Avgolemono (part of my non-diet plan)

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Around this time of year, newspapers, magazines and blogs start talking about detox and healthy eating and how to get rid of excess holiday weight, but I’m having none of it.

I’ve seen a meme circulating on Facebook that says something along the lines of: “It’s not what you eat between Christmas and New Year’s that’s important, it’s what you eat between New Year’s and Christmas.” And I think that’s about right. Good food, and not too much of it, is the best diet ever. It lifts your spirit and fills your tummy and keeps everything in harmony.

So, in this holiday interim and after, I won’t be writing about low-fat dishes, or green drinks, or bean sprouts. I won’t be talking about juicing, or breakfast bowls, or miracle plants. In other words, I won’t be talking about the things that fill my soul with dread and make me feel that eating is a prescription of boredom and abstinence.

But I will be writing about delicious, wholesome food that also happens to be good for you, the kind of food that you want to eat, the kind where when you take a bite, you have to take another and another, and after you think you’re full, maybe just one more bite, and then you are well and truly sated.

Avgolemono (Greek egg and lemon soup) is just that kind of food. It is salty and lemony, and the texture is velvety thanks to the eggs. The fact that it is low in fat and calories and high in vitamins and protein is an added bonus. The fact that it tastes fresh and clean and decidedly good for you is another bonus. And because we’re all adults here, I can also tell you that if you make it in the next few days, it will keep in the fridge for you until New Year’s Day and help with maybe a tiny headache and some much needed rehydration; that’s yet another bonus!

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Despite protests of not liking soup, both of The Twins ate the lot!

Avgolemono

makes approximately 6 servings

This is one of my favourite soups ever, rivalling Matzo Ball Soup for top spot. The key to success with both soups is to get a good, flavourful base. That means you need a good stock. So that means hours and hours at the stove, right? Wrong.

Sure, when you need a lot of stock, you need a lot of bones, and the more of anything you have, the longer it will take. In my restaurant in Vermont, we used to cook the chicken broth in a massive stock pot on a low heat overnight; when I opened up in the morning, the whole restaurant smelled overwhelmingly like the best chicken soup ever, and the stock in the pot was a rich golden colour, with a hefty body and a hearty taste. But we were making 20 or more quarts of stock, so of course it would take a while. At home, this is what I do: whenever we make a chicken dish that requires deboning, we throw the bones in a small pan, cover them with water, and boil them while the rest of the meal is cooking. After dinner, we strain the bones out, and our little bit of lovely concentrated stock goes into the freezer to await a glorious resurrection – as in this soup, for example.

But if I don’t have a homemade stock on hand (and I often don’t) I resort to water. Most soups can handle it, especially most of the soups I make, where I use a mirepoix at the beginning to add a much needed flavour base. But when a soup is mostly chicken broth, how do you get that rich flavour?

I’ll let you in on a secret: a long time ago, I was reading about how to make the best matzo ball soup. The article (or chapter – I can’t even remember if I read this in a cook book or a magazine) quoted many Jewish grandmothers, some of them famous for their soup, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them said she used a stock cube in the broth. Even in homemade broth. That seals the deal for me. If your stock is watery, or if you are in fact using only water, find a good stock cube (I prefer Knorr – it’s more chicken-y than others I’ve tried) and don’t look back. If you get everything else right, no one will know unless  you tell them.

  • 50g (1.5 oz) butter
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp salt (you may need more more if your stock is unsalted)
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 pinch chili flakes
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 2 litres chicken stock (or water, or a mix )
  • 1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 350g deboned raw chicken thighs, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 eggs*
  • juice of 3 lemons (you can take off the peel first to use for this or this)
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The Author, who is half Greek, walked by and said, “That doesn’t smell like Yaya’s avgolemono.” It’s the addition of celery – not traditional, but it gives the soup more depth. I should also add that The Author loves it, and he thinks his yaya would have as well, despite its inauthenticity.

In a soup pot over medium heat, sauté the onion and celery with the butter, bay leaf, salt, pepper and chili flakes.  Stir occasionally, and cook until the vegetables are soft.

Add the white wine and stir to loosen any bits from the bottom of the pot. Then add the stock. I used some stock we had made a few weeks ago and stored in the freezer. It wasn’t enough, so I topped it up with water. I was going to add a chicken stock cube, but it didn’t need it – our frozen stock was adequately concentrated. (However, if you don’t have a good rich stock, don’t hesitate to add the Jewish grandmothers’ secret ingredient!)

When the liquid has come to a boil, stir in the rice and reduce the heat to a simmer. After 10 minutes, the rice should be nearly done. Add the raw chicken, stirring well to make sure that the pieces get well distributed and don’t cook together in a lump. Let the chicken and rice simmer together for about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, whisk the eggs with the lemon juice. When the chicken and rice have cooked together for a bit, remove a ladle-full and add it slowly to the egg and lemon mixture, whisking all the while. When the first ladle is incorporated, add a second ladle-full, still whisking, and then add a third ladle of the broth, all the while whisking so that the eggs do not curdle. (Essentially, you are making a custard.) You need to keep adding the broth to the eggs until the temperature of the egg mixture is close to that of the broth in the soup pot. At this point, the egg mixture will be a pale colour and slightly thickened and velvety in appearance.

Turn off the heat under the soup pot and then, continuously stirring the broth in the pot, slowly and steadily pour the egg mixture in. The soup should mix with the egg mixture so that the soup looks rich and ever so slightly thick, as if you had added cream.

Test for flavour: it should be quite lemony and a little bit salty. If you taste it and think, “Eh, it’s okay but, it’s nothing to write home about,” you need to add more salt and possibly more lemon. (Do this a bit at a time. I recommend putting a small portion of soup in a little cup and then adding the extra ingredients to the cup and tasting as you go. This way, you can’t ruin the whole pot by over-seasoning, plus you can experiment to your heart’s content; simply dump the cup and start over if need be. Once you’ve found the balance, you can translate the proportions to the big pot.)

*If you are feeling very decadent (or if you happen to need some spare egg whites), you can make this soup with egg yolks only. It is delicious and a most beautiful golden colour.

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The finished soup!

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