I like soup all year round and applaud its various personalities. Thick soups are substantial and warming; brothy soups are restorative and soothing; chilled soups are refreshing and invigorating.
And then there is chicken noodle soup, a constant comfort, loved by young and old. Every culture makes one and all have their virtues. I was raised on the kind from a can; it came with the territory. But one must grow up, and any lingering nostalgia for canned is easily trumped when a tastier homemade version becomes available.
Now is an ideal time for chicken and noodles to swim in a bowl. This version is inspired by a soup I had in Japan one cool April evening many years ago. Traditional Japanese cuisine is always attuned to the natural cycles. Food is meant to mirror the season, nourishing both the appetite and the senses.
Mine is by no means authentic, but it has the feeling of spring, which is exactly what I was after. It is light and delicately flavored and features the season's tender new offerings: young leeks, peas and spinach.
As homage to the original vernal theme, I flavored this one with a bit of ginger and garlic, a splash of mirin and soy and a soupçon of white miso to finish. For noodles, I used earthy buckwheat soba. I didn't make it to my local Japanese grocery, though, so instead of snipped shiso leaves to garnish, I used basil, which provided an analogous sweet, sharp brightness.
It would have been easy to use traditional dashi for the broth, but I chose to forgo it. I craved real chicken broth; and besides, I wanted to prove a point. The chicken needed to be cooked somehow and I figured it could do double duty. In some ways, chicken thighs are the perfect meat for soup: It's practically impossible to overcook them. Simmering a pound or so in plain old water for just 20 minutes leaves them tender and juicy, and simultaneously produces a light broth that's surprisingly flavorful.
The ingredient that gives this soup its ultimate appeal is the miso that is stirred in at the end. Just a small amount provides the sweet, salty, nutty, fermented, savory solution that transforms the whole into a magic elixir.
Spring Chicken Miso Soup
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons grated ginger
1 tablespoon mirin or sherry
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon tamari or light soy sauce
8 ounces soba (buckwheat noodles)
8 ounces sugar snap peas or snow peas, trimmed
2 medium leeks, white and tender green part, diced, about 2 cups
1/4 cup white miso, or more to taste
5 ounces baby spinach, about 4 cups
A few basil or shiso leaves, julienned
1. Season chicken thighs on all sides with salt and pepper. Put oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium-high heat. Add thighs and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, reducing heat to keep meat from browning. Turn and cook other side for about 2 minutes.
2. Add garlic and ginger and let sizzle without browning. Add mirin, sugar, tamari and 8 cups water, then bring mixture to boil. Lower heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Remove thighs and chop into 1/2-inch chunks, then return meat to pot. Taste broth and adjust salt if necessary.
3. In a separate pot, cook buckwheat noodles according to package directions, being careful not to overcook. Drain noodles and refresh with cool water, then leave at room temperature.
4. Bring a small pot of salted water to boil. Add snap peas and leeks and simmer 1 minute, then drain and refresh with cool water. Leave at room temperature.
5. To serve, reheat broth to just under a boil. Dilute miso with a little hot broth and whisk into soup. Add spinach and let wilt slightly, then add leeks and snap peas and let them warm for 1 minute. Divide the noodles among 6 warmed bowls and ladle soup over. Top each bowl with a little basil.
© 2015 New York Times News Service