The inspiration for this soup came from one of my favorite books, Chinese Gastronomy, written by
Cut the watercress above the band holding each bunch together and discard the lower stems. Sort through and pinch off any thick stems and wilted or discolored leaves. Pump gently in cool water to clean, drain, and shake off excess water. Put aside ⅔ of the prettiest, most tender pieces. Take the remaining ⅓, strip the stems of leaves, and discard the stems. Blanch the larger pile of watercress and the smaller pile of leaves separately in plain boiling water to cover for 10 seconds, drain promptly, and rush under cold water to cool. Press gently to remove excess water, then set aside in the original 2 piles. The watercress may be blanched a day in advance and refrigerated, sealed airtight. Bring to room temperature before making the soup.
Cut the chicken into chunks, then add the chicken and the small pile of watercress leaves to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife. Add the remaining purée ingredients to the work bowl, process with on-off turns to chop, then let the machine run to achieve a purée. If you do not have a food processor, mince the chicken and the watercress leaves finely by hand, then chop with one or two equally weighted knives to reduce to a paste. Blend in a bowl with the remaining purée ingredients, stirring briskly in one direction until combined.
The purée may be sealed airtight with plastic film pressed directly on the surface and refrigerated overnight. Bring to room temperature before steaming.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer).
Evenly grease the inside of a 1-cup rice bowl, four ¼-cup brioche molds, or six ⅛-cup tartlet tins with a generous film of chicken fat. Pack the purée firmly into the bowl or molds, leveling the top with a spatula and smoothing the edges neatly.
About 20–30 minutes in advance of serving, bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat. Add the bowl or molds to the steaming rack, cover the steamer, then steam the purée over medium-high heat about 15 minutes for a single bowl or 10 minutes for ½-cup or smaller molds, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Do not be alarmed if there is a bit of liquid floating on the top of the purée when you check it for doneness.
While the purée is steaming, put a large tureen or individual soup bowls in a low oven to warm. Bring the stock to a simmer in a non-aluminum saucepan, and season with kosher salt or pepper-salt to taste. Cover the pot and keep the stock at a gentle simmer.
Remove the bowl or molds from the steamer, and invert to unmold. If you have steamed the purée in a ricebowl, slice it pie-fashion into wedge-like “petals” ⅛ inch thin. Fluff the watercress to loosen, and portion it between the heated bowls. Put the petals or smaller molded “flowers” on top. Ladle the soup into the bowls, pull up a piece of watercress here and there with chopsticks if needed, then serve at once.
This soup is best freshly made. Leftovers can be reheated by steaming in a covered bowl, but will taste faded by comparison.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.