An old friend of Mike’s sent him an interesting email a week or two ago. She said that a close friend of hers had recently settled into a vegetarian lifestyle, and everything was going well except for one thing – he loved chicken soup. He missed chicken soup. HE WANTED SOME G.D. CHICKEN SOUP. You think that’s fine, of course, because there are a variety of truly delicious vegetarian and vegan ‘chicken’ soups out on the market. Ah, but here’s the rub: he has an aversion to canned soups. So what’s a fellow to do? Oh, and then there was the follow up: No matzo ball or egg drop. Yeesh!
So what makes chicken soup taste like chicken soup? When I discussed the situation with my good friend Allie, she said, “Oh yeah! So you make a soup that tastes like salt and noodles?” Huh. Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much sums it up sometimes. But the problem is that everyone’s favorite home-spun chicken soup tastes a little bit different. Beyond the question of rice, noodles or potatoes, there’s the issue of aromatics. Did you grow up in a home where chicken soup means big chunks of root vegetables in a clear broth that’s scented with lemon and dill? Or does chicken soup mean tiny bites with parsley and a hint of heat from dried chili flakes? Maybe you were raised by purists who just liked garlicky stock, chicken and vegetables. When you think of comforting home cooking like chicken soup, it’s those familiar flavors that you’re craving the most. I didn’t know what his memory of comforting chicken soup was, so I went with mine.
The first step to a righteous chicken soup has to be in the stock. Flavorful stock will lead to flavorful soup. I will fully cop to the fact that I use store bought chicken stock on a regular basis, and although I’m not proud of that fact, it’s just how I roll. Judge me, if you will. Don’t blame it on my upbringing because my father never used store bought chicken stock. In fact, I’m sure that when he reads this post he will scoff ever so slightly and mutter something about “….and WILL never, either!” Stock makes the soup. A good chickenless chicken soup needs to start from a firm foundation of flavorful, aromatic, but poultry-free vegetarian stock.
I have this thing about vegetable stock though…..I buy it about as often as I make my own chicken stock, which is to say almost never. The few times that I did buy vegetable stock I found that it was redolent of stewed tomatoes and not a whole lot else. Well, that simply wouldn’t DO for Mike’s friend-o-friend’s chickenless soup! No sirree!! I don’t know him, but I feel confident that he deserves MORE than something from a tetrapack. And…and bought veg stock is so often orange. That’s just uncool. Chicken soup needs to be golden hued! After all, we eat with our eyes first, and if this soup didn’t LOOK like chicken soup then it just wasn’t going to fly. So yes, it takes some time, but spending an hour or two puttering around the house while a pot of stock simmers on the stove will be the difference between shlocky soup and, well, the best that I could do.
Now that we’ve covered aromatics and stock, the last main element for consideration in our no-chicken soup was..uh….the no-chicken. I thought about buying some of Yves faux-chicken skewers, which are almost as good as Quorn but with the major advantage that they’re readily available in Canada. I was actually all over that, and ready to try to market this (read: lie blatantly and deliberately) to Mike as real chicken soup, but then I decided that was a bit of a limp home to the plate. Yes, and he would know the difference immediately, so I’ll save my tofu-induced fibbery for the next time I make a creamy dairy-free dip or whatnot. I did do a wee bit of research on how to make tofu that had the taste and texture of chicken anyway, but then remembered that there were two of us eating this soup….and if any tofu wen into that pot then there would only be ONE of us eating the entire pot.
I settled on king oyster mushrooms to be the faux-chicken element of this dish because they have a firm, meaty texture and the color variations mimic light and dark meat. Mind you, I have no delusions about the efficacy of this choice. You’ll know that you’re eating mushrooms, not chicken, but the chicken in chicken soup often tastes more like soup than chicken, so why not try something new? Also, king oyster mushrooms were on sale, so this pauper went the way of the wallet.
Serves about 6, depending on how hungry, sick, or needy they’re feeling
Golden Vegetable Stock
- 2 large leeks
- 1 whole bulb of garlic
- 3 carrots
- 1 potato
- 2 celery stalks with leaves
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 12 cups of water
- 2 cups chopped king oyster mushrooms *
- 2 + 1 tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 celery stalks
- 3 medium or 4 small carrots
- 10 cups golden vegetable stock
- 3/4 cup vermicelli style semolina noodles
- 1 tsp marjoram
- 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/8 tsp hot pepper flakes (optional)
- salt and pepper to taste **
* King oyster mushrooms are also referred to as French Horn or King Trumpet. The texture is meaty and the taste is not overly mushroomy. However, if you don’t hang with genus Pleurotus, feel free to use a vegan faux-chicken substitute.
** Salt is not optional. This soup needs salt. Don’t be stingy. I know, I know but blood pressure be damned just this once.
The first step is to make the stock. Cut the celery and leeks into thirds and the potato into large chunks. Chop the top off of your carrots, lob them in half and then slice down vertically so that the marrow is exposed. If your carrots are chubbers like mine, you should probably cut them vertically again into quarters. The tender interior of a carrot tends to be the sweetest and most flavorful part so you want to take full advantage of that fact.
Separate the bulb of garlic into cloves and then peel the cloves – but leave them whole.
Put the vegetables, garlic, bay leaf and peppercorn into a large stock pot and add the 12 cups of cold water. Bring the water to a rolling boil before covering the pot and turning the heat down to a very low simmer. Let this simmer away, covered, for 1.5 – 2 hours. It will be done when the stock has a lovely golden hue and the vegetables are soft enough to mash with a dull spoon.
Pour the soup out into a different pot (or whatever type of receptacle you fancy) through a fine wire mesh or colander to quarantine the vegetables et al. Sadly, they have no further purpose in this recipe. There should be approximately 10 cups of stock, but if there’s a bit more or a bit less that’s okay.
And now! The soup!!
Clean any residual dirt from the mushrooms using a paper towel or small brush. Slice the mushrooms vertically about 1/2 inch thick and then cut them into chunks, like the pieces on the left.
In a skillet or frying pan (or a pot, frankly, let’s not split hairs over this) heat the 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and immediately toss them around to coat each piece in a bit of oil. This will allow them to caramelize just slightly on the outside but reduces the chance of burning. Cook the mushrooms for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure that they don’t stick, and when they’re tender and cooked through you can take them out of the hot pan and reserve them in a bowl on the side.
Chop the onion into a 1/4 inch dice and mince the garlic. In the pot which will eventually house your soup, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic, sweating them out until the onions are translucent. Make sure that you stir as often as needed to make sure that the garlic doesn’t burn and get bitter.
Cut the root and leafy ends off from the celery and then cut each piece in half horizontally. For the narrow top half, slice the stalks vertically, and cut them into 1/4 inch pieces. Near the bottom where the stalk is broader, cut vertically into three before slicing into chunks.
The carrot should be peeled and sliced into 1/4 inch rounds, if you have a narrow carrot. If you have chubby carrots then you may wish to cut them into halves or even quarters before slicing them into chunks.
Let the carrots and celery ravish in the heat with the onions. Sprinkle on the marjoram and hot pepper flakes (if you’re using them) and all of a sudden there’s a party in this pot! Let everything cook together for 5 minutes, or until the marjoram is fragrant.
Turn the heat up to medium and add the 10 cups of vegetable stock. If you have slightly less than 10 you can fill the rest up with water. And if you have more than ten, maybe even eleven? Meh, just dump it all in. This is soup, not science. By the by, do you notice that glorious golden hue? Oh yes, my friends. That’s vegetable stock.
Bring the soup to a light simmering boil – not a rolling boil, just some easy ebullience. As you see the froth (yes, I call it ‘froth’ and not ‘scummy fat and impurities’) gather on top, gently scoop it off with a shallow spoon and discard it.
Stir in the small semolina noodles and let them cook for 5-10 minutes before turning the heat down or off (depending on when you’d like to eat dinner). I like using semolina vermicelli instead of wheat based vermicelli or egg noodles because I find that they keep their shape better, they don’t act like a sponge to soak up all the water in the pot, and they’re just the right size for your spoon.
Oh, and before I forget, the mushrooms can go into the soup as well.
Squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the soup. If you like a lemony chicken soup, you may wish to use the whole lemon. Chop the parsley up as finely as possible, and stir it in to the soup right before you serve it.
Served with a side of home made cheddar crackers on the side? All of a sudden the winter cold and flu season doesn’t seem as daunting.
This is a totally guilt-free soup, as well. There’s just something about home made (no)chicken soup where you feel healthier by proximity alone. Is it the blood cleansing garlic? The nutrient packed root vegetables? Maybe it’s the opportunity to fill our poor dehydrated bodies with a little bit of flavorful fluid? Or maybe it’s just the comforts of childhood, remembering the days when people pampered and nurtured you at the slightest sign of a sniffle….as opposed to now, where if you don’t stumble into a room bleeding from at least 3 limbs, nobody is likely to take much notice.
Noodles. I heart noodles.
And yes, if your Bubby made chicken soup with loads of garlic and dill, you can add more garlic and use dill instead of parsley. If the thought of red pepper flakes horrifies you and you miss the stomach soothing aromas of ginger and lemongrass, well, go for it. I won’t stop you.
So, Mike’s friend’s friend, here you go! An easy template for no-chicken soup, and no cans were harmed in the process.
PS – Mike slurped his vegetarian soup up enthusiastically and then went back for seconds. His only comment other than, “Mrhenvvemeb” and “Slurrrrrrrp” was, “MAN this is good soup. You know, the only thing that it’s missing is chicken!” I love that man.