It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Editor's Note: All month the soup's on, with over a dozen new recipes coming at you for everything from simple 15-minute meals, to updated homemade versions of the canned classics you loved as a kid, to all-dayers that are hearty enough to eat like a meal. Check out all the recipes right here, and be sure to come back—we'll be updating all month!
For a Colombian to not love soup would be like a Boston native forgetting what happened on October 27th 2004, or a Star Wars fan forgetting that Han Shot First. Even though my recently naturalized wife rang in the new year as a full American citizen, I'm pretty sure that there are Colombian laws that require her to love soup even after she's sworn her allegiance to another country. I'm not sure what the consequences would be if I failed to provide her with an adequate supply, but I'm not really willing to find out.
She's gonna LOVE January. All month I'm making soup, with over a dozen new recipes along the way.
We're kicking off soup month with a simple chicken soup, inspired in part by a bowl of samgyetang that my wife and I had in Seoul on a dreary December day back in 2012. That classic Korean soup—made by stuffing a whole young chicken with rice, simmering it in a broth flavored with garlic, ginseng, and jujubes, and finishing it with a boatload of scallions—seemed to have been custom-made for warming us up from the wet snow and wind outside. I thought my mom's chicken soup was good for a cold, but my mom ain't Korean.
My soup starts with the same whole chicken, but rather than cooking it whole, I hack it into smaller pieces, which allows flavor to be extracted from it more easily. As the pieces finish cooking, I fish them out of the broth and shred the meat, which makes the whole thing easier to eat at the table. I also decided to make the switch from tough-to-find and expensive ginseng root to regular old ginger, making sure to look for young, smooth, juicy specimens at the supermarket so that I could use the ginger to flavor the broth and also serve it as a fine julienne in the finished bowl.
In place of the rice, I use Korean dduk cakes made with glutinous rice. The slippery disks are easy to eat and soothing for a sore throat. You can find them in the refrigerated section of most Asian markets, though adding some regular old cooked rice to the bowl would work if you can't find the rice cakes. Napa cabbage is particularly tasty cooked in a gingery broth. I don't miss an opportunity to add it.
As a kid, when I had a sore throat, my mother would wrap up a bunch of scallions in a bandana, tie it around my neck, and tell me to lie down without moving. I'm not sure if she really believed this would help, or if she was applying some sort of positive punishment to discourage me from my habit of faking colds to get out of school. I wasn't the kind of child who would accept a cold remedy without some sort of controlled evidence to back it up, but I was also experienced enough to know that arguing with my mother will only get you so far. "Science" and "evidence" meant about as much to her as "but my favorite episode of He-Man is coming on" or "but isn't three hours long enough for one day of violin practice?" Through careful controlled study, I've discovered that she is physically unable to hear such phrases.
Point is, I have no idea if onions are good at curing colds and a quick internet search reveals that the idea is mostly supported by naturopaths, which automatically makes me dubious. What I do know is that thanks to Pavlovian conditioning, every time cold season comes around, I crave scallions and all of their ilk.
The first time I made this soup, I loaded it up with every single type of allium I could find in the Chinese supermarket: yellow onions, garlic, scallions, leeks, Chinese chives, yellow chives, American chives, and fat chive blossoms. Tasty, but a bit of overkill, and definitely not worth the hassle of going to Chinatown every time I want to make a batch. A mix of three—yellow onions and scallion greens to flavor the broth, and thinly sliced scallion whites and chives stirred into the finished soup—along with some fresh cilantro leaves provided ample flavor and aroma with ingredients I can get even at the discount supermarket up where I live in Harlem.
The final element of the dish is a quick-pickled garlic and chili mixture, which adds a touch of heat and a burst of bright vinegar to the bowl. The first time I made it, I used a jar of pickled Thai chilies I picked up from the Chinese market in the sauce and pickle aisle, using the vinegary liquid in the jar to simmer some thin-sliced garlic cloves. It worked out great, and is a super easy way to do it if you have a jar of pickled chilies lying around. If not, making the whole thing from scratch is as simple as cooking roughly chopped chilies and sliced garlic in some distilled vinegar. It lasts forever in the fridge, and is fantastic for adding quick flavor to any number of soups, stews, or steamed vegetable dishes.
The final soup has a bit of everything. It's got a Korean soul, amplified by the freshness of cilantro and chives and the heat and vinegar you'd expect in a Thai soup. It's intensely aromatic, warm, soothing, and easy to eat. And most importantly, my wife loves it,* which oddly enough, makes scallions, chives, and garlic ket ingredients in not just my soup, but in our matrimonial harmony. My mother would be proud.
*After I pick out the chicken pieces for her, that is.