Many years ago, I was walking through the produce section of my small local grocery store when I was stopped short by a woman holding her hand up like a traffic cop.
She looked to be in her early sixties, had stylishly short dark hair, and wore an elegantly tailored black suit that would have mightily impressed my fashionable grandmother. She also wore an expression that communicated very clearly that while she was no stranger to shopping, food was not typically her area of expertise.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to insert myself into the life of a stranger (a habit of mine that my husband hates), I stopped and said, “Hi. Do you need help with something?”
She asked, “When a recipe calls for soup greens, what does that mean?”
I paused for a second before answering, “That depends on the type of soup you’re making.”
“I need to make chicken soup,” she said.
I asked if she was making soup with leftovers from a roasted chicken or from raw chicken, and she shook her head. “I have some cans of Manischewitz broth, which isn’t bad, and some boneless, skinless chicken breasts.”
At that point, I understood perfectly what she was trying to do (and I marveled at the fact that she had somehow known that I was the right person to ask). I walked her through the steps of cooking up a pot of quick chicken soup. She thanked me and was on her way.
Essentially, I told this woman to sauté some aromatic vegetables until brown, add the broth, bring it all to a boil and then drop in thinly sliced pieces of the chicken, simmering until everything was cooked through.
This is one of my frequent approaches to dinner. It’s great for those nights when it’s cold and dark and you want a hot bowl of soup. I first started doing it when I was fresh out of college; in those days, I used boxed stock, just a few bits and pieces of vegetable, and plenty of noodles. These days, more often than not I’ve got some homemade stock around, and I opt for more vegetables and fewer noodles. But it’s still essentially the same simple meal.
Here’s how you do it. Pull out your soup pot and put it on the stove. Turn on the heat and add a tablespoon of your favorite cooking lubricant (butter, oil, or bacon grease all work fine). As it warms up, roughly chop an onion and add it in. Cut three or four carrots into thin rounds and add them to the onion. Move everything around with a wooden spoon and then turn your attention to four or five celery ribs. When they’ve been reduced to bite-sized pieces, add them to the pot and stir. If your fellow dinners don’t object, a handful of sliced mushrooms can also go in now. Add some chopped garlic, a pinch of red chile flakes if you like heat, or a strip of lemon zest for brightness.
When the vegetables are quite brown, add a couple of quarts of stock (if you made and froze some turkey stock after Thanksgiving, you could try it here). However, just use what you have, be it homemade or store bought — no one is judging.
While the soup is coming to a boil, thinly slice two plump chicken breasts across the grain. When the broth is bubbling rapidly, drop in a few slivers at a time, stirring after each addition. You want the chicken to cook on impact, so it’s important that the soup remain at or near a boil.
When the chicken is cooked, taste the soup and add a bit of salt and pepper if it needs it. You can also add some cooked pasta or rice (don’t add them uncooked, as they will suck up all your broth and the soup won’t be soup anymore). I often like to add some thinly sliced cabbage or baby spinach for extra vegetable impact. A handful of frozen peas is also nice.
In my most recent version of this soup, I quickly made up a batch of turkey meatballs (see sidebar), roasted them off in the oven, and used them as the protein instead of the chicken breast.
Vegetarians can also make soup along these lines. Just skip the bacon fat, use a vegetable broth in place of the chicken or turkey, and pop in a drained and rinsed can of white beans as your protein source.
Once you get comfortable with this method, an entire world of home-cooked soups opens up to you. Go explore it!
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Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better