Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lemon Rice Soup: A Different Take on Comfort

Guest Post by Charles Turnipseed

Charles is a prolific and amazing cook but his current passion is his cat rescue work. Please take some time to read his blog, Purrfect Cat Rescue.

A recent post by fellow guest blogger Pavlov also took on the topic of comfort food. I find the subject interesting since what comforts one person is not necessarily what comforts another, but there is usually some common ground. Weeknight dinners from your childhood, holiday meals, that roadside diner that makes gravy by the vat, Grandma's kitchen—this is where the talk often turns when the subject is comfort food. The conversations also gravitate towards the meals of fall and winter: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, goulash, biscuits with gravy—rich substantial fare.

This is where I always get all controversial.

A perfect tomato is one of my greatest comforts. Toast smeared with freshly made jam. Toast smeared with avocado. Berries. Fresh herbs in everything. Homemade Ranch dressing on a wedge of iceberg. Homemade Green Goddess tossed with Bibb lettuce. A pie or tart bursting with nectarines and plums. Clearly, summer is my season of comfort. I hadn’t really considered it before sitting down to write this, but despite my finding comfort in different foods from that of a lot of people, the reasons behind it are probably the same.

I didn’t grow up in a family of serious cooks—aside from special occasions and holidays, there were a lot of convenience foods and shortcuts. But during summer when produce was plentiful and fresh, and the days lasted longer, we cooked “from scratch” a lot. Thinking back to Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Memorial Day, and all the other spring and summer holidays past, I realize how well we ate and how those foods are still a big part of me. These simpler, lighter foods illicit a similar response in me as would a pot of steaming stew for someone who grew up with harsh New England winters.

I do make and enjoy food with more heft and complexity—hearty soups and stews, slowly cooked tomato sauces, meatloaf and shepherd’s pie, but when my soul needs comforting I am more likely to close my eyes and dream of a summer BBQ, a bowl of berries with cream, or a wedge of watermelon.

The recipe that follows is a good middle ground between the more conventional take on comfort food and my own: it’s filling, warm, and nourishing, but lemon rind and juice make it sparkle with a spring-time freshness, and with winter not that long off, I find the promise of spring a true comfort.

Lemon Rice Soup
(inspired by the classic Greek recipe with some liberties taken)

This is one of those recipes that—despite being really good—is easily thrown together after a long day. If you’re really pressed for time, you can skip the sauté of onions, they add a little sweetness to balance the lemon but the soup is fine without them. Whether or not to add the chicken is up to you; I rarely do, but for those who feel they need some meat to “make it a meal” go right ahead.

And finally, you can beat the eggs in one two ways—white and yolks separated, or as one. The latter results in a creamy but thin broth, and the former creates a frothy soup, almost like a savory zabaglione.

1 large white or yellow onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
½ cup starchy rice, such as Arborio or Calrose
1 bay leaf
1 quart chicken broth, additional as needed
The grated rind of 1 lemon and the juice of two
2 eggs, separated
1 cup of cooked, cubed or shredded chicken breast (optional)
Unsalted butter (optional)
Freshly ground pepper

Heat the butter or oil in a large saucepan and add the onions; cook, covered, over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until they become translucent and tender with bits of golden here and there. Add the rice and bay leaves and cook, stirring, until the rice takes on a chalky
look. Add the broth and lemon rind; bring to a simmer, lower the heat so it gently bubbles and cook, covered, until the rice is barely tender (this can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes depending on the rice you use).

Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until they are thick and fluffy but don’t quite hold soft peaks, beat in the yolks and half the lemon juice. Set aside.

When the rice is ready, raise the heat and bring it to a near boil then remove from the heat. Add the chicken to the soup if you are using it. Whisking all the time, slowly add about 1 ½ cups of the hot soup to the beaten eggs. Gradually pour the mixture back into the pot, stirring as you do. Taste for lemon juice, adding in as much of the balance as you like, then check for salt.

Serve right away with a pepper grinder at the table, and, if you like, a little slip of butter on each serving. The soup is fine as is, but lemon and butter really like each other.

Makes two generous or four small servings.