Saturday, May 17, 2008


This is a French phrase – which literally means,“From Here to There”. For me it loosely translates as the Epicurean pursuit of “Living the Good Life” or “Died and Gone to Heaven”.

I’ve been sick for the past week. A friend sent me his chicken soup recipe. I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, chicken soup is chicken soup, right? Oh sure, there’s variations. Jewish Chicken Soup has Matzo Balls, in Italian Chicken Soup you expect zucchini and garbanzo beans – but still, I didn’t think this recipe would lead to a world of discovery.

Because he is French, the recipe was in French. In a moment of insanity, I said, “No problem, I can translate it!” Because, you know after two years of High School French with abysmal grades I’m a crack translator! Actually most of the ingredient names and cooking terms were recognizable. Plus – if you have a decent set of cooking skills, you should just know what the steps are, right?

Well, apparently not.

There were numerous e-mails to Frédéric (the French chef) to confirm my own, and Babel Fish’s, translation of his recipe.

The translation process was amusing.

Babel Fish translated "4 feuilles de coriandre fraische" into “4 sheets of coriandre fraische” I knew that coriander is the same as cilantro here in the US. But what threw me off was “sheets” and “fraîsche”.

The term “sheets” immediately brought to mind things like phyllo dough and Nori (seaweed sheets used in making sushi). “Fraîsche” is always (not really, but I was sick, ok?) coupled with “crème” as in “Crème Fraîsche”.

Now is that not a weird idea? Sheets of Cilantro Cream.

After thinking about it a little longer in my fevered state, I realized what the recipe was really calling for was of course, cilantro sprigs! And “Fraîsche” isn’t always linked to cream. It means “fresh”, as in fresh herbs, not dried. D’oh!

Translating the directions caused the next speed bump. The verb “Emincer” was used … after breaking it apart, I decided the closest term was “mince”. But would you really “mince” leaks and carrots? A better choice was dice or slice, depending on the vegetable.

So – easy enough. Dice the carrots and slice the leaks, celery, and mushrooms. Then it said, cook ‘till “la première coloration”. I love this turn of phrase. Cook until they are the “premier color!” In the recipe I’ve changed it to caramelize, but I like the French directive better, don’t you?

Adding wine and reducing the liquid by half made sense. So did adding the diced roast chicken and spices. It was adding the onion and garlic that brought me up short. I sent an e-mail asking for clarification. Here’s what I learned from Frédéric, which I knew intuitively, but had never thought about.

“Onions are soft – and break down easily. If you sauté them, you’ll end up with a potage (thick gruelish soup), this is a clear, light soup.”

And that’s when it hit me, what the recipe directed me to do was put in a WHOLE ONION. Not diced (which I’d added in my first translation), not sliced or quartered – the whole onion into the soup!

At first I argued (with myself) about this step. I was going to chop the onion. But his comment about a “light, clear” soup kept butting up against my cooking knowledge. (Or you could call it my “hard head”. I won’t like you as much if you do, but hey. It could be the truth.) So – I decided to try it his way. After all – the man began training to be a chef at the age of 16 – in France. I guess that lends some credibility to what he says.

He also pointed out garlic can easily burn when being sautéed (which I knew), but adding it at this point – and adding WHOLE CLOVES, made it easier to avoid eating the cloves and ending up with strong breath. (or at least that's the cloves I assumed he was talking about)

Here my mind spun off to eating cloves of garlic on a date and the dire consequences of such an action. I thought, “The French! They are so brilliant. Whole cloves – equal all the flavor, but easily avoidable consumption!”

Still I struggled. Shouldn’t they at least be cracked? The skin removed? To let the flavor out? Sternly I bid myself to TRANSLATE IT EXACTLY – AND COOK IT EXACTLY the first time. Some other time I could experiment and adjust as my little heart desired.

The next ingredient was: “bouillon de poule”. Actually, I didn’t need this translated. I knew. Chicken bouillon. No brainer, right? Except Babel Fish must not be a cook. It tried to tell me I needed to find some “Hen Bubble”! This sent me into hacking fits of coughing laughter. When I came back to the recipe and converted measurements, I realized that 70 cl (centiliters), which is approximately 3 cups, was not a measurement you’d use with bouillon cubes or granules. So I changed it to chicken broth.

Two final ingredients caused me pause. One was the noodles. “Vermicelles de Soja”. Soy Vermicelli isn’t what I was expecting. After playing around with several cooking sites I agreed that Asian “Cellophane Noodles” fit best. I liked this idea. Not barley, not alphabet pasta (gag), or Acini di pepe (peppercorn pasta), but clear, slightly “toothsome” noodles.

Last – were the spices. Rosemary, sage, and thyme, right? Maybe Italian parsley. But no. It listed, nutmeg, curry, cloves, and cumin. How interesting is that?

After the hard work of translating and converting the recipe, I went to bed. The next day I went to the store and began cooking.

What I like best about this recipe is that it’s actually quite a quick soup to put together. You could have it ready to go in thirty to forty-five minutes. If you’re not me, that is.

See, one of the things I like about cooking are the processes. Each little step. And because I like them, I linger over them. Slicing and dicing – which can be done lightening fast (indeed, isn’t that the hallmark of a true chef? Fast knife skills?) are slowly and methodically carried out by me. It’s not that I’m trying to be precise with each cut (although, yes, I am anal), it’s that I like the motion of chopping, so I do it slowly. I’m also always evaluating my form (I don’t always tuck in my fingers on my anchoring hand) and trying to improve my style.

It's also quicker to cook if you buy all the ingredients. *coughcarrotscough* Realizing I'd forgotten them, reminded me why I like my neighborhood and cooking. I called Grace, my neighbor, and asked if she had carrots. In between cloud bursts I dashed over to her house (one neighbor in between us) and got them. It gave me a minute to say hi and invite her to eat with me when I was recovered. On my way back across my neighbor's lawn, they popped out their front door and called a cheerful, "Hello!". See, cooking = socializing and bringing neighbors together!

The recipe calls for “roast chicken”. Some days I get cranky that cooks just assume everyone has a roasted chicken on hand. Or has time to roast a chicken and pick it apart. Some magazines insist I can buy a grocery store rotisserie cooked chicken and skip the chicken roasting all together. Quelle horreur!

Never, ever, will I use a store cooked chicken. EVEN IF I’M DYING.

But, taking a chicken breast (or two), seasoning with salt and pepper, and then roasting for 30 minutes at 350 degrees is pretty damn easy. It can be done as the first step in this recipe without slowing you down at all.

I sautéed the vegetables in the stock pan. Next time, I might consider doing this in an actual sauté pan. Only because I’d like more surface space so they as they lose their moisture they caramelize quicker. Otherwise, you’re just kind of sweating them – which makes them soft – and then mushy as they cook in the soup. I like crisp veggies although using a sauté pan means more dishes. Boo!)

Adding the wine and reducing is a straight forward step – then came the part about adding a WHOLE ONION, diced chicken, and spices. Let me tell you – this step created several levels of itchiness. The idea of a whole onion – well, much internal consternation resulted. BUT I FOLLOWED THE DIRECTIONS! I did peel the garlic by mashing it once. Next time I hope to be stronger and just chuck the whole damn clove in. Paper-skin and all.

How difficult can it be to add nutmeg, ground cloves, curry, and cumin? Well, if there are no measurements, then there might be some internal debate. I finally settled on ½ teaspoon for the nutmeg, cloves, and cumin and a ¼ teaspoon of curry powder.

The final result was great! I loved these seasonings. I figure out a few things though. *sigh* I hate leaning AFTERWARDS.

First the cloves. HELLO FEVER ADDLED BRAIN! It called for cloves, not ground cloves. A later e-mail from Frédéric reinforced this idea. Stud the onion with 5 cloves. Oh, imagine THAT idea. *kicks self for being stupid*

And the curry. Did you know there are actual curry leaves? I knew that. It’s hard to find them here in the regular grocery store. So I used curry spice. As I said, I loved the flavor of this soup, but I’d like to try it with a chiffonade of curry leaves sometime.

Then came the broth vs. bouillon debate. I really HATE bouillon. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I recall being given some as a small child and told it was soup. NO IT’S NOT. And it’s very salty.

I’m not a huge fan of the flavor of salt. I like what salt can DO in cooking. Intensify and highlight other flavors. But salt, just for the salt taste? Not me. I buy the light salt (sodium) version of everything: peanuts, chips, broths and canned canned veggies. It drives me crazy to see people heavily salt their food. (Pointed look at Dr. Esq.) It’s another reason why I don’t like eating at chain restaurants. I don’t care what “new cuisine” they’re promoting. Chinese, Thai, Korean … what they do is add a teeny-tiny amount of the "new" flavor, then SALT THE HELL out of the dish. Ugg.

Sorry. Supposed to be talking about broth vs. bouillon. Not how much I hate salt.

So – I used chicken broth. I think next time I might try bouillon to see if there’s a deeper flavor.

At the end of the recipe, you add the cilantro sprigs and noodles. The sprigs were easy. The noodles? Let’s just say I don’t enjoy wrestling matches in my kitchen or my soup bowl.

The store didn’t have cellophane noodles. I bought rice vermicelli. An 8 oz package. I converted the amount in the recipe to 4 ounces. Half a package, right? Have you tried to pull apart rice vermicelli without it springing like Medusa’s snake hair all over the kitchen? Let’s just say the noodles are difficult. And stubborn. At some point they shatter. That point is when you get frustrated and raise your hands slightly higher than the sink where you’re trying to contain the mess.

After wrangling 4 ounces of noodles from the mother-noodle, I was slightly addled and tired. So, LIKE AN IDIOT, I put the whole 4 ounce piece into the soup. People? Noodles do not become bite size by themselves. The recipe has now been amended to read chopped/broken BITE SIZED pieces of noodle.

Eighteen hundred words later, we come to the end of this soup story (or so you might hope). But I have yet to tell you about the final product.

It’s WONDERFUL. I love the spices and noodles. The broth really was clear. And it is a “light” soup. I think the leeks, carrots, and mushrooms are the perfect sweet balance to the chicken. I’m still going to figure out what I can do with a whole boiled onion (maybe an creamy onion dip?? Or diced and added to an omelet?) because I refuse to throw it away.

It’s also a soup that will lends itself to exploration and revision. I really want to play with the idea of using “cilantro crème” as a garnish. I can just see and taste a vivid green dollop of cilantro infused “fresh crème” before serving.

I also have a recipe for a cilantro/coconut rice. It’s basmati rice with a cilantro/green onion/toasted coconut pesto. I want to add the rice then swirl in the pesto in place of noodles. I think the Asian spices would support the rice cilantro/coconut pesto very nicely.

Thinking further along the lines of Asian, I’ve decided I'd like to make a version with shiitake, oyster, and enoki mushrooms, plus add kombu (the green seaweed you find in miso soup).

So now the title of this post should be clear.

I got from there, to here, with Frédéric’s simple Chicken Soup recipe.

Frédéric’s Soupe lègere au Poulet

(or Light Chicken Soup a la Firdoel

  • 1½ cups roast chicken
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 large leek
  • 3 celery stocks
  • 5 large mushrooms
  • 3 carrots
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 large onion WHOLE
  • 5 cloves
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 cups of Chicken Broth (or bouillon and water to equal)
  • Nutmeg, cumin, curry (either spice or leaves), salt
  • 4 oz or ¼ lbs. cellophane noodles BROKEN UP
  • 4 stalks coriander/cilantro
  • Pepper to taste

Rough chop roasted chicken. (size you’d want to see on a spoon or put in your mouth)

Slice leeks, mushrooms, celery and dice carrots.

Sweat (sauté) vegetables with butter and olive oil over medium heat. When vegetables begin to caramelize (brown), add the white wine, and reduce to half.

Add chopped chicken, chicken broth/bouillon, whole onion studded with cloves, whole garlic cloves and the remainder of spices according to its taste. EXCEPT pepper and the coriander/cilantro. These are added at the end. Add a large salt pinch.

Add 4 cups water and let cook 20 minutes at a simmer.

After 20 minutes, add chopped vermicelli and coriander/cilantro stalks and pepper to taste. If necessary, add a little water, let cook 10 more minutes.

Serves 6-8


mamie said...

Sorry you haven't been feeling well - and I make a mean chicken soup. Just call the next down you're down. Really, I mean it.

Wish you'd won the Olive Kitteridge would've at least enjoyed the lying around in bed part.

Take care.

mamie said...

God, I mean the next "time" you're down. When will I learn to proof first, then post???

Brain down, it's Saturday.

Anonymous said...

How can anyone want to go to all that trouble for chicken soup when they are SICK ????? Just open the can, Mitter, for g--'s sake ! tp

Christopher Paquette said...

I agree with TP....when you are sick, someone else is supposed to make the soup for you........

Anonymous said...

Great writing sis, but which takes longer writing the essay, or making the French soup?

I hope your feeling better.