A recipe challenge to help you get whole grains into your mouth,
not just your kitchen.
It’s winter, this old house is cold, and my bones need a bowl of chicken soup. Nothing warms the soul like an elixir of pullet. I usually make chunky veggie chicken-soup, skipping rice or noodles. I don’t like having a starchy cloud hide my carrots and celery and onions, and I love seeing chunks of shredded chicken floating in a clear broth. But ever so rarely I toss in something for filler, and since I promised my friend Amy that this would be the year of living grainy, I decided to test a few whole grains and see which ones I felt could inhabit my soup without muddying the waters.
Since I’m determined to grain my kitchen without driving to Timbuktu, I went to my local grocer. The grain selection was surprisingly good, including the usual Bob’s Red Mill line-up, and a few less familiar brands, mostly imported from Central and South America. I grabbed pearl barley, millet, and wheat bulgur. I had eaten barley and bulgur before, but wasn’t sure what they would do to my soup. Millet was new to me, I only knew it as a component of suet for feeding birds in the winter and hoped that this was actually a culinary-worthy variety. On my way home I decided to stop at the natural foods store to see if I could find a grain that would expand the experiment, something I had never heard of…oat groats (little whole oat nuggets, not your mama’s sliced flakes) seemed to fit the bill.
Armed with grains, and no idea how they would work in the soup pot, I needed a plan. I make my soup stock exactly like Leah (she has a perfect explanation in her post from last week describing the technique so I hope you take a look at it). The only difference for mine is that I cook my chicken with the vegetables for one hour or until the chicken is just done, then remove it from the broth. After it cools, I debone the chicken reserving the meat, and throw the entire carcass, bones, cartilage, skin and all, back into the broth to simmer for another hour or so. That way I get maximum flavor for the broth, but still have succulent pieces of chicken for my soup. After straining the broth, I leave it on a back burner and keep it warm over a very low flame until I am ready to combine my soup ingredients.
A previous life in a research lab taught me the necessity of experimental controls. So I settled on a single method for cooking all four grains. I decided to cook them in a four to one ratio of chicken broth to grain with a healthy pinch of sea salt until they had reached what seemed to me a toothsome texture, whatever that might be for each (you can see by my fudge factor why I abandoned my research career). That seemed like enough broth to make sure that none of the grains cooked dry before they were finished cooking. In separate pots, I combined the grains with warmed broth, set all four to a simmer, and after 20 minutes gave them a taste. The millet seemed cooked but sort of dry on the throat, the barley was still too chewy, the bulgur was nearing the texture I would use for a grain salad but still too firm for soup, and while the oat groats were becoming gelatinous and plumping up like oatmeal they were still undercooked. I decided to give them all another 20 minutes simmer.
Halfway through cooking the grains I cut up fresh carrots, celery, and onions, tossed them in olive oil, and put them in the oven to roast at 400 degrees for about half an hour. Roasting increases the flavor and keeps them from getting as mushy as they might if they were cooked in the broth. With the veggies roasted and the grains cooked, the ingredients were ready to be merged into soup. I placed a serving of each grain in a separate bowl, added veg, chicken, and hot broth, and gave each a pinch of sea salt and a grind of black pepper. Then I folded the ingredients together and gave them a taste. Now for the results…(drum roll)
At the half cooked stage, the millet seemed dry to taste. But by the time it was ready to be combined with the rest of the soup ingredients, the grain had transformed, almost bloomed like a flower. The individual grains had opened up revealing a soft plump center that was extremely toothsome. Surprisingly they did not fall apart but instead left the broth nice and clear, the way a beaten egg cooks in broth, clumping together without clouding the broth. The millet was delicious in the soup, complementing the flavors perfectly. The next day it tasted even better. This grain may become my new chicken soup standard.
Much as you might expect, pearl barley kept its shape throughout the cooking. It was silken on the tongue and gave a little crunch under tooth. It was an interesting other texture in the soup, totally different from the chicken, carrots, celery, and onions. The flavor was definitely present, being a bit nutty. I liked this soup a lot, but it was a whole other animal than my normal chicken soup. Now I must confess that pearl barley is not rightly a whole grain – both the hull and the bran are removed. I plan to repeat the experiment with whole grain barley, barley that has been only hulled, and not divided from its bran. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
The bulgur never became a texture that I felt could work for chicken soup. It went from the slightly dense texture I would use for a cold salad to goo, with nothing in between. No matter how much broth I added, the bulgur absorbed the liquid, returning it to glue. Flavor was nice, but the texture was way too gelatinous for chicken soup. Think I will save this grain for recipes where it can shine.
At the halfway point, the oats seemed gummy and definitely not a candidate for a cloud-free broth. But by the time they were cooked, the oat groats had a fantastic flavor. Cooking in the chicken broth brought out the savory side of the grain. It combined extremely well with the chicken and vegetables, lending a great taste to the broth. It made a very thick soup, hardly the clear chicken broth I was after, but so delicious that we had it for breakfast the next morning. I think I will tinker with oat groats in some other soup combos. I think they would be fantastic with leeks. I’ll let you know about that, too.
RECIPE: PARMIGIANINO MILLET CHICKEN SOUP
I save the rinds from Parmigiano-Reggiano just for use in soup and risotto. After a wedge of cheese has been grated down to the hard rind, I double-bag it and store it in the freezer. When cooked, the rind melts into the broth giving it a terrific creamy flavor. Before assembling a soup or risotto I remove any small portion of rind that hasn’t melted into the broth. At this point it is soft and creamy and you can indulge in a private chef’s reward or cut it up and toss it right into the dish as a chewy treat for each serving.
- 8-10 cups homemade chicken stock, warmed
- 1 Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind, 3-4 inches long
- 1 cup millet
- 4 carrots
- 4 stalks celery
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup fresh spinach, kale, or other green, torn into pieces
- 2 to 3 cups chicken, deboned (reserved from cooking stock)
- sea salt
- ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Reserve 3 cups of the chicken broth. Add the cheese rind to the remaining chicken stock in a large stockpot and bring to a simmer. The Parmigiano-Reggiano chicken broth can simmer gently on a back burner while you prepare the grain and vegetables.
In a saucepan, warm the 3 cups of reserved broth. Add the millet, and bring to a simmer. Stir gently every ten minutes to prevent sticking. Cook 35 to 45 minutes or until the millet grains ‘bloom’ and become soft.
While the millet is cooking, cut carrots, celery, and onions into bite size pieces, about 1/2 inch. Toss and coat the vegetables in the olive oil. Spread on baking sheet and place in preheated oven to roast for about 20 minutes, or until just cooked, but not mushy.
Once the millet and the vegetables are ready, remove the cheese rind from the broth. Add the fresh greens to the broth and give it a stir. Add the roasted vegetables to the pot and give them a stir. Finally, add the millet, giving the pot another stir. Adjust seasoning with sea salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Let everything simmer together for 10 minutes to combine flavors.
Any remnants of the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind can be kept soft in some of the hot broth until ready to serve. Cut it into small chunks and add to the bowls.