Thursday, 17 January 2008

Avgolemono: Greek chicken soup with lemon and egg

My formative years were spent in Melbourne, Australia, which is said to be the biggest "Greek" city outside of Greece itself (though this may be an urban legend...). Certainly, the Greeks have made Melbourne their own and when I was growing up, Greek restaurants, culture and especially humour were very much in evidence, the latter particularly on TV. You would think that this steady diet of all things Greek would somehow rub off on me in the kitchen, wouldn't you?

Sadly, it did not. But I am happy to correct this oversight now. After all, Greece is still very much within the saffron and lemons realm, and better still, I received a delightful cookbook for Christmas that is sure to make the journey very pleasant indeed.

It is called Falling Cloudberries: A World of Family Recipes and it was love at first sight when we first met in a suburban bookshop in Melbourne just before Christmas 2006. But I didn't buy it then. No, not even though it was on sale (showing a great deal of restraint, I have to say (g))! Something about suitcase weight limits and the mounting pile of foodie necessities that were coming back to Japan with me. The dried fruit, nuts, spices, tamarind paste... That sort of thing. We must all suffer for our art, I suppose.

When the next gift-receiving (g) opportunity rolled round, Cloudberries was right up there on my list, but some other lucky soul had nabbed the copy and I was left in unrequited cookbook love purgatory. Luckily, Saffron-Mama and Papa took pity and got me the book (and another long-term lust, Nigel's Appetite) for Christmas 2007. And it was really worth the wait.

The book is described as a "culinary memoir" and in it our gracious hostess, Tessa Kiros, guides us through the kitchens of her upbringing (her mother is Finnish, father Greek-Cypriot, there is some Russian in there as well; oh, and she spend some of her childhood in South Africa, and now lives in Italy).

Just like Tessa, the book's an eclectic but accessible mix, and her evocative, and yes, charming writing will have you running to the kitchen (and if that doesn't, the luscious photos certainly will (g)).

Anyway, I thought I would christen my copy with avgolemono. The reason being that Saffron-Papa and Mama have a Greek-Cypriot friend whose chicken with lemon and egg I have heard rave reviews about on more than one occasion. Tessa's is a Greek version, but I would be more than happy to hear from any Greek-Cypriots who may wish to comment on it.

(It should be noted that Falling Cloudberries has chapters on both Greece and Cyprus, and the cuisines do appear to be distinct enough to warrant this. Perhaps Cypriot cuisine is a happy mid-point between the tables of Greece and Turkey? The culinary clues Tessa leaves us certainly seem to suggest this...)

There is no photo today as the extended cooking time makes the chicken literally fall off the bone when you attempt to remove it from the pot. But it is all for the good. The addition of lemon and egg to the resultant flavourful broth makes it both soothingly velvety and slightly sharp at the same time. It is totally beguiling.

At Tessa's suggestion, I added a bouquet garni and a few bay leaves to the broth. You will end up with a lot of soup, so this is perfect if you are having a crowd over. If not, it jells up nicely once it cools, making it souper (g) easy to store for later reheating without inadvertently creating a puddle at the bottom of the fridge.


Serves 4

1 chicken (about 1.3 kg)
1 white onion
1 celery stalk with leaves, cut into large chunks
1 large carrot, cut into half
A few parsley stalks
A few black peppercorns
100 g (1/2 cup) long-grain rice, rinsed
2 eggs
Juice of 2 lemons

Rinse the chicken well and put it in a large stockpot with the onion, celery, carrot, parsley stalks, peppercorns and a good sprinkling of salt [Saffron: at least 2 tsp]. Cover with about 3.5 litres (14 cups) of cold water and bring to the boil.Skim the surface with a slotted spoon, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about 1 1/2 hours, skimming occasionally. Lift the chicken out onto a plate with a slotted spoon [Saffron: I needed a pair of tongs, and even then the meat just melted from the bone]. Strain the broth through a sieve, pressing down lightly on the vegetables with your wooden spoon to extract the flavour. You should have about 1.5 litres (6 cups) of broth. Return this to the saucepan, add the rice and cook over medium heat for another 15 minutes or so, until the rice is cooked.

Whisk the eggs until they are fluffy. Add the lemon juice. Add a ladleful of hot broth to the egg, whisking to stop it scrambling. Whisk in a little more broth, then add the whole lot to the pan. Return the saucepan to the lowest possible heat for a few minutes to warm the egg through. Add some salt and pepper and serve immediately. If you like, shred on of the chicken breasts and scatter over the soup. Serve the rest of the chicken as a second course.


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