Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rick Bayless's Caldo de Pollo Ranchero

Caldo de Pollo Ranchero
A perfect fall soup, garnished with Thai purple basil and asiago! (Con permiso!)
The homemade tortillas were NOT successful, but make for attractive styling.  Besides, that's what chilaquiles are for!
I believe that the designation of "ranchero" in the Mexican kitchen means "ranch or farm style" in the sense that the dish is simple and rustic and could easily be prepared to serve a crowd of ranch hands at the end of a hard day's work. Rick Bayless's Caldo de Pollo Ranchero is as much chicken soup comfort food as any mom's could be, and it's a wonderful dish for early fall when summer vegetables are available but on the wane and the temperatures start to drop.   Indeed with the last corn, green beans, and summer squash for the year, this soup was my kiss goodbye to summer 2011.

Just in case I may have thought my uppity self in charge of that determination, Mother Nature weighed in giving Washington, DC and the whole northeastern part of the country this past weekend an abrupt taste of what's in store for winter.  An October snowfall that was a dusting in the city, left greater accumulations out toward the Shenandoah and up to a foot of snow in northern New Jersey where my mother lives and left tens of thousands of north-easterners without power for Halloween!  Of course, no wintry mix is going to deter yours truly from hitting the farmers' market.  Indeed, since attendance was so sparse, my 12:00 saunter down to the market revealed to me what I've been regularly missing out on: an abundance of offerings that are usually seen only by the pre 10 am folks!

I loved Rick Bayless's Mexico: One Plate at a Time and the PBS series that featured the recipes. It was a rather highly scripted production with Rick starting the episodes in the U.S. and then seeming to bop down to Mexico to put the food in context and then heading back home to complete the preparation. Rick really wanted to teach the genius of la cocina Mexicana, not just demonstrate a bunch of recipes adapted for the American palette. For that reason, his cookbook is not necessarily for weeknight meals (though there is Mexican Everyday), depending on the recipe. Usually I reserve a Sunday afternoon to embark on one of his culinary adventures, and the result is always worth the effort.

However, the reason I went to this dish for lunch following my market trip was that 1) I didn't have to make my own chicken stock as the first step and 2) I had leftover roasted chicken as well as braised cabbage and carrots from the previous night's dinner that simplified the preparation that much more.  In fact, the recipe I'm presenting here is surely an adaptation of Rick's because I used what I had on hand, which is not what is in his list of ingredients in all cases.   I've embarked on the soup to nuts preparation, usually when I've been away from my own kitchen but since we're talking about making chicken soup, it's certainly enough to capture the spirit of the recipe, especially when one's main goal is to get something hot and delicious on the table on a cold day.  Surely it's hard to go wrong here if you're using what you like/have on hand.  If you'd like, please compare my truncated version to the whole enchilada, which is blogged about over at The Gluttonous JD, a Chicago law student with a passion for all things food.

My mental image of how this dish would have been eaten has a bunch of men in cowboy hats sitting around a fire and being served up bowls of this soup in enamel coated metal bowls. Because the chicken meat is not torn from the bone and the corn is not cut off the cob, you might have to eat this dish with a fork, knife, AND spoon plus your hands. For eating indoors or with company, you might want to tear the chicken off the bone and cut the corn off the cob, but of course that is up to you.

Incidentally, the importance of sharp knives was brought home when I was cutting the kernels off the cob for this soup.  My usual tip is to prop the husked piece of corn on one end and cut corn off part of the cob that is touching the board, then flip the cob over and cut off the rest of the corn.  This usually results in less corn on the counter and more on the cutting board.  However, the cause of corn flying all over is actually very simple: the knife is dull.  Now you may have just given the blade a few swipes on the sharpening steel, which is helpful and hones the blade, but it's not nearly as good as getting your knives professionally sharpened.  I got all three of my Wusthof knives sharpened for free at Sur La Table during an October promotion, but the normal price is just $1/inch, so for less than twenty bucks I could have had this done years ago!  The knives are almost scary sharp.  They cut through onions, tomatoes, baguettes, etc. like a dream.  With minimal pressure, the knife will slip into whatever's being cut and then the weight of the blade does the rest.  Those corn kernels fell neatly to my cutting board like I've dreamed of, with nary a one on the counter.

So what follows is my simplified  adaptation of Bayless's Caldo de Pollo Ranchero.  Please refer to the The Gluttonous JD if you'd like to make your chicken stock from scratch to start this recipe.  Otherwise take a little help from the store and use a rotisserie chicken and prepared chicken stock to get this recipe going in the fast lane.

Caldo de Pollo Ranchero
adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexico: One Plate at a Time

2 quarts of chicken stock
into a five to six quart soup pot and bring to a simmer over medium to medium high heat.  As the liquid comes to a simmer, add
1 large onion, finely chopped (reserve a quarter to half a cup for garnish if you're OK with a raw onion garnish, otherwise put all the chopped onion into the pot)
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram (I used a teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme (again, I used about a teaspoon)
1 pound of tomatoes, half inch diced (I've also used a 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes with their liquid in a pinch)
1 pound of small new potatoes, halved or quartered to be of uniform size (I used about a pound of assorted small red, purple, and yukon gold potatoes halved and quartered for a very attractive presentation)
2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut into half inch rounds and
kernels from two large ears of husked corn.
2 teaspoons of kosher salt and
fresh cracked black pepper to taste and
simmer for about 25 minutes until the potatoes are tender.  Then stir in
half inch cubed pieces of cooked chicken (skinned breast and/or dark meat if you have it) and
1 cup of chopped, blanched green beans (I also had leftover half a head of braised cabbage that I added as well).  Let simmer for a few minutes then taste and adjust the seasonings of salt.
Garnish as you please with
chopped scallions, chopped onion, sliced rings of jalapeno, chopped cilantro, queso fresco, etc.  (I went very nontraditional and used purple basil, pickled jalapeno, and fontina, pictured above.)
Buen provecho!

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