Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2018

With the first snow comes the first soup, which this year was the leftover matzah ball variety (from here) if you count what I ate last night, but if you look at the first soup I made as summer drew to a close, on a rainy August evening with the slightest of chills in the air and a sniffle tickling my nose, it would be this one instead:

I saw avgolemono soup on the menu of a Greek restaurant at least three months ago by now, and it caused an immediate craving for a chicken soup with the brightness of lemon. I went home to poke around online, and made a chart, as one does, comparing recipes (here, here, here, here, and here) based on cups of broth to number of eggs to tablespoons of lemon juice to amount of rice/pasta cooked or uncooked to come up with what felt like the right ratio to me. A few decisions off the bat. I wasn’t going to make my broth from scratch (no surprise there). And I wanted to use up the ground chicken in my freezer rather than poach a breast or two or pick up a rotisserie bird. Finally, since I didn’t have any already-made leftover rice or pasta, I wanted to make it in the soup rather than dirtying another pot.

In my reading, I think it was actually this recipe, I came across the fact that avgolemono – derived from the Greek words egg (avgo) and lemon (lemono) – is thought to have Sephardic Jewish roots. So, now we’re going down a little etymology and history rabbit hole, as one does. As I love to do.

Ready?

Hold on tight.

Let’s let the late Gil Marks and his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food be our guide (with a little citrus help from Dr. Dafna Lanngut).

It all started in Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean with immature unripe grapes, stomped into juice and used to flavor dishes without the sharp acidity of vinegar. Using these unripe grapes is a lesson in economy, turning the byproduct of necessary pre-harvest thinning of the wine vines into something of value. In Spanish, the juice was called agraz, but you may know it better by its French name, verjus (vert = green, jus = juice), or Anglicized verjuice.

It was particularly popular among Jews in Spain because they used it to make agristada, a thick, creamy – but non-dairy! – sauce to be used with meat. The creaminess comes from cooking egg yolks in liquid (broth and verjuice). The acidity helps prevent the eggs from curdling. Eventually lemons replaced the verjuice, but even without its namesake ingredient, the name agristada stuck.

As for those lemons, the local Jews had a religious attachment to citrus because they needed to cultivate etrogs (citrons, also thought to be the mother of all citrus) for Sukkot, and so they cared for the neighboring lemon trees as well. In fact, only in enclaves of Mediterranean Jews could you find any citrus during the 500 or so years when the genus otherwise left Europe with the fall of the Roman Empire. (Why did citrus leave? I’m guessing it just died out because of general chaos that came with lack of organization and infrastructure. It could also be related to the fact that it was viewed as more status symbol than food with its tough thick skin and ambrosial scent. I’m not sure, but I’ve got to stop digging up facts somewhere, so it’s going to end. right. here.)

By the teens, when the Moors came to the Iberian peninsula bearing more citrus – reintroducing lemons along with oranges, pomelos, and limes – the Jewish community was poised to expand their growing and increasingly lucrative horticulture and trading business. In the face of greater supply and nearby access, the Jewish community incorporated lemons into their diet. Using it in agristada also solved the seasonality issue of agraz whose stores were typically depleted by Spring, resulting in long months of faux verjuice made from sorrel or gooseberries or crabapples until the late summer vines were again ready for pruning.

Then along came the Spanish Inquisition and Iberian Jews spread out all around the Mediterranean, bringing their agristada with them, which is how it is believed to have arrived in Greece. The Greeks called this sauce avgolemono, translating the ingredients. Eventually it morphed into soup, as the sauce was added to broth at the last minute to thicken it, and that soup somehow became synonymous with Greek cuisine.

Among Sephardic communities, the egg-lemon combo goes by many names, not all of which I’ve been able to capture here (but you can bet I tried, drawing on the pantheon of Jewish food writers whose books line my walls, a subset of which are now piled on my coffee table, sofa, desk). The sauce is still frequently called agristada, particularly among Sephardim who ended up in the Levant or the Balkans, and who serve it with fried fish on shabbat. It’s also used where hollandaise might be, especially over asparagus. In Arabic, it’s beida b’lemouneh (“egg in lemon”) and also served on shabbat at Syrian tables. In Ladino, it’s salsa blanco; in Italian, brodo brusca or bagna brusca (brusca = tart or sour); in Turkish terbiye (“seasoning”). The soup itself? The Greek avgolemono has stuck, but in Thessaloniki/Salonika where the Jewish population spoke Ladino, sopa de huevos y limòn prevails.

The dish is also associated with Yom Kippur in the Eastern Mediterranean and within families who moved from there. Poopa Dwek writes that the velvety sauce made with chicken broth is served next to the roasted bird at the Yom Kippur pre-fast meal due to the abundance of poultry after the traditional kapparot ceremony, in which one transfers sins to a chicken before it is slaughtered. And Greek and Turkish Jews break the fast with the creamy, tart, filling soup.

Call it what you will, but if you’ve made it this far with me, then you might as well make the damn soup. And if you see a sign that says EAT ME, then so you shall.

Avgolemono soup

Adapted largely from Bon Appetit – but without the work of making broth from scratch. The soup thickens overnight in the fridge because of the starch so you may need to add water when reheating any leftovers. 

Most recipes call for shredding the chicken from the broth or a rotisserie, but I sautéed ground chicken with onions and lemon peel at the beginning to give a lot of chicken-y flavor without hours of simmering. The peel trick to up the lemon ante came from Cook’s Illustrated via Girl and the Kitchen who clearly has an account with them.

Instead of more traditional orzo or rice, I used p’titim, also known as Israeli couscous, a misnomer as it’s actually little pasta bits (the name translates roughy to “little crumbles”) just like acini de pepe (“small parts of the pepper”) or Sardinian fregola (“little fragments”). If you have leftover rice or orzo or other small pasta, reduce the amount of stock by about 2 cups and add the cooked starch after you’ve tempered in the eggs, allowing everything to gently simmer for another 10 minutes or so to heat it all up. If you want to go all low-carb, I’ll bet there’s a way to sub in riced cauliflower – you won’t get the same creaminess that the starch gives the soup, but I’m sure it’ll be good nonetheless. If you try it out, let me know. 

The only remotely tricky part of the recipe is tempering the eggs to avoid scrambling them. This means whisking a hot liquid very gradually to a cool/room temperature liquid, and then whisking the resulting warm liquid very gradually back into hot liquid. But, seriously people, worst case scenario – you mess it up a little bit and find a few scrambled egg curds floating around in your soup. No one will care. Or, at least, I won’t. So you might as well invite me to dinner.

Makes 2 1/2 quarts

– 2 T olive oil
– 1 onion, finely chopped
– 3-4 lemons for peel and to yield 6 T fresh juice
– 1 t kosher salt (or more, to taste)
– 1 lb ground chicken (or turkey)
– 1 C Israeli couscous (or other small pasta or rice)
– 2 quarts chicken stock (I used it straight from the box)
– 3 large eggs
– for serving: freshly-ground pepper, olive oil, and lemon wedges (dill is a traditional Greek garnish, so if you have some, snip and sprinkle a few fronds for authenticity and a dash of color)

Sweat. Cover bottom of a large Dutch oven (at least 4 quarts) with oil and heat over low. Add onions, large strips of peel from one lemon (use a vegetable peeler and count how many strips as you’ll remove them later), and half a teaspoon of salt. Stirring frequently, sweat onions without letting them brown for 10 minutes until they are yellow-tinged and translucent and the lemon peels are even brighter yellow than before and are nearly translucent as well. Remove the lemon peels and throw out.

Cook. Turn heat up to medium and add remaining half-teaspoon of salt and ground chicken, breaking the meat up with a spatula or wooden spoon into chunks no larger than marbles. Keep cooking until opaque, about 3-5 minutes.

Boil. Stir in Israeli couscous and broth, and increase heat to high. When the broth comes to a boil, lower heat to medium, partially cover, and cook the couscous for 12 minutes (or follow directions on whatever pasta/rice you are using).

Whisk. While the pasta is cooking, in a medium bowl whisk the eggs and lemon juice until foamy and no streaks remain. Place the bowl on a kitchen towel so that it won’t move while you’re tempering.

Temper – keep whisking. Reduce heat to low once couscous is done, and remove about a cup of broth from pot (it’s OK if some couscous or chicken comes along for the ride). Whisk the eggs vigorously and start adding hot broth one tablespoon at a time until the eggs start to warm, and then slowly drizzle it in a steady stream – don’t stop whisking – until fully incorporated.

Temper again – still more whisking. Now, gradually add the warm lemon-egg-broth mixture back into the hot soup – again starting with tablespoonfuls and then a slow, steady stream – whisking the soup continuiously the entire time.

Serve. Taste for salt, adding a few pinches if necessary. Ladle into bowls with a swirl of olive oil, a grind or two of pepper, and lemon wedges for those who like to pucker.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: