Fall is my favorite time to cook…we have almost the entire harvest to work with and all at their peak freshness. At this time of year we start thinking about getting ready for winter. We need some really good tasting, nourishing, soul warming things to sustain us through the cold dark days ahead. There are signs up everywhere for flu shots, its time to kick our spirits and our immune systems into high gear lest we succumb to the forces that would consume us. This is the time for Chicken Soup and I am hard pressed to think of a culture on this planet that does not have a version or two of this magical elixir.
I am not talking about the canned stuff or the powdered salt and maltodextrin with a little food coloring and some chicken fat (my grandfather always called that stuff mock chicken soup); I am talking about real chicken soup. Most people don’t even know what that tastes like anymore. Escoffier describes the process of making consommé which I used to make with regularity in my professional kitchens and have rarely seen anywhere in years. All clear broth, chicken soups available in cans are based on the crystal clear droplets of heaven Escoffier once made, but all fall far short. Even the soups you find in restaurants today are mere shadows of what this broth is supposed to taste like. Modern kitchens rely on something called “soup base” which is based on the flavor profile of the original but that too does not compare…there are no short-cuts. The latest thing is those convenient boxes of “chicken stock” that line the shelves in the store promising to give you the tools to cook like a chef at home, but have you ever tasted what is in the boxes? It is nothing short of terrible and it makes me cry. In the professional kitchen we have a saying…”garbage in=garbage out”…don’t cook with anything that does not taste good on its own!
Chicken Stock is simple to make, almost as easy as boiling water, in fact. It is the first step to making great chicken soup. We always had chicken stock in my kitchens, used: to begin the soups, to use as a cooking liquid and as the foundation for pan sauces. In the classical kitchen this stock is called “Fond” which implies that it is the foundation. The idea is that we build flavor upon flavor to achieve something truly magnificent. I might define Stock as the chemical extraction of protein and flavor compounds from meat, bones and vegetables. The chemical, in this case, is Cold Water. The proteins are soluble in cold water and when heated to a slow boil exclude impurities thereby clarifying the stock. Most stocks take no more that 2 hours to make (with the possible exception of certain brown stock that I let go longer) and are full of nutrients that the Weston A. Price Foundation extol as “magical”. There is no reason that this can’t be done at home and I urge everyone to do it for health reasons as well as flavor. This will require some planning, but the results will be more than worth it…I promise. In fact, with some frugal purchasing, one can make about a gallon of really good quality stock for less than the cost of a similar quantity of those boxes of putrid, colored water. The stock can be put into small packages to be stored in the freezer for a long time – ready to use when you need it.
Recipe for Chicken Stock:
5 pounds of chicken parts (whole or otherwise…see text for explanation)
1/2 pound onion, rough chopped
1/2 pound carrot, peeled and rough chopped
1/2 pound celery, rough chopped
Herbs like parsley stems, bouquet garni or bay leaves (optional)
It is unfortunate that “soup chickens” (egg laying hens past their egg laying prime) are no longer available. Soup chickens were tough but had plenty of connective tissue and flavor which made them perfect for stock and the were inexpensive. When it comes to the chicken there are many options: one could use a whole chicken, backs and necks, feet (if and when they are available at the store – very highly recommended for their gelatin content), gizzards and hearts (no livers which will make the stock bitter), legs, or just rib bones saved from previously trimmed chickens and saved in the freezer for this purpose. I always look for something on sale or at a great price. For this stock I found chicken feet at $.89/pound and leg quarters for $.69/pound. The procedure is simple and is as follows:
Place all of the chicken bits (all joints should be separated to facilitate maximum flavor in the stock) in a 2 gallon stock pot. Place the cleaned, chopped vegetables on top of the chicken and cover with about a gallon of cold water. Do not try to rush things by using hot water; the collagen in the meat and the albumin in the vegetables which will give the finished stock its protein and clarity, are soluble in cold water. Over high heat bring the stock to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer the stock for about an hour and a half. Let cool covered at room temperature for about an hour, strain and refrigerate the stock. The left over vegetables have been cooked to death and are of little value, but the chicken meat can be used for chicken salad or shredded chicken even though it is a little over-cooked…(waste not: want not). The finished stock should be the consistency of soft gelatin when cold (I usually let it cool in the refrigerator overnight) and can be skimmed once cooled so there is virtually no fat. Once the stock is skimmed it can be used as a foundation for soup or stew, or parceled out and frozen for later use. Please note that there is no salt in this recipe. Salt should be added to finished soups not in the foundation where too much reduction could lead to a salty finished product.
On to the Chicken Soup…chicken soup like this was always holiday fare in my mother’s house. We usually had ours with matzo balls…but I still remember the the amazing aroma of the stock as it filled the house the day before the holiday. The next day my mother would always declare success when we saw how the stock had gelled overnight, the broth was always rich and flavorful…the perfect first course. I added a little of my classical training here by taking the the stock and fortifying it with some more raw chicken and fresh vegetables to be served with the broth. I also like to add thick noodles and matzo balls which turn the soup into a meal. While this falls short of the splendor of a true consommé, the fortified soup has much more flavor than the original stock and this is much easier than the complicated clarification process needed to make a consommé.
Chicken Soup Recipe: Serves 4 generously
6 cups of cold chicken stock
1 pound of raw chicken meat, diced (white meat works well here, but well trimmed leg meat is great too)
4 carrots, peeled and sliced about 3/8 inch thick
2 stalks of celery, cut to be about the same size as the carrots
1/2 large onion cut about the same size as the other vegetables
Matzo balls (follow recipe on the matzo meal box, do not use matzo ball mix)
Noodles (there are too many great noodles out there, I like thick egg noodles)
Salt and pepper to taste ( you should with 1 Tbsp of kosher salt and see how you like it)
Place the stock, the chicken meat, and the vegetables into a pot that will hold them and stir to combine well. Bring the soup to a boil over high heat stirring occasionally and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 30 minutes skimming any fat or scum that comes to the surface. When the vegetables are cooked (but not yet mushy) add the salt and adjust seasoning. In the meantime, cook the noodles and/matzo balls and hold until you are ready to serve. I always keep the noodles separate so they don’t overcook in the broth. To serve pour a generous ladle of soup with all of the chicken and vegetable over the cooked noodles. This can be a first course or a hearty meal and is guaranteed to nourish not just your body but your soul too. Enjoy!