As a girl, I was fascinated by avgolemono, the broad term for a creamy lemon-egg sauce we use to finish all manner of Greek dishes — from cabbage rolls to poached fish to meatballs to stuffed grape leaves. While the cabbage rolls take a close second, my favourite preparation has always been avgolemono soupa, a five-ingredient soup that belies its simplicity.
This soup is our salve for all ailments and woes; this soup is food we eat to honour and nourish our bodies.
My namesake, Yiayia Maria, makes her avgolemono in a massive and dented metal pot, starting with the whole chicken that forms the soup’s broth. She’ll extract the swollen carcass and pick the meat, showing her island upbringing, where not a shred went wasted. Into the pot of broth: the rice, then separately whisking the lemon and eggs to a frothy ordeal that thickens the soup. With care and by the ladleful, hot stock is whisked into the lemon-egg mixture, bringing it to temperature so as not to curdle.
Then, the magic: the lemon-egg mixture joins the soup pot, and with barely a turn of the whisk transforms the broth to a lemon-yellow cream that coats a spoon. Always, I watched this step with intensity and interest, amazed that a little protein and acid could turn thin broth into something entirely other. (To this day, any similar culinary slight of hand fills me with glee: bechamel sauce thickening, ouzo made cloudy by ice cubes, gelatin setting milk into panna cotta.)
That was that. The soup heaped into bowls, pulled boiled chicken at the side to add at your preference. How water, chicken, rice, lemon and eggs can be so perfect is a mystery, but one I’m willing to accept.
Yiayia Maria’s Avgolemono Soup
I make Yiayia’s soup with chicken stock following my favourite Cook’s Illustrated/Smitten Kitchen method, as I love the gelatinous richness you get from slowly simmered chicken wings. Otherwise, it’s true to her traditional recipe. If you prefer lighter broth, work from a whole chicken carcass versus just wings.
I’ve provided an optional garnish of braised bitter greens for the soup, playing off the Greek tradition of horta, boiled wild greens (and one of my favourite foods). It’s decidedly not traditional, but a scoop at the bottom of your bowl is the perfect bitter-rich foil to the bright soup.
Makes 8 generous bowlfuls
- 1 recipe’s worth Perfect Uncluttered Chicken Stock (you will need: 3 lbs chicken wings, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove)
- 3/4 c short-grain white rice
- 3 lemons, juiced and seeded
- 4 large eggs
- salt and pepper, to taste
Optional bitter green garnish
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 8 cups bitter greens, washed and trimmed (e.g., dandelion, chicory, spinach, kale)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- salt and pepper, to taste
In a large stock pot, bring chicken stock to a rolling boil. Taste for seasoning (it should be generously salted).
Add rice to stock, stirring frequently until cooked through, about 20 minutes.
While the rice cooks, whisk together the lemon juice and eggs in a large bowl until pale yellow and frothy.
One ladleful at a time, slowly whisk hot stock from your pot into the lemon-egg mixture. The purpose here is to bring to mixture to temperature so it doesn’t curdle and cook (like scrambled eggs) when it hits the broth.
To the stock pot, add the tempered lemon-egg mixture in a gentle stream, whisking constantly. Within 60 seconds or so, your soup with turn a beautiful opaque yellow hue and start to thicken.
For the optional bitter green garnish: In a shallow pan, heat olive oil over medium and add the greens and garlic, salting well. Cover and allow to wilt, about five minutes. Finish with a swirl of olive oil.
Serve immediately, or allow to thicken further by sitting the soup at room temperature. If serving with the greens, heap a little pile at the bottom of each bowl before filling with soup.
Because of the rice leeching starch, avgolemono will continue to thicken in the fridge and leftovers will be a no-less-delicious but creamier soup. You can see this distinction in the photos included with this recipe: the lead photo has a just-made broth-y soup, whereas the second image shows a soup thickened with time.