Sunday, August 18, 2013

Avgolemono and fried artichoke hearts.

Avgolemono soup with artichoke and lemon fritto misto. © Ryan Schierling
I'm not naming names, but some of us are occasionally bent on pretending that, in those short hours after work, we're actually on a Mediterranean vacation. The perfect food vehicle for such fantasy is avgolemono. It is a cheery egg-lemon soup with all the satisfaction of a wintertime comfort food, but perfectly suited in its lively essence to the heat of summer.

It seems that really good Greek restaurants are few and far between, and I have yet to adopt a Greek grandmother, so alas, my history with the real deal avgolemono is somewhat limited. Yet, a singular experience has remained ingrained in my memory as a stalwart standard. It was at a small Greek diner, that I've long forgotten the name of, where I stopped alone for lunch one day as I was passing through town. For some insane reason it has stayed filed there in my memory, waiting patiently for this year when it finally found its way to the surface and I was inspired to work out how to make it at home.

Wanting a warm soup in Summer felt as if I was making some kind of advanced mental preparation for Fall. Or, perhaps I just had a hankering for lemon. Who knows. But on a recent morning walk, it was all I could think about. It's a shame I didn't turn my attention to this dish sooner, as a traditional avgolemono soup is surprisingly straightforward to make. Simply a homemade chicken stock, white rice, and a rather miraculous lemon and egg finish. You might think of avgolemono as the Greek counterpart to our traditional chicken noodle soup. It's a warm and silky soup with a soft yellow color, tender white rice and an unmistakable lemon brightness.

As with any good chicken soup, properly-made avgolemono takes several hours of preparation, as you must start with a whole chicken to begin your stock. (The soup can be served, then, with some shredded chicken, if you desire.) But my cravings have nothing to do with all that extra simmered fowl. I just want a bowl of that smooth, luxurious lemon and chicken-flavored goodness. While there is truly nothing from the supermarket that well and honestly can compare to stock made in one's own kitchen, I don't have four hours to make dinner on a weeknight or any homemade chicken stock stashed in the freezer right now. So, I'm perfectly happy to opt for infusing the appropriate aromatic goodness into an organic store-bought chicken broth. I get myself some luscious lemon soup, and we get to eat dinner before midnight.

I know this dish might appear a little imprecise on the surface, but in this case – being such a simple and classic recipe – it's more about rough proportions that work for our taste preference, and about care in tasting for seasoning. This is one of those times it seems appropriate to live by the recipe principal of "simple and graceful." Some of the dishes out there that include the step of making the stock include carrot and onion (sometimes even celery, as in a classic mirepoix), but I find that when infusing these items with a prepared broth, the flavor profile is more that of chicken soup. (I think this is primarily due to the addition of carrot. If you do explore this route, don't use more than half a carrot, and a small wedge of onion is sufficient.) 

You'll want at least 32 ounces of finished infused chicken broth when you are ready to assemble the soup. While you'll get a more concentrated flavor by using just broth – it will reduce as you simmer it with the leeks – you can also get away with using just 32 ounces of broth and adding some water. Covering the pot will help minimize moisture loss while simmering. I'm not sure you can do this "wrong," but simply be aware that the quantity of stock you start with, how much you let the stock reduce, and your choice of stock versus stock-plus-water will affect the final quantity of liquid you have to work with and the concentration of chicken flavor in your soup.

A fun accompaniment for this soup is a supremely-simple fried artichoke recipe which is easy to prep while your broth is busy simmering away. If you get a great deal on fresh artichokes and want to knock yourself out with trimming and such, go for it. But you're frying them anyway, so canned, quartered hearts will absolutely do the trick. Coat and fry up some thinly sliced lemon, as well, for a pretty fritto misto on the side.

Avgolemono Soup

48 ounces low-sodium organic chicken broth (or, alternately, 32 ounces broth plus 2 cups of water for a lighter chicken flavor)
1 leek, split lengthwise, roughly chopped, then rinsed
1-2 dry bay leaves
Peel of 1-2 lemons
1/2 cup arborio rice
2 eggs, room temperature
Juice of 1-2 lemons (up to 1/4 cup freshly squeezed and strained of seeds)
Olive oil
White pepper

Sauté leeks with a little bit of oil in medium saucepan until tender. Add the chicken broth, a bay leaf (or two, depending upon size), and at least one lemon peel. (I use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel in a spiral fashion, taking care to avoid including the white pith. The peel of the second lemon may be added for part of the infusion time if you want more lemon flavor, or use it for zest in the fritto misto recipe below). Simmer covered or partially covered for about 30-40 minutes, season to taste with salt.

Strain broth through a metal mesh strainer into another bowl. Press out any extra liquid in the vegetables using a spatula. Rinse and dry the saucepan. Add a bit of olive oil and the uncooked rice to the pan and saute over medium heat until just the very slightest toasting of the rice begins to occur. Immediately add a cup and a half or two of broth to the rice and stir. Allow to simmer on low heat (add more broth later if needed) covered until the rice is al dente. Add the remaining broth to the pan.

In a small bowl (or glass 2-cup measure) whisk together the two whole eggs and most of the lemon juice. Gradually add about a cup of the warm broth to the egg mixture, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs and prevent sudden cooking or curdling when added to the pan. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the pot, whisking all the while. Increase heat to medium and warm, stirring occasionally, until the soup is hot but not boiling and the soup has achieved a creamy consistency that will coat the back of a spoon. Taste soup and add the last bit of lemon juice if a stronger lemon flavor is desired.

Reduce heat to low, and serve at once. Garnish with chopped Italian parsley.

Artichoke Fritto

14.5 ounce can quartered artichoke hearts (in water), drained
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste 
Vegetable oil (for frying)

In a shallow bowl, mix together flour, lemon zest, a small pinch of kosher salt and a few good cracks of black pepper. 

Gently coat the artichoke hearts in the flour mixture. (You may coat all at once and set aside until you're ready to fry or drop them immediately into the hot oil.)

Fry coated artichokes in an inch of 350º F oil in a cast iron skillet for 1-2 minutes, until light golden brown. Drain on paper towel, salt and serve.

NOTE: You may use the same technique to fry a few lemon slices for a fun fritto misto (mixed fry).


  1. Lemon rice soup is my absolute favorite (being from Chicago, I grew up always within spitting distance of a Greek restaurant) and being without in Austin has almost squashed my will to live. I have a standard recipe, but I'll be trying yours soon.

    1. Corrin, when we moved here from Seattle we had a similar feeling about Thai food. Let us know if this recipe hits the spot. We'd love your feedback.


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