By Marsha Fottler –
February is the month to settle in and let the weather do its worst while you have something hot, comforting and delicious cooking in your kitchen. If you need encouragement or inspiration, I’m suggesting Comfortable in the Kitchen, a new book by Meredith Laurence. She is a chef and teacher who is known in culinary land, on QVC television (and in Philadelphia where she lives) as the Blue Jean Chef because of her young, no-fuss approach to preparing good food. Laurence knows that when she’s in her kitchen mixing up ingredients she’s as comfortable as she is in a worn pair of jeans. And she wants you to feel the same – in control and enjoying the process as well as the results.
Part of Laurence’s approach is de-mystify the procedure for making successful common things from scratch that many home cooks don’t attempt anymore such as pie crust, homemade chicken soup, souffle, Mac ’n’ Cheese, fried chicken or pancakes. Her step-by-step instructions are clear and her explanations about each recipe make sense and certainly add to a cook’s practical and cultural cuisine knowledge. This is a book you could confidently present to a novice in the kitchen as well as to a seasoned cook looking for a useful compendium of recipes the home cook could refer to often as a basis for personal culinary riffs. Everybody needs a starting point.
Laurence has four basic rules for getting started and they are worth repeating (in condensed form): 1. Read the recipe from start to finish before you begin cooking. 2. Buy the best ingredients you can. 3. Do your “mise en place,” (French for the prep work) first – the chopping, measuring, assembling all the right utensils. 4. Taste your food before you take it to the table and adjust seasonings if necessary.
If the weather outside is frightful or if you feel you and the family need a healthful boost, nothing works like homemade chicken noodle soup. Here’s the Blue Jean Chef’s recipe. It might becomes your favorite. I’d serve this soup with hot crusty bread and butter and a quality Riesling wine.
Basic Chicken Noodle Soup
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 carrots, fine chopped (about 1 cup)
2 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 quarts good quality store-bought or homemade chicken or vegetable stock
3 cups shredded cooked chicken
1 ½ wide egg noodles (uncooked)
salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper
¼ chopped fresh parsley
Heat a stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the olive oil and lightly saute the onion, carrot and celery until tender, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme and bay leaf and cook for another minute. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the cooked chicken and noodles to the pot and cook until noodles are al dente, about 6-8 minutes. Remove the bay leaf from the soup, season with salt and pepper, add parsley and serve immediately.
Chef’s Notes: It is critical that you use a good stock. If you don’t make your own, buy the best you can. You might want to buy twice as much stock as you need and reduce it to half its original volume by boiling to concentrate the flavor. You cook the vegetables first to establish the flavor. The cooked chicken you add to the soup can be grilled chicken, pan fried, or baked. Cooking the noodles in the soup will make the soup a little cloudy but will give the noodles more flavor. But the noodles absorb liquid, so the next day when you reheat any leftover soup you may have to thin it with a little more broth. The soup will still be delicious.
(Comfortable in the Kitchen by Meredith Laurence. Walah! Publishers, $24.95).