Chicken noodle soup is a nostalgic dish for many–maybe a dish that brings back memories of a parent or grandparent lovingly preparing it, maybe a dish that soothed what ailed you. To me, it’s one of the most comforting foods when I’m not feeling well. My mom made it for me as a child, and most recently, a couple of girlfriends helped me prepare it after I got my wisdom teeth removed. It’s an uncomplicated dish that doesn’t require much skill or time in the kitchen. I usually add what I have on hand, or what sounds most soothing; sometimes ginger, sometimes fresh dill or basil, sometimes a rich parmesan broth. This recipe uses leeks, a mild onion relative that appear at the market in spring. It also has lemon juice and zest, which add brightness to an otherwise plain soup, and sweet potatoes or butternut squash for a little sweetness. Feel free to add or subtract based on what’s available to you, and check the variations below the recipe for suggestions.
A few notes: if you already have cooked chicken, skip the initial steps and add it at the end. You can use water or broth, just be sure to add enough seasoning if you’re using water. Leeks often have naturally occurring grit (they do grow in the ground, after all), so be sure you rinse them well. I like to split them in half lengthwise and rinse in cold water, gently spreading the layers to help get the dirt out. Try to cut the vegetables as evenly as possible so they cook evenly. I prioritize getting organic lemons when I’m using the zest.
1 pound boneless chicken breasts and/or thighs
2.5 quarts water or chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter or oil
2 cups diced leeks
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced sweet potato or butternut squash
3 cups dry pasta
juice and zest of 2 lemons
Place chicken and water/broth in a large pot (chicken should be covered by liquid) and bring to a boil. Simmer until chicken is just cooked through, usually 10-15 minutes. Remove chicken and set aside. Strain cooking liquid and set aside.
In a large, clean pot, heat butter or oil over medium heat. Add leeks and a big pinch of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in remaining vegetables and cook for another 3-5 minutes or until they soften, adding more fat as necessary. Pour in reserved chicken cooking liquid/broth, increase heat to bring to a boil. Once boiling, add pasta (and salt if you used water initially). Cook 1-2 minutes shy of recommended cooking time.
While the pasta cooks, shred or chop poached chicken. When pasta is ready, reduce heat to a gentle simmer and add chicken, lemon juice and zest. Simmer until chicken is thoroughly reheated, then remove from heat and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve hot with desired garnishes (see below for ideas).
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge.
Herbs: a few of my favorites are dill (fresh or dried), basil, tarragon, or chopped celery leaves (not technically an herb, but close enough).
Ginger: add minced, fresh ginger with the vegetables at the beginning, or stir in freshly grated ginger with the lemon juice at the end. This is especially soothing if you have an upset stomach.
Parmesan: make a parmesan broth (with or without corn) with leftover rinds and use in place of chicken broth to add richness to the soup. Alternatively, you can stir in some freshly grated parmesan into the soup when you serve it.
Pasta + grains: I typically prefer fusilli, rotini, or some sort of twisted pasta, but just about any shape will work. A whole grain or gluten free pasta works just as well. Sometimes, I want the heartiness of grains, like brown rice, quinoa, farro, or barley. If the grain takes more than 15 minutes to cook, I will cook it separately so the vegetables in the soup don’t get mushy.