Recipe: Chicken Soup with Red Italian Rice
I love colored rice. I’ve cooked with the firm, pitch-black Forbidden rice from China and the deep red, short-grained variety from the French Carmargue. These are startlingly beautiful foods with deep flavors. Italian colored rice didn’t figure into my cooking until very recently, I think because I tend to focus on Southern Italian flavors, and rice is a northern crop. Ignoring it was a big mistake and very snobby on my part.
On a recent browse through gustiamo.com, my favorite online Italian food import shop, I fixated on several new offerings of darkly colored rices from Pacifico Crespi, an old, rice producing family in the Piemonte. Like the perfect lipstick shade I’ve just set my eyes on, I had to have them. Venere Nero (black Venus) cooked up a beautiful dark purple and smelled divine, like toasted wheat or popcorn. I used it to make Black Rice with Shrimp, Guanciale, and Rosemary, but then I forgot about the bag I’d ordered of Rosso Integrale, a red variety (really a rich mahogany color), until yesterday, when I was hunting around in my pantry for something glamorous to add to a chicken soup. There it was, waiting, in its tight, air-sealed package, looking like a bag of garnet chips. I cooked some up, and the aroma was wheaty and commanding.
Good chicken soup glistens with a shimmer of golden chicken fat. I like mine to taste rich and deep, with no eccentric edges of lemongrass or searing hot chili, so I fashioned it on the mellow side, adding some diced butternut squash, carrot, vermouth, sage, lots of fresh black pepper, and the gorgeous mahogany rice from Piemonte. The nuttiness and crunch of the rice disturbed the soup’s mellowness in a subtle way. It looked and tasted like a mild winter night, which was exactly when I served it.
A really easy chicken broth:
I know most people don’t really want to hear this, but the key to a good chicken soup is a good chicken broth, which usually means one that’s homemade. Lately I’ve been making an excellent broth using the picked-over remains from a roasted chicken—either one I’ve roasted myself or a good one purchased from a decent grocer that uses free-range birds. Ideally, for the best flavor, the carcass should have a little meat left on it. I just crack the thing into a few large pieces and stick it in a pot along with whatever soffrito and herb ingredients I’ve got hanging around—usually a carrot, some type of onion trimmings, celery leaves, parsley leaves, thyme, fennel fronds. I drizzle in a little olive oil and sauté everything for a few minutes, and then add a splash of Marsala or white wine, letting it boil away. Next I just cover the bones and whatever meat I’ve got there with water and put it on a lively simmer, uncovered, for about an hour and 15 minutes. Strain, and there it is, ready to use or freeze. Add salt and pepper now, or wait until you want to use it. This usually makes about three cups of medium-strength broth. You can boil it down to concentrate it if you like, making it more convenient for freezing.
Chicken Soup with Red Italian Rice
¾ cup Italian red Rice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 ¼-inch-thick, round slice of pancetta, cut into small dice
3 whole chicken legs
1 large leek, well cleaned and cut into small dice, using only the tenderest green part
2 small carrots, cut into small dice
1 celery stalk, cut into small dice, plus a handful of celery leaves, lightly chopped
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
About 5 thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
5 sage leaves, lightly chopped
A few big gratings of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup dry vermouth
1 quart of homemade chicken broth
1½ cups butternut squash, cut into small cubes
A few drops of good red wine vinegar
Put the rice in a small saucepan and cover it with about 4 inches of cool water. Add some salt, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat down to a medium simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the rice is just tender, about 30 minutes (the package says 40 minutes, but I found that with this method it was ready after 30). Drain the rice, and set it aside.
In a big soup pot, drizzle in the olive oil. Add the pancetta, and sauté over medium heat until crisp. Add the chicken, the leeks, carrot, celery and leaves, and garlic. Sauté until everything is fragrant and just starting to brown a bit. Add the thyme, sage, and the nutmeg, and season with salt and black pepper.
Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for a minute or so. Add the chicken broth and about a cup of water. Bring to a boil. Now turn the heat down and simmer, partially covered, until the chicken is tender, about ½ hour. Take the chicken from the pot. Add the butternut squash, and let it cook, uncovered, until tender, about 6 or 7 minutes.
When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat and add it to the pot, along with the rice. Heat gently for about 3 or 4 minutes, just to blend all the flavors. Skim the top of excess fat and gunk. Add a few drops of the vinegar. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt or black pepper if needed. Serve hot.