Cooking with Calley P: a chicken soup cure-all

Calley Prezzano is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained Chef who has made a career in fine dining cuisine, emphasizing fresh & local products from the area. In this blog for The Nicaragua Dispatch, Chef Calley shares recipes that make cooking in Nicaragua an adventure for all five senses. This week: chicken soup: a tasty panacea

Finally, it’s that time of year when I can comfortably eat hot chicken soup! During the dry season it is just too hot out for this chela to enjoy a hot, midday Monday soup. These midday soups don’t get rid of my hangover, they burn my tongue and make me uncomfortable—and I sweat enough as it is.

It’s chicken soup weather

Now that it’s rainy, I no longer have to let it cool before digging in.

Chicken soup still does wonders in the ways of comfort. I remember when I was rundown working on the isletas and got bone-aching flu, I was brought homemade chicken soup, and it did the trick. It is delicious and nourishing.

Some notes on Classic Nicaraguan Chicken Soup, and what makes it simply oh-so-good.

When to eat it: Mondays. You can eat soup any day of the week, but it’s most popular here on Mondays. There are many reasons to enjoy a Monday soup, but the most effective is that it is a great goma remedy after a weekend of Toñas. I love seeing people on bikes around town carrying pails of sloshing soup to share with their compañeros.

There are two key ingredients that you can’t skip when making chicken soup here: achiote and mint.

Achiote is a chile paste, not too spicy, with annato seed, red chiles and garlic. If available, use fresh achiote paste, from the market—it comes in an unavoidable plastic bag. Anything you find in a jar with be dried out, older and have less flavor.

The best ingredient in a Nicaraguan chicken soup is the fresh mint. It adds a bit of freshness to a slow-cooked broth and brightens the entire dish.

Then, there’s the homemade tortillas. I can’t believe there was a time when I did not make my own tortillas. No fancy press, we use a plastic bag.

homemade tortillas

I like my tortillas like I like my men: warm, thick…and made of corn, and cooked to order. Um, so, while my joke analogy is weak, Nicaraguan tortillas are anything but. Before moving here, I always thought the goal of a tortilla was to have it as thin as possible, just as a vehicle to shuttle guacamole or a thick sauce to my mouth. But with traditional soup, a thicker homemade tortilla is perfect for soaking up the thin broth and adds a chewy, hearty texture to the dish.

Don’t cut the veggies too small. What makes this soup great is big pieces of vegetables. It’s faster than making tiny perfect cuts, and also adds great fun to eating the soup. It encourages mindful eating, because not even I can shovel whole chicken legs into my mouth.

I sometimes use a fork, most often use my fingers, and most always slurp. The flavor won’t change if you cut the ingredients small, but you run the risk of this looking like it came from a can. Wanna-be-chefs: practice your brunoise another day. You are your dining companions can relax and relish the fact that this soup is rustic and homemade.

Sandra makes tortillas

Where to put the rice: if you’re trying to impress, leave your bowl of rice on the side and gently dip into the soup while you eat. Granadinos say only campesinos put rice directly inside in their soup when serving it. So it’s a city mouse, country mouse thing. And Mateo, a campesino at heart, thinks the rice should go directly into soup.

In addition to being a tasty meal, I’ve also been told here that that chicken soup can help us drop the “Gallo Pinto 15”—that extra weight you put on as an expat here.

I had no idea that living in Nicaragua would led to so much weight gain. Apparently eating fried rice and beans three times a day, plus the more-than-occasional tajadas con queso frito, can really help fill a person out. That, and due to my frequent excuses (it’s too hot or too rainy, I’m too tired, or I’m too stressed thinking about how long it’s been since I’ve written my blog), my exercise regiment is lacking, leaving my physical health in a smidge below pique condition.

But have no fear; there is a bright side—one that makes me want all the chicken soup I can ladle. I had a waiter, Elman (who was the man!), a few years back. He explained to me his Nicaraguan philosophy on working out. Before I explain it, let me throw out some facts on Elman: Pillsbury doughboy, loves anything sweet. I had to teach him not to put sugar in the orange juice that we served to guests. Elman’s words of wisdom: “I eat a hot soup midday (during 90 degree weather), which makes me sweat. People who exercise sweat. Therefore, I can eat soup instead of exercising.”

That might be soft logic, but it’s good enough for me. Done and done! To quote Chris Farley, my favorite Gap Girl, “Lay off me, I’m starving…diet starts Monday!”

Classic Chicken Soup

1 whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces (4 breast, 4 leg), skin removed
2 cups of yukon gold potatoes or yuca, peeled and cut into 1” pieces
2 cups ayote, pipian or other squash, peeled and cut into 1” pieces
2 cups of green cabbage, cut into 1” pieces
2 cups of carrot, peeled and cut into 1” pieces
2 cups onion, cut into 1” pieces
2 Tablespoons garlic, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons fresh achiote paste
1 bunch of mint, divided
salt, pepper
steamed rice on the side
thick, large homemade tortillas

1. In a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, brown the chicken in a few Tablespoons of oil. Remove chicken to a paper towel.
2. Lower the heat to medium-low and add all vegetables. Stir occasionally and cook until just soft, about 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Stir in achiote paste. Return chicken to pot and cover with water, about 3 quarts. Add one entire half of the bunch of mint, stems and all. Let simmer until chicken is cooked through and vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
4. Sprinkle remaining mint (leaves only) into soup. Season with salt and pepper. Ladle large helpings of the soup and serve with rice (where you put it is up to you, see above). In my photo, I’ve shredded the chicken. I think it’s best to serve it still on the bone, but chicken bones don’t photograph well (unless they’re posing in the hyena’s lair from the Lion King).

Serves 4-6.

I’ve tried getting locals to add eggplant, or beets, or chipotle in adobo, and just get wide eyed stares of disbelief. They make a good point- this soup is delicious as is! I love experimentation and switching things up, but to break the rules, you’ve got to know ‘em. This soup is the epitome of comfort!

Calley Prezzano was classically trained in San Francisco, California. She has cooked in Michelin Star Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the founding Executive Chef of Jicaro Ecolodge in Granada, Nicaragua. She is the founding Executive Chef of La Finca y El Mar Restaurant in Rancho Santana in Tola, Nicaragua. (www.lafincayelmar.blogspot.com, www.ranchosantana.com,www.probablycooking.blogspot.com

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