MY SONS AND I HAVE ENJOYED a delicious Chicken Jalapeño soup that we’ve had for years at Art’s Tavern. The iconic tavern is in the heart of Glen Arbor located one block from the beautiful sandy beaches of Lake Michigan in northern Michigan and just thirty miles west of Traverse City.
The tavern’s soup is served year-round to the delight of their customers, but only on Wednesday’s. Sliced Jalapeños and cayenne pepper are at the soul of their creation. They pull it off very successfully which features a velvety cream base with onions, celery, carrots and large pieces of chicken meat. It is a soup that is not for the faint of heart. I recommend a glass of beer, or water, to join your bowl of soup. Describing it here makes me long for it, but unfortunately, today is only Monday.
I’ve tried for years to copy it in my own kitchen and have resigned that it cannot be duplicated. There must be some trick involved that only Art’s knows how to pull off. I’m not at all discouraged that I could not copy it, in fact, I’m accepting that I couldn’t match it as it gives me something to look forward to, especially during the long winters we face in northern Michigan.
This wouldn’t be much of a story if I just surrendered to Art’s culinary coup. I’m offering a recipe that is a variation on their famous soup. Mine uses the foundation of wild rice and mushrooms and additionally has many of the same underpinnings found in my favorite Glen Arbor soup.
The idea for a creamy wild rice soup started late last winter after reading about the native Ojibwe Indians and their skillful harvest of wild rice in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They perform the centuries old practice in shallow wetlands where annual grasses (Zizania, Genus) flourish. The “rice” is the seed formed from these grasses that mature in the early fall. The ricers, as they are known, work in pairs and use small wooden thrashing paddles to gather the seed at the bottom of their boats, or canoes. Hundreds of pounds are collected from dawn to dusk over several days.
The rice gets much of its flavor from the dry heating it goes through as it is further processed in a cast iron kettle over an open wood fire. The hulls crack during this heating stage and the seeds darken and develop their unique nutty flavor. It is further winnowed and cleaned in wooden vessels using both hands and feet where the seed is freed of its chaff. The yield is about 50% of the green weight as the natives ready it for storage and sale. I have fond memories of roadside hand-painted signs offering wild rice for sale in our neighboring states and pulling over to purchase the small packages at the stands.
I was fascinated with the thought of producing a wild rice and mushroom soup. The recipes I reviewed recommended a couple of quarts of chicken stock in the ingredients. I expanded on this recommendation by making homemade chicken stock and then using the boiled chicken breasts that I cubed and readied for my soup. It was evolving into a chicken, wild rice, and mushroom creation.
It had promise.
I lightly sautéed the onions, red pepper, carrots, and celery in olive oil and added garlic, wild rice, and sliced button mushrooms. After a few minutes, I added white wine which produced an impressive bloom of steam and lent a glorious fragrance to the pot. I then added butter and melted it and added flour and used my whisk for a good thirty seconds. The chemistry kicked in and a loose roux developed. A cup of whole milk and dried thyme came next and then my two quarts of chicken stock. A rolling simmer for twenty minutes allowed the rice to plump and the soup began to thicken. During the final ten minutes, I added the two cups of cubed chicken meat and salt and pepper.
I had my first cup for dinner and added more salt and pepper trying to pump up the flavor. Something was missing? I liked the texture and body of the soup, and the aroma was more than pleasing, but it was sort of bland. It was a solid B in my grading system. I contemplated solutions for just a moment, and then it came to me. After my revelation I headed to the grocery store to secure a glass jar of Mt. Olive Jalapeño slices, knowing this was exactly what the soup needed. Half a jar of slices moved this new creation to a solid A.
Thank you Art’s Tavern. You are an inspiration. See you on a Wednesday in the dead of winter.
Wild Rice and Jalapeño-Chicken Soup
2-quarts chicken stock
½ pound of fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup finely chopped onions
2 chopped garlic cloves
¼ cup chopped sweet red pepper
½+ cup wild rice
½ cup white wine
¼ cup butter
½ cup flour
1 cup milk
2+ cups chopped chicken
I/2 jar (7 oz.) drained sliced Jalapeño peppers
Salt and pepper to taste