Last week, I cooked for a dinner party. We had roast chicken, stuffed with farro and chestnuts, a thick reduction sauce made from its drippings, and a crisp winter salad with shaved vegetables not including one stray fennel bulb that had gotten lost in the refrigerator. The next day, I simmered this soup on the stove with the remnants of the night’s meal. We had gone to see the Nutcracker, and this was our pre-show feast. I dare say that the meal — like that famous Christmas tree that grows big, big, and bigger in the ballet — morphed into something unexpectedly awesome overnight. It all just came together in beautifully orchestrated harmony.
I’m not sure if Tchaikovsky would appreciate his elaborate ballet being compared to a humble, peasant-style soup. But you don’t need to have glitter and tutus to impress the palate with food. You just need a few good ingredients — and one leftover roast chicken’s carcass is king when it comes to making soup. I’d never thought of letting slivers of fennel dance around in the bowl like snowflakes on a stage before this iteration of chicken soup before, but it was a fine adaptation.
The fennel works in three ways in this soup, actually: its stems were chopped up to sweat along with onions and carrots as if it were celery; its white bulb was thinly sliced to poach in the soup (and dance in it), and the feathery, green fronds were snipped from the tips of the plant as a finishing, ever-so-fragrant garnish. If you like fennel, here’s one way to use it bulb to frond.
Of course, there were leftover bits of chicken meat clinging to that carcass, which were picked off before it was roiled down into stock. They didn’t even need a chop. And the leftover farro, a whole grain with a nutty flavor and chewy bite, was an earthy substitute for rice, or noodles. A lot of my friends and myself, too, have been coming down with all sorts of cold and flu symptoms lately, so it was with a hearty slurp that I finished off the last bowl of this soup today. I think it, like most soups, tastes better the following day, and should make you feel better in due time, too.
So here’s one way to make a roast chicken dinner do a little encore. It’s not the pas de deux, but if I had to name it, it’d be the Waltz of the Farro.
Chicken Soup with Fennel and Farro
(makes 4-6 servings)
carcass and about 1 cup picked meat from a roasted chicken
1 fennel bulb
1 large carrot, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
few sprigs of fresh thyme and/or sage, gathered with kitchen twine in a bouquet garni
2 bay leaves
1 cup cooked farro (or 1/2 cup uncooked)
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Set aside picked meat from chicken carcass. Place carcass in a large pot and fill with enough cold water to just cover. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Let cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, skimming the scum that rises to the surface. Strain out the solids and discard.
In a medium-large pot or Dutch oven, cook the onions, carrots, garlic, and the green stems of the fennel bulb, chopped, in the olive oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and cook on medium-low heat about 8 minutes, or until softened. Add the bouquet garni of fresh herbs and the bay leaves, and all the reserved chicken stock (about 5-6 cups). Add the cooked or uncooked farro, and the picked chicken meat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let cook uncovered for 30 minutes (or a bit longer if using uncooked farro until it’s tender). Trim away any rough or discolored patches from the outside of the fennel bulb and slice into thin slivers. Add to the soup about 15 minutes before serving. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the bouquet garni and bay leaves before serving. Garnish each bowl with fennel fronds.
(for 4-6 servings)
1 roasted chicken carcass with about 1 cup picked meat (from a 3 lb chicken at about $10): $3.00
1 fennel bulb: $2.00
1 cup cooked farro: $1.00
1 carrot: $0.30
1 onion: $0.40
2 cloves garlic: $0.20
few sprigs thyme (from houseplant): $0.25
2 tablespoons olive oil, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper: $0.50
Three brownie points: We all know that chicken soup is good for the body and soul, but this one is really good for your fiber, too. The fennel bulb and stalks, while very flavorful, provide fiber, potassium and Vitamin C, and the farro, a heart-healthy whole grain, have lots of fiber and protein as well. Also, it will fill you up at a more steady rate than refined flours as found in noodles, making you feel satisfied for longer.
Eight maple leaves: I like returning to the same farmers I’ve used for certain products or occasions year after year; in the case of Christmas (or holiday-time) dinners, I like buying from Vermont’s Tamarack Hollow Farm, and they had delicious pastured chickens this year. (The previous three or four years I’ve bought their incredible maple-cured hams.) Along with those, this recipe only needs a few winter produce items that can be found at most any farmers market, like the onion, carrot, herbs, and fennel bulb instead of celery, and the whole grains were found from Upstate’s Cayuga Organics, making this meal (and its predecessor) truly local in scope. Extra points for stretching out the ingredients to make the most of them the next day.