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Monday, 23 December 2013

Chicken soup (Κοτόσουπα)

I used to cook mainly with plant-based foods, and there wasn't much meat in our meals. Meat was left for the weekends, with maybe a mince dish in the middle of the week. But that's not working much these days - the children are growing fast and they seem to want to eat much more than they ever ate before. Not only that, but I can tell that they want to eat more meat. I started adding chicken to many of our meals just for them, which they appreciated. As they grow older, they are also more open to eating a wider variety of dishes, which means I am freer to cook more creatively.

Last week, when we were all feeling very poorly due to the cold weather, I made the kids their first chicken soup. In many countries, chicken soup is a staple meal for winter, cold weather and sickness. But soup has never been regarded as a 'proper' meal in Greece, and the main kinds of soup made by Cretans were never really very satisfying (they were generally very smelly, and terribly boring-looking). Fish soup is still widely popular, but it's a smelly business. Chicken soup is much less hassle - and it is really cheap to make, now that we can buy chicken backs.
I've been buying chicken backs for a while now. We are still lucky to be able to get the necks too. In more developed countries, the necks are no longer sold because they are used in the food industry to make canned/frozen/bottled stock. In Crete, I have yet to find ready made stock - and it doesn't sound like something I would want to buy anyway!
In pre-crisis Greece, chicken backs were thrown away - literally. Anyone who wanted to cook for their pets (like I did) could pick up chicken backs (with the necks attached) for free from the supermarket. I used to do this all the time. Not only that, but I would cook them, remove the meat and add it to chicken pie or a stir-fry, and voila, I would be feeding the family cheaply (the dog would eat the bones, and some rice/macaroni cooked in the broth, if I didn't need the stock for making pilafi or soup).
An old photo, dated 25/3/2011 - discarded supermarket chicken backs, turned into dog food, stock and pie meat. What made me feel embarrassed to blog abut this photo was that I would be called stingy, cheap, μίζερη. But that was simply other people's mistaken perceptions - I was simply ahead of them when it comes to survival skills. I suppose they know this now - I had a feeling people would eventually see things my way...

I would never tell anyone what I did (I am only telling someone now, by writing it) but I don't understand why my compatriots would attach so little importance to food that was fit for human consumption. They had no idea of the true value of something that they were paying for. In fact, I couldn't understand a lot of things about pre-crisis Greece, but those days seem to be over. Greeks seem to be understanding the rest of the world better these days, and trying to catch up with the way the modern world is going - showing compassion, sympathy and solidarity with poorer people. One could say that we are now living in the post-crisis period. This suggests that 'the crisis' is over, and in essence, it is: Greeks are now learning to live within their means, they accept their new reality, and they know there is no going back to the past:
"The crisis is changing Greece for the better, he told me. The bloated, clientelist public sector that employed unqualified people in return for political support, is being reformed. Greeks are learning to live within their means. Tax evasion is no longer accepted. A new culture of solidarity has emerged: a feeling of "we are all in it together". There is even a spirit of entrepreneurialism being born. It is, he said, a painful transition - but a necessary one. Psychiatrists talk of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe Greece, which has known much grief, is edging towards the final stage. I meet far more now who tell me that if they could choose between going back to 2004, when Greece basked in the Olympics and European football victory and felt wealthy - or now, pushing on, out of all this - they would take the latter. The realisation has dawned that pre-crisis Greece was an illusion: it was a party which just had to end."(Mark Lowen, 23/12/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25431288)
We need to remember what kind of crisis we are talking about - the state of the economy may still not be good, but the real crisis was never the economy: it was in the Greek identity.

My chicken soup was based on the ingredients list in the BBC link. I tweaked it a bit to make the soup more suitable to my family's taste. The whole family loved this soup, even my husband, who thought he'd had enough of chicken soup in his youth (I can imagine what his mother was making - it was never as good as my version), and cheap chicken while he was serving military duty.

You need:

a few glugs of olive oil
2 roughly chopped onions
2 finely chopped sticks of dark green Greek celery (it resembles lovage and is far more common than regular celery as it is known in western countries)
2 roughly diced carrots
2-3 boiled potatoes
4 chicken backs with necks attached
salt and freshly ground pepper

Boil the chicken backs in a medium pot with plenty of water with the potatoes till the meat is very soft and close to falling off the bone. While the pot is boiling, heat the olive oil in a pan or pot and add the carrots, onion and celery. Saute till slightly softened.

When the chicken is ready, remove the chicken backs and potatoes from the stock. Strain the stock clean. When cold enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones EXCEPT the necks, and add to the strained stock. Add all the cooked vegetables, including the potatoes, broken up into chunks. Now puree half the soup in a blender. Pour the blended soup back into the pot with the rest of the soup and mix well. Add as much water as needed to fill the pot. Mix everything till well blended. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve in individual bowls with a chicken neck for decoration.

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