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   A Soup With a Difference,
   Born of Adversity and Error

   by Melissa Clark

  Most of the time, my kitchen calamities end with me dumping the debacle. But not so with my latest victim, a pot of chicken vegetable soup brutalized by an accidental assault of chili paste.

  I could taste the soup in my mind before I started cooking. I wanted something zippier and more substantial than the usual matzo-ball-type golden chicken stock. I pictured a deep ruddy broth steeped with chili and spices and brimming with chunks of chicken, colorful vegetables and velvety beans. Loosely based on the flavors of North Africa, it would contain turmeric, ginger and cinnamon for depth, paprika for color, and a dose of harissa, the chili paste of the region, for body and heat.

  But as I stood over the pot, I did what you’re never, ever supposed to do. After stirring in a judicious amount of harissa, I blithely decided to finish the crumpled tube. Those last drops turned out to be a fat dollop of hot chili.

  I tried to scoop it out, to no avail. Hours of work, ruined: the spices I bloomed in the hot oil, the carefully sautéed onions, those diced vegetables, the zucchini and the butternut squash I had laboriously peeled, and all that costly organic chicken. It was all now drowning in a hostile stew.

  I added water to dilute the sting, but that didn’t work. So I just started stirring in whatever I could find to absorb the fire: leftover rice and chopped potatoes, cherry tomatoes, more onions, grated apple, another can of chickpeas. At last the soup was good enough, and I had a whole lot of it.

  But I still craved my ideal vision of a soup, the one with the spice-scented, glistening red broth crammed with chickpeas, vegetables and nuggets of chicken. I got hungry every time I thought about it, and the Frankenstein soup in the freezer just wouldn’t do.

  So it was back to the stove to try, try again. This time, I decided to forgo the harissa. Not only was I wary of the stuff, I had used the last bit.

  Instead, I substituted tomato paste to mimic the texture of harissa, along with a pinch of cayenne to supply the kick. I carefully toasted the spices and tomato paste to bring out their flavors, stirring them until the paste turned dark around the edges and a sweet-spicy aroma perfumed the kitchen. At the market, I had picked up turnips instead of zucchini, which bloated during the slow simmer of the last soup. And I replaced butternut squash with sweet potato, because it’s easier to peel.

  Rarely able to leave well enough alone, I sat on my hands to keep them from adding a little bit more of this and that. I knew the soup would reduce into something intense and nuanced.

  And it did. About 25 minutes later, my dream soup was bubbling away. The chicken was juicy, the vegetables were tender, and the rich broth had an intoxicating fragrance. There was just enough chili to administer a mild jolt but not a poisonous shock. My failure was delectably redeemed.

  • Recipe: Fragrant Chicken Soup With Chickpeas and Vegetables


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