additions make this meal sing.
Use packaged chicken stock if you need to, but homemade makes the difference. I keep odd chicken pieces in the freezer: backs cut out from whole chickens, necks, feet, leftover thighs and other pieces, or stripped carcasses from previous roast chickens. When I have enough gathered for stock (about 4 pounds is ideal), I throw it all in a pot with vegetables (pre-roasted if I have time), and peeling scraps (e.g. the green tops of leeks, stored in the fridge for just this occasion). Add a bay leaf, a pinch of peppercorns and a few stems of parsley, then cover with cold water. Bring to the boil then simmer for about 4 hours. Strain and done.
Mexican Spiced Chicken Soup
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped (optional)
4 stalks of celery
5 cloves garlic
8 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
Toppings – use any and all or add your own, depending on season and availability
2 scallions, sliced thinly on the diagonal including green parts
1 cup cilantro, thick stems removed and chopped fine, plus a few whole sprigs
1 ear of fresh corn, cooked and scraped off the cob (or use frozen)
½ cup fresh hot chili peppers, some chopped fine, others into thin rounds, preferably different colors or only jalapeno if that’s all you can find
1 teaspoon dried hot chili flakes
6 corn tortillas, cut in half then sliced into ¼” strips
2 tablespoons canola, peanut or vegetable oil
4 limes, cut into halves
Preheat oven to 425˚F. Lay out chicken pieces on a large baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the chicken and sprinkle liberally with salt and fresh pepper. Add chopped thyme and rub into chicken pieces, turning them and adding more oil and seasoning to coat. With pieces turned skin side up, place baking sheet into the hot oven and roast for 40 minutes.
Chop vegetables while chicken is roasting. Dice onions, turnips, celery and carrots into small, even-sized pieces (you’ll have about 2 cups of each but quantities won’t really affect outcome). Mince garlic.
Prepare toppings and put in small bowls, ready to be added when the soup is done. Fry tortilla strips in oil over a medium heat until golden. Drain on paper towel.
Remove baking sheet from oven and transfer roasted chicken pieces to a large cutting board. Wait about 10 minutes until cool enough to handle. Remove skins and discard (or save in a scrap bag to be used for a future chicken stock). Take all the meat off the bones, cutting off any gristle and fat. Shred or chop cooked chicken meat. The pieces should be small enough to easily fit in a soup spoon.
Pour off and discard the fat from the baking sheet and set it on top of the stove, spanning two burners turned on to medium-low heat. Add about 2 cups of water and scrape up brown bits with a spatula, as the water simmers. Once all the flavoring has been scraped from the baking sheet, set aside the liquid.
Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over a medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I use a 6 qt Dutch oven from Le Creuset). Add the chopped vegetables and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and beginning to soften. Don’t let the vegetables brown or stick to the pan. If they do, lower the heat. Once cooked, clear a space in the center of the pot, pushing the vegetables to the side, add a tablespoon of olive oil, and sauté the garlic for one minute. Then mix all. Season with salt and pepper.
Add chicken stock and liquid from the baking sheet to the vegetables. Stir and bring to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes. Stir in chicken. Taste for seasoning and adjust if desired.
Serve in a large soup bowl, sprinkling your toppings to taste. Squeeze half a lime over each serving.