Saturday, January 12, 2013

Chicken Cheddar Broccoli Soup

I love winter.  Actually, I really love all four seasons, especially in regard to their food-related qualities.  But now it's wintertime, and I'm appreciating the cold season's uniqueness.  While I absolutely love snow, and I love the winter holidays, and I love how things seem to slow down and allow more time for reflection and renewal, I also LOVE winter food. 

Soups, stews and chilis just taste better when the air outside is crisp.  A mug full of chocolately-sugary-creamy-coffee goodness fits with a warm blanket, cozy pajamas and a good book like a hand in a glove.  But only in the winter.

I have to confess.  I start looking forward to winter eating months in advance.  The first cold day of the season (you know, the one that happens smack-dab in the middle of fall marked by winter-haters complaints about what's to come) is celebrated in my house with a pot of something warm and filling and yummy.  Usually a beef stew, sometimes a chili. 

A few weeks ago, I was itching to try something new.  I had received an e-mail from one of our local farmers about what would be available that week.  Through the winter, our town doesn't have a formal farmer's market, but several farmers use an e-mail list to keep folks informed of greenhouse or other offerings they have available each week.  Inspired by farm-fresh, locally-grown broccoli and carrots available in December, I began dreaming up a homemade cheddar broccoli soup.

As I began thinking of more and more vegetables to add, I realized my husband would likely look in the pot and -- as much as he likes a can of cheddar broccoli soup for lunch -- ask, "where's the meat?"

Instead of coaxing him to try a bite, which I was confident he would love, I decided to skip that whole conversation and add chicken. 

I threw all the yummy, complimentary foods I could think of together in a pot and the result was finished off at a church potluck the next day.  Below is a recipe that very closely resembles the foods I used and process I followed that day.  (I did do some minor tweaking as the original result had too many peas for my taste, and also, the seasonings are a best guess on my part.  I love seasonings and dump a variety in until I get the taste I'm looking for.)

As always, feel free to use your favored brands and products and experiment, add, and change the recipe however you'd like.

Hope this helps warm you up on a cold evening!

3/4 lb to 1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts (or more or less to your liking)
32 oz chicken broth
1 pint half and half
3-6 carrots
3-5 celery stalks
broccoli florets from 4-7 heads of broccoli (I used A LOT of broccoli, but feel free to use less for your recipe)
1 cup frozen peas (I used a whole bag - it was too many)
1 box velveeta cheese (medium size box... maybe 16 oz... not the little box, not the really big box)
shredded cheddar and other cheese blends
1 teaspoon ground ginger (optional)
1 tablespoon chicken boullion granules (optional)
2 teaspoon garlic (optional)
1 teaspoon house seasoning (salt, pepper, garlic mix, optional)

Put chicken and broth in a pot and bring to a boil.  While chicken is cooking, shred carrots and add to chicken.  Finely dice celery and add.  Chop broccoli florets to a very small size (I use very little of the stalks and stems) and add.  After 20-30 minutes, remove chicken from soup and chop or shred as desired.  Return chicken to pot. 

Continue to boil/simmer veggies until they are desired consistency.  I like mine very tender -- almost like "vegetable mush." 

Add half and half.  Cube velveeta and add to pot.  Add desired seasonings to taste.

If you'd like it a little more cheesy, add shredded cheese blends.  I added two additional cups of shredded cheddar (what I had in the fridge).

Variation:  This can be converted to a chicken pot pie recipe...
Increase the amount of chicken and veggies, decrease the amount of half and half and cheese.  The result will be a thicker consistency.  Pour into a casserole dish, and top with a prepared biscuit mix (such as Bisquick's garlic cheddar biscuit).  Bake in oven until biscuits are done. 

This is also a good recipe to freeze as a make-ahead meal.

Easy as pie

Whoever coined the phrase "easy as pie" wasn't a pie-maker, I've decided.  Maybe that person meant easy as eating pie.  I've been making pies for a little over a year now and I don't really think it's very easy.  Maybe the inventor of the phrase was just being sarcastic.

Even though pie-making is intimidating and difficult to me, I do enjoy it.  I think that's because I see it as a challenge, and because I feel as though I've witnessed a small bit of magic when a pie turns out well.

My first venture into pie-making came last summer as I was spending the day with my mom.  I had just moved back from Kansas and made it a point to spend at least one day a week with her until I found a job.  (As an aside, I later learned that she was praying at that time for me to remain unemployed so we could continue spending that time together.  A week after she quit praying for my unemployment I had an interview and the week after that an offer for the position I currently hold.  True story that has nothing to do with pie.)

We usually cooked on these days together and on this particular day I had a lemon meringue pie on my mind.  I was craving the tartness and wanted the satisfaction of creating it myself (or at least partially myself).

My mom was game and said she thought the cornstarch box had a recipe for lemon meringue pie.  I was sure we would need to make a trip to the store, but mom thought she might have everything we would need.  Still skeptical, I began naming ingredients.

As I said each ingredient she would pull it out.  Finally, sarcastically, I said, "do you have the zest of one lemon?!?!"

She walked over to the freezer, opened it up, and pulled out a small zip-bag of lemon zest.  "Yep.  I always save the zest when I get lemons because you never know when you'll need it."

Well played, mom.  She earned a new level of respect from me that day for her frugal and saving ways.

The pie that day turned out deliciously.  It was not only my first pie, but my first pie crust and my first meringue.  (For full disclosure, I have never been able to make a perfect meringue without my mom's help, special touch, magic or whatever it is she contributes to the pie-making process.)

That experience gave me more confidence to begin making more pies, and I encourage everyone to take the time to try making a pie from scratch.  No promises on the easy-as part.

The recipes I've used are readily available on the internet or other public sources.  As I mentioned earlier, the lemon meringue was taken from a cornstarch box (Ginger Evans brand, I think).  Whether the recipe calls for it or not, I usually use a homemade pie crust.  Mine is taken from a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, but is fairly basic.

Here is the coconut cream pie recipe I use.  This is also my go-to recipe for whipped cream. 

The pumpkin pie recipe I use comes from Paula Deen.  I love spices, so I punch up the richness of the added cream cheese with extra cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, ginger, all spice, nutmeg, etc. 

I've been looking forward to apple pies or other fruit pies, but just haven't taken the time to try any of those yet.

Feel free to share your pie recipes, experiences and thoughts.

Happy pie-making AND pie-eating!!!