Lifting a fog as thick as pea soup

Since I was feeling a bit better this afternoon, Henning and I went to Pannikin Coffee & Tea in Leucadia to try to get some work done. My head was still a fuzzy cloud wrapped up in a blanket of goo, but we had hopes that a little fresh air and tea would help clear the fog. And besides, it was a beautiful day (seriously, 73 degrees and sunny in February?!). Well, I managed to stare at my papers for an entire hour and a half, trying to make my brain think, before giving up. Math was just not happening for my brain today, the sick fog was just too thick. We went for a quick walk on the beach (also supposedly to make me feel better, but it ended in a coughing fit), and headed home.

Chicken Noodle SoupOn the way, we stopped at Trader Joe’s to pick up the ingredients for a simple chicken noodle soup, a most reliable fog-lifter. Though I couldn’t compute the homotopy of ER(n) in the afternoon, I was pretty damn sure cook some chicken noodle soup. And oh, it was like therapy, coarsely chopping the vegetables and tossing them in the pot with a whole chicken. No muss, no fuss. Just dump it in there, cover with water, and you’re done. An hour later the whole apartment smelled like chicken soup. Another 45 minutes later, we sat down to a steaming bowl of comfort, chunky with wide egg noodles thick pieces of chicken. Finally, it was my glasses that were fogged, not my head.

Locro de PapasAnd this was not the only great soup that I ate this weekend. I’ve mentioned that on Friday my mom cooked up quite the South American feast, and the menu included locro de papas, from the February issue of Gourmet. It’s a simple, soothing Andean potato soup with avocado. Incredibly comforting, it could take the place of chicken noodle soup on a vegetarian’s table with ease. The recipe calls for annatto seeds, which are an ancient spice and food coloring used by Native Americans for tribal paint and lipstick. The seeds dye the soup a luscious orange, and lend it a subtle tang, which is balanced by smokey, earthy cumin. Rich with milk and queso fresco, and finished with succulent avocado, locro de papas is a hearty vegetarian soup that will please just about everyone.

p.s. Can you spot me in that last photo?

Chicken Noodle Soup

one 3.5 pound chicken, whole
2 carrots, cut into 2 inch chunks
1 yellow or brown onion, cut into quarters
top 2 inches and leaves from one bunch of celery
1 bay leaf
4 sprigs fresh thyme
5 peppercorns
1 tsp salt
3 carrots, peeled and cut to medium dice
3 stalks celery, cut to medium dice
1/2 yellow or brown onion, cut to medium dice
8 oz extra-wide egg noodles
a fistful of parsley leaves, finely chopped

Combine first 8 ingredients in a large stockpot. Cover with water by about two or three inches, if you’ve got the room. Bring to a boil, covered, then reduce heat to low and skim off any foam that appears. Partially cover the pot and cook, barely simmering, until the chicken is just cooked through, about 45 minutes to an hour.

Remove the chicken to a plate and allow it to cool a bit, keeping the stock simmering with the veggies in it. Peel the skin off of the chicken and pull the meat off the bones, reserving the meat and bones in separate piles. It should just want to fall off in big chunks. Now, strain the vegetables out of the stock (just throw them away, they’ve given all their flavor to the stock) and return the stock to the pot. Put the chicken bones into the pot with the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Strain the stock into a large bowl and set aside. Melt 1 tbs of butter in the pot and add the diced carrots, celery, and onion, along with a pinch of salt. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables have softened a bit. Meanwhile, skim whatever fat you can from the bowl of stock. Pour the stock into the pot with the softened veggies and taste for seasonings. Add salt if necessary. Bring to a boil and add the egg noodles. Cook for 5 minutes and add the chicken. Simmer and stir until the chicken is heated through, about 2 minutes more. Add the parsley and serve immediately.

Serves 6 as a main course.

Locro de Papas
from Gourmet, February 2007

2 teaspoons annatto (achiote) seeds
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 1/2 lb russet (baking) potatoes
1 cup chopped white onion
rounded 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon black pepper
7 cups water
1 cup whole milk
5 1/2 oz queso fresco (Mexican fresh cheese) or ricotta salata, coarsely grated (1 1/4 cups)
2 (6- to 7-oz) firm-ripe avocados

Heat annatto seeds and oil in a very small saucepan over low heat, swirling pan frequently, until oil is bright red-orange and starts to simmer, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel potatoes and cut into 3/4-inch pieces, keeping the cut pieces in a bowl of cold water to prevent discoloration.

Pour annatto oil through a fine-mesh sieve into a wide 7- to 8-quart heavy pot, discarding solids. Cook onion and half of potatoes (reserve remaining potatoes in the bowl of cold water) in annatto oil over moderately high heat, stirring, until onion is softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add cumin, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add water (7 cups) and bring to a boil, scraping up any brown bits. Reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until potatoes are very tender, 25 to 30 minutes, then mash into broth. Drain remaining potatoes and add to stew, then simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in milk and cheese and increase heat to high, then bring to a simmer, stirring. Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, quarter avocados lengthwise, then pit, peel, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.

Serve stew in large soup bowls, topped with avocado.

Makes 4-6 (main course) servings.

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