The end of August means the beginning of the school year for our entire family here in northeastern Ohio. The boys are in first and third grades; the girl starts Kindergarten, and I’m taking Chemistry this fall. This means I’ll be gone one evening a week, which in turn means planning a meal that is simple for my husband to serve the kids. If his prep instructions are more involved than “ladle into bowls,” there is likely to be much grumbling and perhaps a Chick-Fil-A run.
Enter the Crock Pot. Most of you know, I’m obsessed with my Crock Pot(s). Fall means soup around here, and I have an array of five or six different Crock Pot-friendly soups that I make regularly. Sometimes I run into a traditionally-prepared soup recipe that I enjoy but requires extensive prep time and babysitting on the stove. Which means it gets saved for Sundays, when I can watch a Browns game while cooking. My preference, of course, is converting ‘normal’ recipes for use in the slow cooker, since it’s OMG SO MUCH EASIER and 95% of them only require the husband to ladle into bowls.
Last fall, I found The Pioneer Woman’s Italian Chicken Soup recipe. The Pioneer Woman says that this was “very loosely based on a classic soup from a chain Italian restaurant.” Since our family never eats out, I have no idea what restaurant chain or soup she’s talking about. As for the recipe, it is delicious, no question, but there are a few things that make this a nearly impossible weeknight soup:
- It’s very ‘pot-heavy’ (meaning OMG WHO IS WASHING ALL THESE DISHES FOR ME?!); and
- Whoever helped her calculate her prep time is on drugs. Like, heavy psychedelics for major delusions.
I’ve found that I need to double (or even triple) the prep times, cook times, ingredient amounts, etc. that I find in TWP recipes. Which is fine; once a month or so I experiment with one of her recipes, tweak it to fit normal human standards, and either add it to my repertoire or discard it entirely. Keeper recipes are usually doubled (or tripled) because I tend to freeze half for future use, and we have leftovers for a second meal.
Slow Cooker Italian Chicken Soup
1 box Ditalini pasta (very short macaroni-type pasta noodles)
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 packages frozen boneless, skinless chicken thighs (see notes)
8 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 medium onion, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
4 cloves minced garlic (or equivalent prepared jarred minced garlic)
2 stalks celery, diced
2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes with green chilis (see notes)
2 14-oz cans diced tomatoes
2 cups heavy cream
4 Tablespoons minced fresh oregano
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
Shredded Parmesan cheese for serving
Use a 6.5-quart (or larger) slow cooker.
Defrost chicken in microwave for a minute or two, just enough to make it easier to remove packaging. Place frozen chicken into slow cooker.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over low heat. Add oregano and cook for one minute, just to release flavors. Scrape oregano into crock pot with a spatula.
Add the second tablespoon of olive oil to the same pan and place over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is softened, about 3-4 min. Add celery and bell peppers and continue to cook until vegetables soften, about 10 minutes total. Add onion/pepper mixture, chicken stock and canned tomatoes to crock.
Cook on LOW for 6-8 hours.
One half-hour before serving, bring several quarts of water in a stock pot to a boil. Cook ditalini pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and toss with a bit of olive oil to keep it from sticking.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken pieces to a bowl and shred with two forks before returning chicken to crock pot. (Skip this step if you’re using cooked, already-shredded chicken). Stir in heavy cream. Cover and continue cooking for remaining time.
Ladle cooked pasta into bowl, top with soup, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Serve with salad and Italian bread for a meal.
I get the large perforated packages of fresh Perdue boneless, skinless chicken thighs from Costco and freeze them. You can tear off two perforated packages and thaw for use in this recipe, or substitute about 1.5 pounds of whatever chicken you prefer. Or, substitute 4 cups of cooked, shredded rotisserie chicken and cut your cook time by half.
I use my mini food processor to mince the garlic and vegetables. It cuts down substantially on the prep time.
I like to add a couple cups of frozen chopped vegetables to the crock pot when I add the stock. I’ve also added 2 cups of chopped fresh baby spinach when I add the heavy cream for the last half-hour or hour of cooking.
If you prefer a slightly less-spicy soup, replace one of the 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes with green chilis with a 14-oz can of regular diced tomatoes.
If you plan on serving all of the soup immediately, save yourself a step and stir the ditalini pasta into the crock. Remember it will absorb a LOT of the liquid, so plan to thin it with stock the next day. Otherwise, store the leftover pasta separately in a zip-top gallon bag. You can always freeze the soup for a future meal if it doesn’t have the pasta added.
Four out of five people loved this soup. (The middlest kid has a fairly bland palate, so he prefers me to use less of the tomatoes with chilis. I used two cans, so he complained. Which is completely normal.) The husband and I had the leftovers for lunch and dinner for a few days.
The prep time is still kind of heavy for a slow-cooker soup; it took me just under 20 minutes to get everything into the crock from running the packages of chicken under warm water, to pushing the ON button. I cooked for six hours on LOW and the chicken thighs were nicely done. I also added shredded spinach. That said, it’s much easier than the original recipe, and when I polled my family, they all agreed that it tasted virtually the same.