I don’t know if it was due to the recent rainstorms or simply a primal need for comfort food, but the embers from last weekend’s pre-Fourth of July barbecue hadn’t cooled before I began craving a winter meal. A smoldering dish of chili or mile-high lasagna wasn’t in my plans. Instead, I longed for a bowl of soothing soup to take the edge off a hectic and, to make matters worse, rainy day. Not only did I find my summer comfort food soup, but I simultaneously uncovered a summery, fun dessert in a jar.
A television show totally unrelated to food was the surprising source of my summer soup find. As I watched a hostess set up a party buffet table, the centerpiece of lemon chicken orzo soup piqued my interest. When she stirred a bagful of the small pasta into a delicious-looking mixture of lemon juice, colorful vegetables, and chopped chicken, I had to have some of that soup.
If you’ve never tasted orzo, you’re missing a treat. Orzo, also called risoni, is a form of short-cut pasta shaped like a large grain of rice. It’s the perfect addition to soups and casseroles that need a "little something" to add depth. Like every variety of pasta under the sun, it’s equally delicious as a side dish with a light drizzle of tomato sauce or melted butter.
But back to my summer soup. After coating 4-5 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts with olive oil and salt and pepper, I roasted them in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes.
While the chicken cooled, I melted a couple of tablespoons of butter in a large stockpot over medium high heat. Into the butter went two diced carrots, two diced celery stalks, a sliced and diced yellow onion, and two cloves of garlic finely minced with a microplane. After the vegetables were lightly browned, I poured in eight cups of chicken broth (not stock) followed by the juice and zest of 1-1/2 lemons. If you want a very lemony soup, use two lemons.
I covered the pot and brought the mixture to a simmer, then added a cup of orzo and the chicken, which had been coarsely chopped.
The soup was allowed to cook at medium heat for about 15 minutes until the pasta was done. Just before removing from the heat, I added a cup of trimmed and chopped baby spinach. After the spinach was heated through and wilted, my summer comfort meal was ready to go.
I sat down to a bowl of summery, lemony goodness with a comforting dose of flavorful chicken and pasta. As I lifted a spoonful, a clap of thunder signaled yet another monsoon. However, with my dish of comfort food in front of me, I barely noticed.
For dessert, the TV caterer baked miniature vanilla cupcakes and layered them with buttercream icing and colorful summer berries in tall Mason jars. For a festive touch, she topped the metal lids with matching ribbon and stickers describing the contents. Lined up on the dessert table, they created gasps of excitement from guests of all ages.
I can't wait to experiment with different flavors and colors of cake, icing, and berries for summer gatherings. I’m already envisioning transporting Mason jars filled with yellow - with a drop of food coloring to create gold - cupcakes and berries - black ones, of course - to Southern Miss tailgate parties in the fall. Likewise, I'm sure your team's colors can easily be transformed into cupcakes in a jar.
But until then, let’s spend the rest of the summer treating ourselves to a little comfort food when rain dampens our spirits and nothing else will do.
Berry Good Cupcakes in a Jar
For the cupcakes:
1 box of your favorite cake flavor- I used Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme (you can make them from scratch, but because the cakes soak up icing and juice from the berries, the cakes are very moist) Makes 24-30 medium cupcakes
Assortment of berries: sliced strawberries, blueberries, blackberries
For the cream cheese frosting:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
2 sticks butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
Prepare cupcake batter according to package directions. Spray cupcake tins with cooking spray and fill each indention ½ full with the batter. Bake according to directions, then once they are cool, slice each cupcake in half lengthwise (not from the top). When finished, you will have a stack of tops and a stack of bottoms.
Place one cupcake bottom in a jar, then add icing to a piping bag or Ziploc bag with the tip cut off and add a layer of icing over the bottom cupcake. Add a sprinkle of berries to the icing, then place on top of the cupcake on the layer of frosting and berries. Gently flatten the top part of the cupcake inside the jar and top with another layer of icing. If there’s room, add a few more berries to the top.
Cover with lids and decorate with stickers, ribbon or whatever you’d like.
Supplies you will need:
A dozen or more 8-ounce glass jars with gold lids and rings
Pastry bag and decorative tips or large Ziploc bag
Round stickers (many websites have downloadable links to jar stickers; you can also use large white address labels and cut then into circles, then decorate)