Avgolemono Soup

March 14, 2009

Before embarking on my fabulous career as a freelancer and obscure blogger, I worked at a multimedia production company at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Newbury Street in Boston. I ate lunch at Steve’s Greek Restaurant at least every other week in order to get my gyro or souvlaki fix. One winter day I tried something different: the avgolemono soup. It became my new winter favorite, even though it was more of a chicken and rice soup with a hint of lemon.

I figured I might be able to make my own version with a more pronounced egg and lemon flavor and considerably less rice. A bit of research turned up a recipe in Cook’s Illustrated, which I have now committed to memory. It’s my go-to soup in cold weather; I make it more than I do chicken noodle. (Dumpling noodle soup is an up-and-coming second place contender.)

It’s a simple recipe with very few ingredients:

Mise en place

2 quarts of chicken stock (I used homemade), 1/2 cup of rice, 2 whole eggs plus 2 more yolks (room temperature), 2 lemons, 4 crushed green cardamom pods, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of saffron, and 1 bay leaf.

While I waited for the chicken stock to boil, I peeled the zest from 1 1/2 of the lemons with a vegetable peeler, taking care to make a shallow cut so as not to include too much of the bitter white pith.

Peels

I added the peel, rice, cardamom, bay leaf, saffron, and salt to the stock, reduced the heat to medium , and let it all simmer.

Simmering

During the simmer, I juiced 1 1/2 of the lemons, enough to get 1/4 cup of juice. Once 20 minutes passed, I reduced the heat to low and removed the spent peels, cardamom pods, and bay leaf. I whisked the eggs until combined, then whisked in the lemon juice.

The secret to this recipe is tempering the eggs. If you added the egg/lemon mixture directly to the soup, it would curdle from the heat. If, however. you gradually add small amounts of the soup to the eggs, whisking the entire time, you gradually raise the temperature of the mixture, which prevents curdling. The starch which has been released from the rice into the soup also acts to prevent curdling.

Tempering

(Whisking photos provided by special guest She Who Must Be Obeyed, channeling Doc Edgerton.)

I added the tempered egg mixture back into the soup.

Watch your temper

I stirred the soup for about five more minutes over low heat until it thickened. It’s very important not to let the soup come to a simmer, or it will curdle despite all of the precautions. If you stir for too long, the soup thickens to a gravy-like consistency. (My mother-in-law discovered this when reheating some leftover soup. She proceeded to use it as a topping for mashed potatoes.)

You can top the soup with sliced scallions or chopped mint leaves, but I mixed a teaspoon of sweet paprika with 1 1/2 tablespoons of melted butter and swirled it on top.

Final plate

This is what I always expected the soup to taste like: eggy, but with a pronounced lemon flavor. In addition to deepening the color, the saffron deepened the flavor, as did the cardamom.

I’ve tried other variations of the recipe, substituting 2 whole cloves (or 2 cinnamon sticks and a pinch of cayenne) for the cardamom. You can also add 12 ounces of cubed chicken breast to the simmering stock along with the rest of the spices and rice to make a heartier dish.

Give this one a try. You’ll add it to you “keeper” list immediately.

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