A delicate, nourishing and deliciously creamy elixir containing not a drop of cream, avgolemono soup is one of my all-time favourites. This traditional Greek soup is often eaten at Easter; 'avgolemono' means, literally, 'egg-lemon', and is one of a family of similar sauces eaten throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Because it's thickened and enriched with eggs and fresh lemon juice, it has a tendency to curdle in an instant, but I have found that adding a little cornflour to the mix helps to stabilise the soup and create a beautiful silken texture.
Purists may well throw up their hands in horror, but purists would serve this right away, without reheating it. I need a soup that can be made in bulk and reheated for family meals, however, and have settled on a version that - thanks to the cornflour - reheats very well on both stovetop and in the microwave oven. If you follow the proportions below exactly, always reheat it exceedingly slowly, and never let it boil, you are assured of a perfect result every time. (When I told my friend Michael, a Greek himself and a purist of note, that I add cornflour to my avgolemono, he barely batted an eyelid, and told me that many a Greek housewife does the same.)
If you're sick, or feeling out of sorts, or just a little downhearted, this is the soup for you. It's like a ray of sunshine in your belly.
I am rather sentimental about this dish, because it's the very first soup I ever made. My mother had a wonderful book called Soup Beautiful Soup by Ursel Norman (published in 1976 and now, sadly, out of print) and its vibrant recipe illustrations (by her husband Derek) really fired my imagination as a young cook.
I like this soup with chopped fresh parsley, but you could add dill, chives, chervil, or any other delicate herb. It's not strictly necessary to add vegetables to the broth - a chicken simmered in water will do - but I think a good stock adds a great depth of flavour.
Chicken, Rice, Egg and Lemon: My Flop-Proof Avgolemono Soup
For the stock and soup:
one whole free-range chicken, trimmed of excess fat
two and a half litres of cold water
a few fresh parsley stalks
an onion, peeled and halved
2 carrots, scraped and roughly chopped
a bay leaf
a large sprig of thyme
a thin slice of lemon, peel on
a big pinch of salt
3/4 cup (190 ml) plain Tastic rice
For the egg sauce:
3 large free-range eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons (30 ml) cornflour [cornstarch]
1 tsp (5 ml) finely grated lemon zest
the juice of a large lemon
finely chopped fresh parsley
Cover the chicken with the cold water, add the remaining stock ingredients (excluding the rice) and bring to the boil. Simmer for an hour and ten minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the stock and chicken to cool slightly. (Or you can cool them overnight.)
Skim off any fat, strain the stock into a big bowl and discard the flavourings. Take the flesh off the chicken, pull it into flakes and shreds with your fingers and set aside.
Measure out exactly two litres of the stock, strain it again back into the pot and add the uncooked rice. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes, or until rice is cooked.
In the meantime, beat together in a large bowl the whole eggs, yolks, cornflour, lemon zest and lemon juice. Beat until well combined and slightly frothy. Set aside.
Tip the reserved chicken pieces into the simmering broth and allow to heat through for five minutes. Turn the heat under the soup to its very lowest setting. To the bowl containing the eggs, add four to five ladles of hot chicken broth - one at a time, and gradually - whisking gently all the time. Now pour the egg mixture back into the broth and stir well over an exceedingly gentle heat. Don't allow to boil, or the soup may curdle. Season generously with salt and pepper (a pinch of white pepper is very nice) and stir in a handful of freshly chopped parsley. Serve immediately.