Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chicken and Homemade Pasta in Fresh Tomato-Basil Soup

I should create a new feature here: We grew too many tomatoes this year and can't figure out what to do with them! That was the main inspiration for tonight's dish... use some of these tomatoes without resorting to making tomato sauce or a big salad that is all tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers (which is good with the right dressing -- red wine vinegar and oil, 1:2 ratio, a little seasoning salt, a little fresh herbs chopped up fine, and a tiny dash of sesame oil... wow -- thanks Uncle BAM). I also wanted to try something pretty minimalist.

Besides that, I did have a desire to try again to get shaved pasta (刀削面, dao xiao mian) right. Honestly, I did a little better by making the dough a bit more dry, but it was still too moist in the middle. That gave me a bit of a stir because it was just, just, just wet enough to really come together, so I'm going to have to fiddle with it more. I might have to add a dough conditioner like baking powder, but I'm certain JB didn't. Thus, I know it needs not be done to achieve a good result. Because all of my pictures are starting to look the same (stew-ish stuff cooked in a wok with the picture positioned in the upper left and very small), here's a photo of the finished product, larger and centered and stew-ish and in a wok. Mmm... it looks good.
chicken and homemade pasta in fresh tomato-basil soup with dao xiao mian or 刀削面What got me about this is that the noodles were actually more delightful to eat than the chicken was (even though it was good breast meat -- thighs probably would have been better). My favorite part, though, was the soup, which I drank straight from the bowl unashamedly after eating most of the stuff out of it with a fork. Here's how it went, feeding the whole family (myself, my wife, and two teenaged blond monkeys):

  • A pound and a quarter of boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into three-quarters-inch cubes or thereabouts;
  • About four or five medium cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped finely;
  • Half a sweet onion, chopped;
  • About five good-sized fresh tomatoes, cut into pieces roughly the same size as the chicken (some of mine were red; some were yellow-orange);
  • Probably what came out to 12 good-sized basil leaves, cut in a chiffonade (sounds fancy but is easy, see below or here);
  • Three leafy sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped;
  • About a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil;
  • A healthy dash of red wine vinegar;
  • Salt to taste.
  • Two cups of flour worth of fresh shaved pasta (see the link for the recipe and process), cooked in salted water and drained.
First, I started boiling some salted water for the pasta because that takes a long damn time. Once that was on the fire, I made myself a cup of tea to sip on and chopped up the garlic. Then I made the pasta dough, setting it aside to rest and await my knife and hopes for a good outcome. Once that was done, I chopped up the onions and chicken, getting the oil hot in my wok (because it would kind of double as a stew pot and frying pan while allowing me to use a lid) about midway through, using medium-high heat and not letting the oil get to smoking. When everything was cut up and the pan was hot, in went the chicken and onions. I salted them lightly and let them cook a bit to get the chicken to "brown" a little on all sides. While that happened, I cut up the tomatoes, adding first the garlic and then a healthy splash of red wine vinegar when I figured the chicken had cooked enough. When they were cut, I added the tomatoes and salted them, and then I covered the wok, leaving all as it was until I heard it sounding quite vigorous in there. Then lowered the heat to just below medium and went out to pick the herbs from my garden. Upon returning with the herbs, I washed them and chopped them up, basil first, waiting on the parsley. To chiffonade the basil, stack up the leaves, roll them up into as tight a roll as you can, and then slice them thin, horizontally. I added the basil when it was cut, stirring and re-covering the wok at that point. That's when it started smelling crazy good, so I added just a bit more vinegar to pump the acidity (see below for an important note on this). At that point I chopped the parsley and then cut the pasta (and pinch-pulled about half of it) into the pot of now-boiling water, let it cook, and drained it. At that point, I put the cooked noodles into the tomato-basil soup and mixed everything around, checking the seasoning and acidity. After about another minute, I turned off the heat and added the chopped parsley on top. Serve in a bowl. Yum.

If I had it, there would have been freshly grated parmesian (reggiano, of course) or some other delicious dry, hard cheese. I didn't have any, but it would have been fabulous. Also, I think subbing out the chicken and subbing in beef (or, dare I dream, lamb) would have been excellent beyond measure in this dish.

The special note: Acid and fat offset one another to a certain degree in food, particularly soups, because oil is rich and acid cuts through richness. So... to make soup like the soup you pay $8+ a bowl for, you need to understand and capitalize on this. Your soup, to be $8+ a bowl, needs richness, so you need a decent amount of good-quality fat in there like e.v.o.o. or butter. Since this soup was not a bisque, I used olive oil. You'll need acidity to perk that up and cut through the fat (so your soup doesn't taste more like gravy). I used red wine vinegar and the natural acidity of tomatoes here, but balsamic vinegar, wine, beer, white wine vinegar, hot sauce, apple cider vinegar, etc. are all good for the purpose. You want to develop a taste for when the acid-fat balance is appropriate and aim for that routinely. Usually it means using more fat than you think you want in a soup and then waking it up with a little vinegar. Just remember the one and only "rule" (as far as I'm concerned) in cooking: you can always add, but you can never take away. Incremental is a good method to keep from screwing this up, let me tell you. Your gallbladder and "...but I don't like vinegar" center will thank me.

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