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Chicken Chili Soup

March 9, 2009

My grandmother was a fabulous cook. An adult in the early 1900’s, pre-war, in Austria, she cooked with methods long overturned in favor of modern conveniences. She used cast iron that she painstakingly seasoned herself. The fat component in her recipes was often lard (gasp dramatically, if you will – lard! – but my grandfather lived to be 92, and died of old age, not clogged arteries).

My mom humbly claims the talent has skipped a generation, but make no mistake, she has her moments. Her mock turtle soup has a special sumthin’ sumthin’ that makes me close my eyes and sigh every time I take a bite.

My favorite cold-weather soup of hers, however, is her Chicken Chili Soup. And before winter bids a long-awaited adieu, I wanted to share it here. This recipe is highly customizable – you want more heat, add more chili powder. Or a hotter chili powder. Or chopped chilis. Want it thicker? Add more chicken, or stir in a couple tablespoons of flour after the aromatics saute. This recipe tastes fab with chicken breasts. But know what? It tastes fab with economical boneless chicken thighs.

I always prepare it just like my Mom, though. Perfection. Skipped generation, schmikipped generation.

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Chicken Chili Soup
  2 lbs chicken breasts or thighs, trimmed
    Salt and Pepper
  2 Tablespoons canola or vegetable oil, divided
  1 Tablespoon butter
  2 cups celery, chopped
  1 1/2 cups onion, chopped
  4 cloves garlic, minced or put through a press
  8 oz fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced (try crimini mushrooms – they’re nice and meaty)
  1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  1 teaspoon dried basil
  1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  2 Tablespoons chili powder
  1 cup chicken broth
  1 Tablespoon sugar
  1 bay leaf
  1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
  (2) 15 oz cans tomato sauce
  (1) 14 oz can diced tomatoes
  (1) 16 oz pkg medium pasta shells (or your shape of choice)

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a saute pan over medium heat, until shimmering. Sprinkle both sides of chicken pieces liberally with salt and pepper (for an extra kick, use chili powder). Add chicken to pan and cook until heated through to 160 degrees in the thickest part, flipping once halfway through. Remove to plate, and set aside. When cool, slice or pull into 1 inch pieces.

Heat the butter and remaining oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering. Add celery, onions, and garlic and cook until soft and translucent, about 8 minutes.

Add the mushrooms, stir and cover until mushrooms give off their liquid (5-10 minutes). Remove cover and add the herbs and spices. Stir gently until fragrant (about 3 minutes).

Add chicken broth, sugar, red bell peppers and bay leaf. Stir to mix. Add tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Allow to cook for 10-15 minutes. (This is a good time to check the cooling chicken for handleability. If cool, get to work; if it’s still too hot to handle, the soup can simmer until you’re ready.)

Add chicken and pasta. Return heat to medium. Cook until pasta is al dente (about 15 minutes). Remove bay leaf, serve, and bask in the accolades of your loved ones. If they’re not too busy eating to talk, that is.

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