A few weeks ago my friend Brandon messaged and asked if I could suggest some recipes for cooking chicken, lemons, and capers. I made like a Greek and recommended Chicken Lemonato, Ouzo-Feta Chicken, Rooster in Tomato Sauce, and Lentil Salad with Capers.
A few hours later he messaged again saying,
“Literally just saw lemon and egg soup on the sidewalk display menu for Simple Greek in Lebo (Mount Lebanon, Pittsburgh).”
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it! Avgolemono soup was a perfect, not too fussy, chicken and lemon Greek dish. I put it on the list of meals that I planned to make later in the week. Avgolemono is a warm but invigorating chicken soup thickened with egg (avgο) and lemon (lemoni). As recipes go, it’s easy to prepare—you basically boil a whole chicken with lots of veggies for an hour. There’s a bit of technique involved when you temper the egg-lemon mixture but this, too, is simple. Think of it as a flavor enhancer, like hot sauce or Worcestershire, but one that needs to be heated, slowly, to prevent the eggs from scrambling.
I first cooked Avgolemono soup my senior year in college for my housemates and me. It was February and the weather in Meadville Pennsylvania was cold. Icy snow covered the ground—had been there since November—and we were sick of it. What we needed, I decided, was a hot, soothing meal. I had a recipe for Avgolemono soup from a cookbook titled Best Ever Three and Four Ingredient Cookbook (an excellent book, by Jenny White and Joanna Farrow). It would be a warm, easy meal and something that would—hopefully—impress Spyros the next time we talked (he had graduated and moved back to Greece the previous June).
The recipe was a short-cut version and I used bouillon paste, orzo pasta, and fresh lemon juice. As the broth simmered in the apartment’s galley kitchen, it smelled warm, spicy and fresh. When it was time to temper the eggs, I handled the ingredients with museum-curator care, transferring a ladle of hot broth from the soup pot and whisking it into the beaten eggs without spilling a drop. I added another ladle, then one more; I didn’t want to risk making egg-drop soup. When the metal bowl became almost too hot to touch, I poured the mixture into the soup pot.
“Oh my god the smell is torture!” said my housemate as she opened the front door and kicked the snow from her boots. A current of frigid air rippled through the apartment and I shivered as I ladled orzo-enriched soup into bowls for the two of us. It tasted of sun and warmth and Greece—all those things clearly missing from where we were. We chatted and went back for seconds, thirds. For a moment our stress about classes, the cold, and anything else, lightened. It was good to be in school.
It’s this memory that I think of each time I make Avgolemono soup. Although I’ve tasted many delicious versions here in Greece, that first Avgolemono soup warmed and soothed every organ in my body and tasted spectacular. It’s become my Avgolemono-judging standard and no other rendition has quite topped it.
Except this one. After Brandon’s message I tinkered with a few recipes and came up with the Avgolemono below. I think it beats my college version with its quick(ish) homemade chicken stock and poached, shredded chicken. I made it for dinner one chilly night last week, an evening when the sky darkened way too fast. The soup was comforting and rich with a lovely zing from the lemon juice; a practical but interesting winter meal. It made a large quantity, 6 big portions and we had enough for a leftover dinner and lunch. I didn’t freeze it, but I believe that would also work. Please let me know your results if you do. I hope you enjoy!
*Inspired by Avgolemono Soup recipes on foodwishes.com by Chef John and Best-Ever Three & Four Ingredient Cookbook by Jenny White and Joanna Farrow
Makes about 6 servings
1 whole chicken, about 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms)
3 quarts of cold water
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
2 bay leaves
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups finely diced onion
2 cups uncooked orzo pasta
½ cup fresh lemon juice, or to taste
3 large eggs
Salt, pepper, cayenne
- Rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water and place it in a large stock pot. Add the chopped onion, carrots, celery, bay leaves, dried oregano, and the cold water; bring to a boil over high heat.
- Once the mixture boils, reduce the heat to low-to-medium-low and maintain a gentle simmer and cook for 1 hour.
- After the hour, remove the chicken and vegetables from the broth and cool. Discard the vegetables and bay leaves. When you can handle the chicken, separate the meat from the bones and skin and shred or cube it. If you want, you could reserve a third of the chicken for another purpose.
- While the chicken cools, combine the onions, olive oil, and a pinch of salt in a wide saucepan over medium heat and cook until golden and soft, about 10 minutes.
- In the simmering broth over medium heat add the cooked onions, 1 teaspoon of salt, and the dried orzo and cook until the orzo is al dente, 9-10 minutes.
- Whisk the eggs and lemon juice together in a medium bowl. While whisking, pour a ladle of the hot broth into the egg-lemon mixture and stir well. Repeat two more times until the outside of the bowl is very hot. Stir the tempered egg mixture back into the stock pot along with the cooked chicken. Reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook for 5 minutes, until the chicken has heated through. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Serve warm and garnish with parsley and grated lemon zest.