The Chef's Take: George Mendes' Portuguese Chicken Soup

My Portugal Cookbook Cover

George Mendes, the chef of the restaurant Aldea, grew up feasting on his mother’s elaborate Portuguese meals. While he went on to cook for culinary icons such as David Bouley, Roger Verge, Alain Ducasse, and Martin Berasategui, he has always remained true to his culinary roots in Portugal. In 2009, he opened Aldea (the Portuguese word for village), as a culmination of his Iberian experiences and Portuguese heritage. There's sea urchin toast with cauliflower puree, shiso and lime, a cucumber and wild strawberry salad with smoked sardines, fresh dill, and yogurt, and sea-salted cod with fennel puree and charred corn.

"I tend to approach food with seasonality as my starting point," says Mendes. "My style has always been clean, light, herbaceous flavors and a lot of the recipes at the restaurant and in the book have that sensibility. I use lots of vegetables and cook with olive oil, and I tend to shy away from heavier fats and ingredients that are not healthy. I also go to the Greenmarket four days a week. That’s a good start for any dish."

Mendes is set to open a second restaurant, a casual cervezaria (no name yet), with a raw bar and a rustic Portuguese menu, in the winter of 2015. It’s there you might find a canja, or brothy soup, like this one from his upcoming cookbook, My Portugal: Recipes and Stories (October 7). "This canja was a big part of my childhood," said Mendes. “My mom would make it with orzo, carrots, and chicken pulled straight off the bone from the pot."

This soup is ideal for when winter’s chill first hits the air. It’s easy to make a batch at home to last a few days, and it’s a surefire way to warm your kids up while getting them to eat their carrots.

Chicken Orzo Soup

Photo by: Romulo Yanes ©Romulo Yanes

Romulo Yanes, Romulo Yanes

Chicken and Orzo Soup (Canja)

Serves 4
1 whole chicken (around 3 pounds)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 medium white onions
2 medium carrots
2 medium celery stalks
1 small leek, cut lengthwise in half
1/2 head garlic
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2 fresh bay leaves, notches torn every 1/2 inch
6 fresh thyme sprigs
8 sprigs fresh parsley, plus 1 tablespoon very finely chopped
1/2 cup orzo
2 teaspoons very thinly sliced fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh dill leaves
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

Cut off the chicken legs, then cut the whole breast into 4 pieces, cutting through the back and bones. Place in a 10- to 12-quart pot and cover with cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then pour out the water with the scum and foam. This step cleanses the chicken. Wipe any residual scum off the sides of the pot.

Cover the chicken with cold water by 1 inch again and add a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer for 1 hour, skimming and discarding any foam that rises to the surface.

Meanwhile, cut 1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 celery, and 1/2 leek into 1-inch chunks. Cut the garlic in half crosswise. In a small skillet, heat the coriander, peppercorns, and fennel over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a piece of cheesecloth, along with the bay leaves, thyme sprigs, and parsley sprigs. Wrap, then tie securely into a sachet. Add the chopped vegetables, herb sachet, and a generous pinch of salt to the chicken stock and simmer for 1 hour longer.

Meanwhile, cut the remaining onion, carrot, celery, and leek into 1/3-inch dice, keeping the vegetables separate.

Transfer the chicken legs to a plate. You’ll add that meat to the soup; the breast meat is too dry and stringy at this point. Strain the chicken soup through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Return the strained soup to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Add the diced carrot and celery and simmer until crisp-tender, about 7 minutes. Add the onion and orzo and simmer until the orzo is al dente, about 10 minutes. While that simmers, discard the skin and bones from the chicken legs and shred or cut the meat into 1/2-inch chunks. Add to the soup, along with the leeks, and simmer just until the leeks are crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the mint, dill, and chopped parsley. Remove from the heat and season to taste with lemon juice and salt. Drizzle in the oil and serve immediately.

Photos: Romulo Yanes

Andrea Strong is a freelance writer whose work has appeared everywhere from The New York Times and to Edible Brooklyn. She's probably best known as the creator of The Strong Buzz, her food blog about New York City restaurants. She lives in Queens with her two kids, her husband and her big appetite.

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