Chicken Alphabet Soup Recipe
Alphabet soup is a perennial kid favorite: children love the colorful vegetables and alphabet pasta. But read the label on one of those red and white cans: not only have they added unnecessary sugar, additives and lots of salt, of the six vegetable ingredients, the soup contains less than 2% each of five of them. If you have one of those condensed soup cans in your pantry, empty it out in a bowl and see how little you are getting for your money. Instead, use leftover chicken (or turkey) and your choice of fresh or frozen vegetables to make this classic kid friendly soup from scratch in just a few minutes. Your family gets a tasty one pot meal, you get more for your grocery dollar, and it could hardly be easier or quicker to make this homemade soup.
Pressure Cooking Green Vegetables. Green vegetables such as peas, green beans, broccoli, spinach, kale, etc. get their lovely green color from two different forms of chlorophyll, chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b. Unfortunately, both forms of chlorophyll are prone to alteration, changing the color of green vegetables to a dull, olive shade or a dark, grayish green. On Food and Cooking explains it this way: “Green chlorophyll is susceptible to two chemical changes during cooking. One is the loss of its long carbon-hydrogen tail, which leaves the pigment water-soluble – so that it leaks out into the cooking liquid – and more susceptible to further change. This loss is encouraged by both acid and alkaline conditions and by an enzyme called chlorophyllase, which is most active between 150 – 170° F / 66 – 77° C and only destroyed near the boiling point. The second and more noticeable change in chlorophyll is the dulling of its color, which is caused when either heat or an enzyme nudge the magnesium atom from the center of the molecule. The replacement of magnesium by hydrogen is by far the most common cause of color change in cooked vegetables. In even slightly acidic water, the plentiful hydrogen ions displace the magnesium, a change that turns chlorophyll a into grayish-green pheophytin a, chlorophyll b into yellowish pheophytin b. . .when the temperature of the plant tissue rises above 140° F / 60° C, the organizing membranes in and around the chloroplast are damaged, and chlorophyll is exposed to the plant’s own natural acids.”
Changing the pH slightly won’t help. Even slight acidity will hasten the chemical transformation, further dulling the color. Increasing the alkalinity by adding baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), especially when salt (which helps keep the base water soluble) is present, as in soup broth, will weaken the pectin that reinforces the cell walls, and turn the vegetables to mush much more quickly. CookWise establishes a 7 minute rule – “All vegetables contain acids. When these vegetables are heated, their cells are damaged and killed so that the acids that were kept separated from the chlorophyll in the living cells now come in contact with it and the color change begins. The amount of acid varies in vegetables, so there is a slight difference in how fast this change will take place in different vegetables. Essentially, with most green vegetables, you can count on having 7 minutes of heat before there is a major color change.” But that 7 minute rule doesn’t take into account the cellular damage frozen vegetables have already undergone (during the blanching and freezing process), or the higher temperatures involved in pressure cooking (higher temperatures accelerate all chemical reactions).
So I’ve altered the recipe slightly to minimize the length of time the green beans and peas are heated, especially under pressure, so that they still are fully cooked, yet retain most of their original color. This change shouldn’t increase the cooking time by much, but it does require that you monitor the soup while the pressure cooker brings it up to the boil so you don’t overcook it. If you don’t care about the color change, you can put all the ingredients in the pot, lock the lid and pressure cook the normal way. The soup will be just as good, just not as colorful.
Ingredient Substitutions. If you want to substitute Frozen Mixed Vegetables for the individual vegetables (it’s a great way to use up some of that vegetable medley taking up room in your freezer), you’ll need 3 – 4 cups. If you need to buy a new bag, you’ll need 12 – 16 ounces. If you want to use raw chicken instead of leftovers, cut the chicken into ½” size pieces instead of ¼” (they will shrink when they cook). If you can’t find alphabet pasta at your local grocery store (check both the dried pasta and the international foods sections) and want to substitute a different kind of pasta, substitute the smallest pasta you can find, such as mini shells or macaroni.
Organic / GMO Free Version of this Soup. The best way to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is to buy organic. Organic carrots are readily available year round, organic green beans are available seasonally (fall and spring/early summer), but fresh organic corn and peas are difficult to find. But its fairly easy to get all of these organic vegetables frozen. (If you have a Costco near you, mine carries large bags of organic mixed vegetables – just substitute 3 – 4 cups of the frozen vegetable medley for the individual vegetables.) I generally use a combination of fresh and frozen vegetables for this recipe. If you’re on a tight budget, prioritize your organic purchases: buy regular carrots, peas and green beans and purchase organic corn (since its always tops every list of GMO crops to avoid) and organic celery (not because of GMOs, but because it is on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Plus List (for crops with the most residual pesticides) – at my local Vons, organic celery is only twenty cents more per bunch than the non-organic celery. Organic chicken and broth are also fairy readily available. I don’t recommend the Kirkland Signature organic broth: my sister tried it, and disliked it so much she threw the whole case out. She’s not one to waste food, if she tossed it instead of trying to improve it, it was pretty bad. If you’re an Amazon Prime member and use Amazon Pantry, the price of the 32 ounce Tetra Paks of Pacific Organic Gluten Free Chicken Broth are actually pretty good.
Gluten Free Version of this Soup. If you are cooking for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, the only ingredients you have to worry about are the broth and the alphabet pasta. Commercial broth can contain wheat derivatives (see here for more details and a list of Campbells / Swansons GF Broths). The Pacific Organic Chicken Broth that I mentioned in the preceding paragraph is available for a good price through Amazon Pantry is also gluten free). If you’re willing to buy in quantity, this Corn Alphabet Pasta is gluten free and says its GMO free, or if you want to avoid corn because of the possibility of GMO cross contamination, this Gluten Free Rice Pasta is both organic and gluten free. For smaller quantities, purchase a box of the smallest gluten free pasta you can find at your grocery store (such as small shells or macaroni) – you’ll have to experiment with the volume of pasta to use in the soup.
1 cup of carrot (1/4″ dice) (fresh or frozen)
½ cup of celery (1/4″ dice)
1 cup of sweet corn niblets (fresh or frozen)
½ cup of sweet peas (fresh or frozen)
½ cup of bite-size green beans (fresh or frozen)
½ cup PLUS 3 tablespoons of Alphabet Pasta
2 cups of leftover chicken or turkey (¼” dice)
1 tablespoon of Chicken Base
3 tablespoons of dry vermouth or white wine (optional)
4 cups of chicken broth
Electric Pressure Cooker
12″ Silicone Tipped Tongs
6″ chef’s knife
Soup spoon or ladle
- Peel your carrots. Cut the whole carrots into several pieces, roughly at the points where the carrots start tapering. Then cut the pieces into ¼” thick planks. Cut the planks into ¼” thick carrot “sticks”, and cut the sticks into an approximate ¼” thick dice. (Don’t worry if your measurements aren’t precise.) Measure 1 cup of diced carrot.
- Wash celery stalks. Discard any celery leaves (they have a much stronger flavor, and would overwhelm a delicately flavored soup like this). Place each celery stalk on the cutting board, curved side facing up. Cut each stalk (the long way) into ¼” thick strips, and then the strips into ¼” dice. Measure ½ cup of diced celery.
- Measure 1 cup of corn, ½ cup of sweet peas and ½ cup of bite size green beans. If you are using fresh vegetables, don’t remove the corn niblets from the ear, the peas from their shell or trim and cut up the green beans until immediately before preparing the soup.
- Cut the leftover chicken into approximately ¼” thick strips, then cut the strips into an approximate ¼” dice. If you are using uncooked chicken, bone the chicken as needed, then cut the raw chicken into approximately ½” dice (the chicken will shrink during the cooking process). Measure 2 cups of chicken. Remember to thoroughly clean and disinfect your cutting board, knife and measuring cups if working with raw poultry.
- Add 1 tablespoon of chicken base, 3 tablespoons of vermouth / white wine, diced celery and carrot, corn niblets, and the diced chicken to the pressure cooker pot. Add the alphabet pasta. Pour in 4 cups of chicken broth.
- With the machine lid off, set your electric pressure cooker for LOW PRESSURE (6 PSI) for 2 minutes and press START. Bring the soup up to the boil. (If you are using uncooked chicken, you may want to increase the time to 3 – 4 minutes.)
- When the soup mixture has come up to a rolling boil, add the green beans and peas to the soup. Do not stir. Make sure the pressure release valve is in the “pressure” position and place the lid on the pressure cooker lid on the machine and lock it. Because the contents of the pot are now boiling hot, the machine should come up to pressure pretty quickly.
- When the timer beeps, turn off the “Keep Warm” function and use QUICK PRESSURE RELEASE to manually release pressure. When pressure has released and the lid unlocks, remove the lid, holding it briefly over the pot to allow hot broth to fall back inside. Give your soup a quick stir. You will probably notice that the pasta has not yet reached the size you are used to. This is normal. Allow the soup to sit for a few minutes, uncovered, to allow the alphabet pasta to absorb additional broth and expand and for the soup to cool slightly before serving your kids.
CELERY TIP: In celery bunches, the outer stalks have a deeper green color, and the inner stalks are paler and less colorful. I try to use the paler inner stalks in soup – where (thanks to chlorophyll) they will lose their color and become almost translucent anyway – and save the more vibrant green stalks for “raw” applications like potato salad, chicken salad and macaroni salad that will look more appetizing with that vivid green color.
PRESSURE COOKING GREEN VEGETABLES: The Science of Good Cooking tells us that “Besides texture, heat also affects the color of vegetables. Green vegetables get their bright color from chlorophyll, a complex molecule that contains a magnesium ion at its center. When chlorophyll is heated, however, it loses this magnesium ion. This loss results in a dull, olive green hue” and recommends cooking green vegetables quickly to avoid color change. This is why I have set up this recipe so the rest of the ingredients are brought to a boil, with the lid off, before adding the peas and green beans and locking the lid. This both minimizes the length of time the green vegetables are heated, and introduces the green vegetables into the soup after it has come to a boil, the temperature at which the enzyme chlorophyllase (which assists in the breakdown of chlorophyll), has been neutralized (see explanation above. If you don’t mind the color change, you can lock the pressure cooker lid on at the start and pressure cook as usual.
- 1 cup of carrot (1/4" dice) (fresh or frozen)
- ½ cup of celery (1/4" dice)
- 1 cup of sweet corn niblets (fresh or frozen)
- ½ cup of sweet peas (fresh or frozen)
- ½ cup of bite-size green beans (fresh or frozen)
- ½ cup PLUS 3 tablespoons of Alphabet Pasta
- 2 cups of leftover chicken or turkey (¼" dice)
- 1 tablespoon of Chicken Base
- 3 tablespoons of dry vermouth or white wine (optional)
- 4 cups of chicken broth
- Peel the carrots, then cut them into several chunks, then the chunks into ¼" planks, the planks into ¼" thick carrot sticks, and the sticks into a ¼" dice. Measure 1 cup of diced carrots.
- Wash the celery and discard celery leaves. Turn the celery stalks face side down on the cutting board. Cut the stalks into ¼" thick long sticks, then the sticks into ¼" dice. Measure ½ cup of diced celery.
- Measure a cup of corn niblets, ½ cup of green beans and ½ cup of peas.
- For leftover chicken, cut it into ¼" dice. For raw chicken, cut it into ½" pieces. Measure 2 cups of chicken. Thoroughly clean any surface or tool that came in contact with raw poultry.
- Add the chicken base, vermouth/white wine, celery, carrot, corn, chicken, alphabet pasta and chicken broth to the pressure cooker pot.
- With the pressure cooker lid OFF, set the machine on LOW PRESSURE (6 PSI) for 2 minutes and hit the START button. (If you are using raw chicken or turkey, you may want to increase the time to 3 or 4 minutes.)
- When the soup reaches a vigorous boil, add the peas and green beans (without stirring). Lock the pressure cooker lid on the machine, which should come up to pressure fairly quickly.
- When the timer goes off, turn off the "Keep Warm" function and use QUICK PRESSURE RELEASE. When the lid unlocks, remove it, holding it at an angle over the pot to allow hot liquid to fall back in. If the pasta has not expanded to the usual size, or if its too hot to serve to kids, allow the soup to cool uncovered for a few minutes.