Easy Chicken Noodle Soup

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The other day I had a craving for chicken noodle soup. Craving might be too strong a word, but I really wanted some soup. In the past few years I have sworn off canned soup. Some of it is philosophic – have you seen the grocery store soup aisle? There are way too many kinds of soup: regular, lite, low sodium, low fat, low carb, bold flavor, extra chunky. It is kind of nuts that we, as a society, have a need for so many kinds of canned salty water with mushy noodles. What does that say about us? Not anything good, I can tell you.

My soup angst aside, I just haven’t enjoyed canned soup in the last few years. Maybe it is my changing tastes, but they all taste too salty, too much of the can and just not right.

I have tried making my own chicken noodle soup many times, but I just wasn’t happy with it. Sure, I have favorite recipes for vegetable soup, chili and bacon turkey chowder, but I didn’t have a chicken noodle soup I was happy with. Until now.

The secret, at least to us, was finding a commercial broth that we liked. I have made my own chicken stock, and it was sublime. But I don’t have the time or the inclination to make my own broth very often. Nor do I have the freezer space to store a ready supply.

I don’t usually tout specific brands on the blog, but I do have to call out Kitchen Basics. I have only tried their unsalted chicken stock, but it was the most flavorful, most chicken-y broth I have found. No weird ingredients either. And it has no added salt, so I can salt my dishes to my own tastes. Gold stars all around. And this is a totally unbiased opinion – I received no compensation from Kitchen Basics for this post. I just like their product.

Once I found a good broth, it was just a matter of including the vegetables I like the best in chicken soup. I started with shallots – every soup needs either shallots or onions. Next, I added a lot of celery because I love celery in soup, and because I love the aroma of sautéing celery. I added carrots, of course. They belong in chicken soup. I finished with a little garlic to round things out.

The noodles are kind of a no-brainer. Pick the shape you like the best. We have discovered (we have eaten a lot of chicken soup lately) that we prefer small noodles that are less likely to flop off our spoons or send hot soup dribbles down our chins.

Now to the chicken. I like to make extra chicken any time we are having roast chicken for dinner. Then I dice it up and freeze it in one or two cup portions. It is perfect to pull out and add to chicken soup, stir fries, fried rice, pasta or pizza. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can buy a rotisserie chicken, or have chicken one night and chicken soup the next, with the leftover chicken.

Our soup was everything I wanted in a soup – flavorful broth that tasted of chicken and vegetables instead of salt, exactly the vegetables we wanted, perfectly shaped noodles and real white meat chicken.

Throw the cans to the curb (in the recycling bin, of course) and whip up your own chicken noodle soup. You won’t be sorry.

Download or print the recipe here.

Easy Chicken Noodle Soup
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Your broth determines if your soup is just good or excellent. Make sure you use a tasty broth, either homemade or commercial. I like Kitchen Basics unsalted chicken stock. I like a lot of vegetables – if you like more broth, use the smaller amount of celery and carrot.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot or 1 small onion, minced
3-4 ribs celery, diced
3-4 carrots, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 cups low salt or unsalted chicken broth (see headnote)
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup small noodles, I used radiatori
1-2 cups cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces

Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart pot over medium heat until shimmering.

Add shallot or onion, celery and carrots. Sauté until slightly browned and tender, lower heat if they are browning too much.

Add garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes.

Add chicken broth. Cover pot and bring it to a boil over high heat.

Once broth boils, lower the heat so the soup is boiling gently and cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Taste broth and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add noodles and boil, covered, until they are al dente.

Lower heat to low and add chicken. Heat just until chicken is hot. Serve hot.

Leftovers keep well, though you may need to add a little water – the soup thickens and the noodles tend to absorb the broth.

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

DSC_0030I took a cheese making class a few years ago. We learned how to make chevre, yogurt, sour cream, feta, cheddar and ricotta. The only cheese I have made since is ricotta. I need to try making other cheeses. Someday.

Cheese is one of those things that is so easy to buy in the store. And regular commercial cheese is pretty reasonably priced, and it can be pretty good. Cheese from the grocery store specialty cheese section and even cheese shops is even better, and still not that expensive.

Ricotta cheese is especially reasonably priced, so it is a toss-up if you want to make ricotta to save money. It is cheaper to make your own, if you are going strictly on the price of ingredients, but you do have to factor in your time.

Homemade ricotta is sweeter and creamier than commercial ricotta. It tastes more like milk than commercial cheese. Is the difference huge? No. Do I make all the ricotta we eat? No. But it is fun to make it sometimes, just to do it. There is something fulfilling about learning how to make a food we usually buy, and then doing it.

We use a lot of ricotta cheese – in stuffed shells, eggplant lasagna and on pizza. Occasionally we use it in desserts and once we used it in breakfast crepes. Homemade ricotta takes these dishes to a whole new level. Some of that might be psychological, knowing that I made that cheese myself. But the cheese does taste fresher and is creamier than commercial ricotta.

The only special equipment you need to make your own ricotta is a candy thermometer and some cheesecloth, both of which you can pick up at the grocery store. The process isn’t complicated and requires no special skills. In just about an hour you can make your own cheese.

Bring out your inner dairymaid and make some ricotta cheese. Buy some milk, block off an hour and get started.

Download or print the recipe here.

Ricotta Cheese
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup, easy to double

You need to use pure salt in this recipe; iodine or other additives can give the cheese an odd flavor. Buy fine sea salt or other salt that is just salt, read the label to check for any additives. I use fine sea salt, which has slightly larger grains than table salt. If yours is finer, use less than ¼ teaspoon. Don’t use coarse salt without grinding it first or it won’t dissolve well.

4 cups whole milk
2-3 tablespoons white vinegar, approximately
¼ teaspoon salt, approximately (see head note)

Special equipment:
Candy thermometer
Cheesecloth
Colander

Pour the milk into a large pot, at least 3 quarts, though bigger is fine. Clip the candy thermometer to the side of the pot and turn the heat to medium.

Fold the cheesecloth in half and line the colander with it. Set it on top of a large bowl that is a smaller diameter than the colander so the colander rests on top of the bowl, or down inside it just a bit. You need height so the cheese can drain.

Stir the milk gently and watch it as it gets warmer. Stir more often as it gets warmer, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Don’t be tempted to turn the heat up – you risk scorching the milk.

Heat the milk it until it reaches 165-180° F. My stove took 15 minutes to reach 165° and 20 minutes to reach 180°.

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When the milk is at least 165°, add 2 tablespoons of vinegar and stir. The milk should separate into white curds that look like cottage cheese, and greenish liquid. The liquid is whey. If the milk doesn’t separate after 1 minute of stirring, add another tablespoon of vinegar and stir for another minute. If you don’t have definite separation after the additional vinegar, add more vinegar, a teaspoon at a time and stir for a minute after each addition. Never fear, it will separate.

Take the pan off the heat and stir occasionally for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, slowly pour the curds and whey through the cheesecloth into the bowl. Pour slowly so you don’t splash – everything is still hot at this point. Let the curds drain for about 5 minutes.

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After 5 minutes, the curds should be drained and look like ricotta cheese. If they still look wet, give them a few more minutes to drain. Scrape the ricotta off the cheesecloth and into a small bowl. There will be about 3 cups of whey in the large bowl. Don’t throw it away – see note at the end for ways to store and use it.

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Add ⅛ teaspoon salt to the cheese and stir. Taste the ricotta. If it tastes salty to you, stop adding salt. If it’s not salty enough, add another ⅛ teaspoon salt and stir and taste again. Add a touch more salt, if it still doesn’t taste salty to you.

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Stir gently for 5-10 minutes. The curds will get smaller and the cheese will get amazingly creamy as you stir.

Congratulations, you have made ricotta cheese!

The whey:
You will have about 3 cups of whey left over. Don’t throw it away. Store it in a jar or container in the fridge for up to a week. Freeze it for longer storage. Use it instead of milk or buttermilk in pancakes, muffins or bread.

Buttermilk Biscuits

When I say, “biscuits,” what do you think about? Maybe the kind the doughboy puts in the can? What if I told you that you could make biscuits from scratch in less than half an hour? You can absolutely do it, even if you don’t consider yourself a baker. Think how accomplished you will feel when you bring your own hot biscuits to the table. If homemade biscuits are old hat for you, take this as a reminder of how good they are and make some soon.

When I was probably eight or nine, Dad decided he was going to learn to make biscuits. He attempted time after time to make biscuits like he remembered his mother making. We always thought they were pretty good, though there was a learning curve – some flat biscuits, and some crunchy biscuits, but we always happily ate them. Somehow Dad’s biscuits became the menu for Sunday mornings. Every week Dad made biscuits, eggs and sometimes sausage or bacon. Later, as we all became more health conscious, we had fruit more often than breakfast meat, but the biscuits were ever present.

Dad usually uses shortening in his biscuits, and so did my grandma. I used to use shortening too, but lately I have started using butter in my biscuits. There is the trade-off between the saturated fat of butter, the trans fats of shortening, or the palm oil they use to make the new trans-fat free Crisco. I am currently trying to avoid palm oil since I read a few too many articles about the rain forests they are cutting down to plant palm oil plantations. Not that my efforts are going to save one scrap of rain forest, but you do what you can live with, right? The long and short of it – you can use butter or shortening in these and they will work just fine.

Dad always bakes his biscuits on two cast iron flat griddles. I have one that he gave me that was my grandma’s (of course there is a story). This recipe makes enough biscuits for two 10-inch griddles, so I use a cast iron skillet for the other half. Or I use my 14-inch cast iron pizza pan. You can always use a regular baking sheet, of course, but if you have a cast iron pan, use it. The cast iron makes the bottoms of the biscuits extra crispy. We coveted biscuit bottoms when I was a kid. I still eat the tops first and the bottoms second, to save the best for last.

Whether you like crispy biscuit bottoms, with butter and honey soaking through, or if you prefer the fluffier middles, make some biscuits soon. And be sure to post in the comments about your biscuit making adventures.

Buttermilk Biscuits
From the Cook’s Life
Makes 9-12, depending on size

1 cup white whole wheat flour*
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
4-6 tablespoons butter or shortening (the larger amount makes a richer biscuit)
¾ cup buttermilk
2-3 tablespoons buttermilk, regular milk or water (if the dough is dry)

*You can substitute all-purpose flour for the white whole wheat if you would rather. You probably won’t need the extra buttermilk/milk/water if you do this.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease a baking sheet or one large or two medium cast iron skillets or flat griddles. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix together white whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda.

Cut in butter or shortening until mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Make a well in the center and add the buttermilk all at once. Mix well, but gently, until dough forms.

If there is still dry flour, add buttermilk, milk or water, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together and there are no dry patches.

Lightly flour the counter or a large cutting board and turn dough out of the bowl. Sprinkle dough lightly with flour and knead it gently, about ten times – fold the dough in half, turn it one quarter turn and repeat the folding, pressing down gently each time. Add flour if the dough sticks to your hands.

Pat the dough into a rough square.

Use your floured hands, or a rolling pin, to pat or roll the dough about ½ inch thick. Use a round biscuit or cookie cutter to cut out biscuits. After you have cut as many biscuits as possible, remove them to the prepared pan.  Place them about a ½-inch apart if you want them to rise together and have soft sides, or farther apart for crispier sides.

Push the scraps together so the cut sides stick together. Gently press the dough together until you have one solid piece again. Press or roll dough out to ½ inch again. Cut out as many biscuits as possible and place on the pan.

Or you can cut the biscuits in squares or triangles and completely eliminate any scraps or the need to re-roll. I sometimes do circles for the first cutting and squares with the scraps, as I did here.

Bake the biscuits for 10-12 minutes, or until the tops are lightly browned and the bottoms are deeper brown. Serve immediately.

Download the recipe here.

Anything but Plain – Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

We have had our share of summer weather all ready this year in St. Louis. I could say that is the reason for writing a post on ice cream, but around our house ice cream is a year-round dessert. We joke that we will wrap up in a blanket if we have to, but we won’t be without our ice cream just because it is cold outside.

Vanilla ice cream from the grocery store can be ho hum, but homemade vanilla ice cream is a treat, plain and simple. I know it is probably sacrilege, but I really prefer the taste of vanilla ice cream made with vanilla extract instead of real vanilla beans. And it is easier too, skipping the step of steeping the milk/cream with the beans. We did have a jar of crushed vanilla beans that I bought eons ago, so I put a tiny bit of that in the ice cream to get the flecks. I don’t always do this and it is totally optional. I also have a jar of vanilla sugar that I keep going, but that is also optional. This is the first time we have used it in our ice cream, and I’m not sure it made much of a difference in the flavor.

As an aside, making vanilla sugar is as easy as putting a split vanilla bean in a container of sugar and letting it sit for a month or so. I periodically replenish the sugar and maybe add another vanilla bean. The flavor is subtle and best for topping fruit, where you can really taste it. Mine might be stronger if I added a fresh vanilla bean more often!

But back to the ice cream – we have tinkered with the recipes that came with our ice cream maker until we came up with the recipe we like the best. We vary it for different flavors, but stick with the same ratio of half and half to sugar. We have tried various combinations of milk, cream and half and half and settled on all half and half to suit our tastes. We also prefer an ice cream without egg yolks, which also makes it a matter of simple stirring to get the mix ready for freezing, skipping the whole custard-cooking process.

Making ice cream our way takes only 30 minutes or so, and 25 of that is the responsibility of the ice cream machine. A few hours in the freezer and you have ice cream. Of course, a little homemade caramel syrup on top isn’t a bad thing, but that is another post.

Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream
from The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1½ quarts

Right out of the ice cream maker, your ice cream will be too soft to scoop. Freeze for a few hours and it will get firmer and scoopable.

2 cups half and half*
1/3 cup granulated sugar or vanilla sugar**
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon ground vanilla beans (optional)
Dash salt

Stir all ingredients together in a medium bowl until sugar is dissolved. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions – ours takes about 25 minutes.

Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and freeze for several hours before serving.

* You can use all cream, which will make a richer ice cream. Half and half makes a creamy ice cream, with a little less fat and without the greasy mouth feel you can sometimes get with all cream.
** Use ½ cup sugar for a sweeter ice cream. But try it once with less sugar and see how you like it. You can also use an equivalent amount of Splenda for sugar-free ice cream.

Download the recipe here.

A word on crumbs

My latest freezer stash: (clockwise from top left) whole grain breadcrumbs, mixed crumbs from homemade pretzel chips and leftover garlic bread, cornbread crumbs

No, not the crumbs on the floor, the counter or between the couch cushions, but your very own, homemade breadcrumbs. Have you ever read the ingredients on the side of a box of seasoned breadcrumbs? If you haven’t, don’t. For a seemingly simple product, the ingredients take up half the box, and some of them are unrecognizable. Homemade breadcrumbs take hardly any time to make, use bread you were going to throw away anyway and taste a thousand times better than anything you can buy in the store.

Start with any bread product you are going to throw away – heels of the loaf no one will eat, bread that is going stale, crackers that weren’t your favorite, homemade bread that was too dense or won’t hold together for a sandwich (you bakers know what I am talking about!) or the last piece of bread in a loaf that gets left because it isn’t enough to make a sandwich. Take whatever you have and break it up into approximately bite-sized pieces. Spread the pieces out on a baking sheet and set it somewhere out of the way for a couple of days, or until the bread is completely dry. Skip this step if you are using crackers.

Once your bread is dry, pulse it in a food processor or blender until you have crumbs. If you don’t have kitchen power tools, put the bread pieces in a zip-top bag and bash away with a rolling pin or meat mallet until you have crumbs. If you know you are going this route, break your bread into smaller pieces before you dry it. Store in a container in the pantry for several weeks, or in the freezer for longer-term storage. Remember, your crumbs don’t have any preservatives. Yay!

Use your crumbs in any recipe that calls for breadcrumbs, from breaded fish or chicken to toppings for casseroles to meatloaf or meatballs. Use your imagination! Be sure to post in the comments what you use to make your breadcrumbs and what recipes you use them in.

Tilapia breaded with homemade cornbread crumbs and pan-fried in a little olive oil. Even picky eater preteen eats this!

The Best Homemade Gift: Marshmallows

Calvin took presents to school for his teachers this week. We sent homemade hot cocoa kits, complete with homemade marshmallows. One of his teachers emailed and asked for the recipe. I have since talked to her and she is intimidated by it. I tried to talk her into it, but I don’t think she was convinced that she could do it.

I have to admit that we were intimidated by the recipe when we first got it. Rich had a co-worker that made marshmallows every year and gave him the recipe. We let the recipe sit on the counter for weeks before finally decideding that we would try it. After all, what was the worst that would happen? We would make a mess and not get any marshmallows out of it.

We were so impressed with ourselves when we finally made them. They worked, we didn’t make a huge mess, and they were spectacular! Nothing like commercial marshmallows, other than they were white. Homemade marshmallows truly leave store marshmallows in the dust.

And let me tell you, they make really impressive gifts. Especially if you make Chocolate-Dipped Marshmallows (recipe follows). Absolutely beautiful in a clear gift bag. And the lucky recipient will be so impressed that you actually MADE marshmallows!

There is nothing really hard about the process, but it is different, especially if you haven’t made candy before. You will need to get a candy thermometer, but you can buy one in the grocery store baking aisle for less than $10. And you will need unflavored gelatin, which is right next to the Jello. Knox is the most common variety, at least in my grocery store. And don’t worry about the mess. When you cook anything with sugar, all it takes is a soak in a sink of hot water and all the sugary mess dissolves away.

If you need encouragement, these melt on top of hot cocoa to form the lightest, most vanilla-flavored foam you have ever tasted. They melt beautifully in an oven s’more (place a graham cracker, topped with a small square of chocolate and a marshmallow on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees in the oven or a toaster oven for a few minutes, until the marshmallow is toasted and melty.) Or they are delicious to just eat. Enjoy! And be sure to post your results when you try them.

Marshmallows
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin (Knox is the most common brand)
1/3 cup cold water
1 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cold water
2 teaspoons vanilla
Cooking spray

Coat a 9 X 13 inch baking pan lightly with cooking spray and line with parchment or waxed paper. Spray parchment lightly and set aside. Spray a sturdy spatula with cooking spray and set aside.

Pour 1/3 cup cold water into bowl of electric mixer. Sprinkle with gelatin, let mixture soften, while you do the next step.

Place sugar, corn syrup, salt and 1/3 cup cold water in medium saucepan. Cover, bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove lid, cook, swirling pan occasionally, until syrup reaches 238 degrees (soft-ball stage) – about ten minutes from the time you turn the heat on.

With mixer on low speed, mix gelatin mixture and slowly pour the syrup down the side of the bowl to avoid splattering. Gradually raise speed to high, beat until mixture is thick, white and has almost tripled in volume, 8-15 minutes. Time will depend on how powerful your mixer is. A handheld mixer will take closer to 15 minutes, a stand mixer like a Kitchen Aid will take less time. Add vanilla, beat 30 seconds to combine.

Scrape mixture into prepared pan and smooth with greased spatula. Work quickly, it gets sticky. Let stand at room temp, uncovered, until firm (at least three hours, preferably overnight).

Turn out on a surface dusted heavily with equal parts cornstarch and powdered sugar. Liberally dust marshmallows with more cornstarch and powdered sugar. Cut into small squares with a pizza cutter.

Store in a zip-top bag, making sure there is enough of the cornstarch/powdered sugar mix to keep them from sticking to each other.  They keep up to 1 month, if they last that long.

Makes about 50, depending on size.

Chocolate Dipped Marshmallows
1/2-1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
12 homemade marshmallows (pick your prettiest ones)
Waxed paper or parchment paper

Melt the chocolate chips in the microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Stir and microwave in 30 second increments until chips are melted and smooth. Brush any excess cornstarch/powdered sugar off marshmallows. Dip half of each marshmallow in chocolate, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl. Gently place on waxed paper/parchment paper and let cool and harden. Peel off paper when hard and store at room temperature, in a sealed container.

Download the recipe here.