One of the first sentences I ever learned in Spanish was “Me encanta comer, pero no me gusta cocinar” (I love to eat but I don’t like to cook).
That was years ago in college, when I had my head stuck in computer science stuff and my friend was majoring in foreign languages. And like any good guy with an eye to the future, I tried to pick up as many language skills as I could, because … well, you never know. And this particular sentence had more chance of actually being used than the French one I learned which began with “Voulez-vous coucher…”
I didn’t realize at the time that it could become a life philosophy. (The eating/cooking one, not the sleeping one.)
Like I said, I love to eat. And it’s autumn, which means I’m more inclined to experiment in the kitchen on cloudy, grey Saturday afternoons. Three months of salad can put you in the mood for some warm comfort food. So, I decided to let my mad kitchen skills fly, and see what warm luscious thing would magically come out.
Soup is easy stuff. Pick a protein (by which I mean “meat”). Cook it up a bit in a skillet or your soup pot first to “brown” it (and to prevent from poisoning yourself with salmonella), then chop up some of your favorite veggies. For soups, that usually means the “holy trinity”: onions, celery, and carrots. Throw them all in a pot, add a liquid of some kind (the boxed chicken-, vegetable- or beef-broth from the supermarket always works well — and it keeps in the cupboard for a LONG time, meaning I have a greater chance of actually using it). And then you throw in whatever seasoning appeals to you. If you’re earthy, you throw in oregano, thyme, basil — or that Simon & Garfunkel stand-by, “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”. Or, if you’re authentically a bachelor, you may just settle for the generic “Italian herb” mix we all have in our spice racks. If you like things jacked up the thermometer a bit, some red pepper flakes, chili pepper work great, or just dump in some tabasco or Cholula sauce. Umm, nice! And then you gotta add some kind of carb. Everyone’s got rice in their cupboard, so that’ll work fine. Couscous is cool too, but I don’t know many bachelors who keep that in stock. I had a little quinoa in my cupboard leftover from another culinary experiment a while back (it’s a South American grain, so it would fit the theme, right?), so I decided to throw that in with some rice. Waste not, want not, right?
Nothing magical about it. You don’t gotta be a rocket scientist or a Food Network chef. Just willing to experiment.
So today was my day to play. It was chilly outside, so soup appealed to me. And, I gotta admit, I love the smell of something good simmering on the stove filling the house. I looked in my freezer and pulled out some chicken breast tenders. Easy. Threw them in the microwave for a minute or two to thaw (yeah, I can hear the real cooks groaning already), then cut them in bite-sized pieces. Hey, when you’re impulse-cooking, who has time to let things thaw naturally? (“Planning?” What’s that?)
A friend had posted something on Facebook about chicken and jalapenos (cuz I have foodie friends), so that sounded good. But I don’t normally keep jalapeno peppers in my fridge. But I do keep canned green chiles on my shelf, and that would work just fine. Not as spicy, but maybe even more flavorful in its own way. And the rest is history …
What you need
½ pound chicken breast tenders — thawed in whatever way is convenient (and safe) for you
1 medium onion, any variety — I’m an onion fan, so I used both sweet yellow and red onion (and yes, they are both in my fridge)
4 stalks of celery — hey, these are great just to have in your fridge for any “health food” occasion
Handful of shredded carrots (optional) — leftover from the salad-days of summer
1 green pepper — more salad stuff
1 small can of roasted green chiles (4 oz) — or feel free to substitute a few fresh chopped jalapenos if you’re that adventurous
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, chopped or pressed — guys, a “clove” is a segment of the garlic bulb, not the whole bulb itself. (just sayin’)
1 cup rice, pasta, couscous, quinoa — whatever works for ya
2 boxes of chicken broth (32oz each)
A little salt
A little cumin — it’s the secret spice (herb?) that makes everything “Mexican” tasting
A few dashes of red pepper flakes
And a small fistful of fresh cilantro, chopped — another secret herb for a “Mexican” or even “Middle Eastern” flavor
Then just do it
Cut the chicken tenders in bite-sized cubes, and throw into a pot or Dutch oven thing. Add a little oil in the bottom of the pan to let ‘em brown without sticking. Margarine will work just as well. Shake some salt on them just to add a bit of flavor.
When the chicken is cooked and nicely browned on the outside, toss in your onion, celery, carrots, garlic, and green pepper with a little more oil, and sauté for a few minutes until they soften up a bit and pick up some of that great chicken flavor.
Then dump in your chicken or vegetable broth. That’s your basic soup, so now just add seasoning to your taste: maybe a bit more salt, a few shakes of red pepper flakes for kick, and sprinkle in some cumin (if you’re the anal type that needs measurements, start with ½ teaspoon).
Bring to a simmer, a low boil. Then pour in your rice (or quinoa or …). A lot of people will save the chopped cilantro for the bowl, almost as a garnish. But I love cilantro, so I want the flavor to cook into the broth. If you’re like me, now is the time to add the cilantro to the soup.
Then just let it simmer for a while, stirring occasionally, till the rice is cooked and absorbs some of the broth, and that wonderful smell saturates everything in your living room.
Flip on the TV, watch a football game (if you’re not me) or something on Netflix (if you are like me), and enjoy your Mexican-style chicken soup. You made it. You should be proud of yourself. Enjoy!
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.