I was probably seven when she gave me my first cooking lesson. Caroline lived in Manhattan in a small studio apartment on 110th Street near Amsterdam, around the corner from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She slept on a pull-out bed that folded back into a sofa. Her kitchen was the size of a small closet.
My grandmother was a good cook. Mainly she served classic Jewish dishes. Boiled chicken, matzo ball soup and gefilte fish were some of the dishes I remember her making. When she taught me how to cook, she emphasized thrift. Nothing should be wasted. Not a drop nor a scrap should be thrown into the trash.
When she made scrambled eggs, after I cracked open the egg, she taught me to run my finger around the inside of each half of the shell to remove all of the egg white. When I accompanied her to the grocery store, we would shop at several until she found the best price for whatever it was she needed.
Those lessens are ingrained into my cooking-DNA. Which brings me to lunch last week.
My friend Dean and I tried Pollo A La Brasa (764 S Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90005, (213) 387-1531), a well-known fast-food, rotisserie chicken, Peruvian cafe in K-Town (Koreatown west of Downtown LA). We ordered quarter chickens (a thigh and a leg) and chose as our two sides white rice and black beans. Each plate cost less than $8.00.
A giant rotisserie filled up the back wall of the cooking area. More than forty whole chickens fastened on spits, rotated above a blazing wood fire. A thick sheet of glass to keep the smoke out of the dining room raised and lowered when the cook removed a chicken.
When our food was ready, we carried the plates back to the table. The sweet aroma of the wood fire lingered on the charred skin, beautifully flavored with a mix of dry spices. We tore pieces of moist dark meat off the bone and mixed them into the rice and creamy beans. When we needed more spice, the giant squeeze bottles of green and red salsa on the table were nearby and each plate of food was accompanied by a small container of pico de gallo. The tiny bits of tomato and chilies added a fiery top flavor.
All of this is to say, lunch was fantastic. This was our first time at Pollo A La Brasa. We will return!
But that isn't the point of this post. Not entirely.
The point is this. When we had finished our meal, Dean still had rice on his plate, along with the bones and skin of the chicken. If my grandmother Caroline had been with us, she would have said to Dean, "Take that home and make soup."
Since she wasn't there, I gave voice to her long-ago lesson. I asked for a take-away-box, scooped up what he hadn't eaten and we headed back to his house.
Just so you know, my friends and family are used to this behavior from me.
I take home sourdough bread from restaurants to make bread pudding, croutons and oven roasted bread crumbs. If we are invited to Thanksgiving at a friend's, I'll ask if I can take home the turkey carcass to make stock. If my wife, who is mostly a vegetarian, orders a roasted vegetable plate at a restaurant and she doesn't finish everything, I'll take that home to make a vegetable soup or stir fried vegetables with rice.
Dean always laughs at my "odd" behavior. This time I wanted to show him how to transform restaurant left-overs into a delicious second meal.
At his house I showed him all we needed was 4 cups of water, the chicken bones, two leaves of black kale, two scallions and one shiitake mushroom.
The bones simmered for ten minutes to create the stock. The vegetables sautéed in a small amount of olive oil in a second pot. We added the stock to the sautéed vegetables and simmered on a lower flame for ten more minutes. We added a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To complete the dish, we placed a mound of the cooked white rice into the center of a bowl and poured in soup and vegetables. Dean tasted his soup. "Wow," he said, all smiles. "That's good."
And, there it was, a lesson in how to Eat Twice.
The restaurant had done half the cooking, providing steamed rice and smoke infused chicken that we turned into stock. We had added a few fresh ingredients and created an entirely new dish that borrowed flavors from the first but became it's own meal.
Easy. Frugal. Delicious. Grandmother Caroline would have been proud that her grandson learned her culinary lesson so well.
Chicken-Vegetable Soup with Rice
You can prepare this dish from scratch using raw chicken by first roasting the chicken pieces in a 350F oven for 45 minutes. Allow the pieces to cool, then remove the meat and reserve to make chicken salad, pasta with chicken or shred and add to the soup and rice.
The cooked chicken you use can come from your own kitchen, in which case this is a strategy for repurposing left-overs.
The recipe is for one serving. If you have more bones or left over pieces of chicken, then the serving size will increase accordingly and the other ingredients should be increased proportionally as well.
Instead of kale leaves, you may use any greens you enjoy. A cup of washed spinach leaves, Savoy cabbage or Swiss chard leaves, roughly shredded would be good.
You can also add corn, carrots, celery, roasted tomatoes or grilled Japanese eggplant.
For this dish, we used the rice from our meal. We could as easily have used cooked pasta in the soup.
Yield 1 serving
Time to prepare: 5 minutes
Time to cook: 20 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
1 cup chicken bones and skin or bones from 1 thigh, 1 leg and 1 wing with skin
4 cups water
1 shiitake mushroom, washed, pat dried, stem end trimmed, thin sliced
2 scallions, root end trimmed off, washed
2 kale leaves, washed, center stalk removed and discarded, roughly shred the leaves
Pinch of sea salt to taste
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Cut off the green part of the scallions. Slice the white part into 1/2" lengths, set aside. Roughly shred the green part.
Use two pots. In one combine the chicken bones and water. Bring water to a rapid boil on a high flame. Reduce the liquid by 1/3.
In the second pot while you are making the stock, heat olive oil over a medium flame and sauté the scallion green parts, shiitake mushroom slices and shredded kale until softened not browned. Set aside.
Place a small strainer over the pot with the sautéed vegetables and add the stock, capturing the bones and skin in the strainer. Pick through the bones for any bits of chicken meat. Add the meat to the stock. Discard the bones and skin.
Add any additional chicken meat if desired. Simmer the stock with vegetables 10 minutes. Taste and season as desired.
To serve, place a mound of cooked rice on the bottom of a bowl and pour in hot soup and vegetables.