How are you feeling? Not so great? Yeah, I thought so.
When someone sneezes at my house, I reach for a chicken – to make soup. It’s what my mom always did. And I’ve always used her recipe.
And if the husband or the son or whoever happened to sneeze isn’t actually under the weather, so much the better: The chicken soup idea has been planted, and I can’t shake it.
A simmering pot of soup fills the house with wonderful smells. Chicken soup was the fragrance of my childhood (along with Chanel No. 5, though never at the same time). And I always find diving into a big bowl of chicken-y broth with carrots, celery and noodles to be supremely restorative. No one needs to be ailing for chicken soup to be a splendid idea.
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Lots of cultures celebrate chicken soup. There’s Chinese wonton soup, Thai thom ka gai (with coconut and lemongrass), Mexican tortilla soup and many more. I love them all.
But for Ashkenazi Jews, no matter how far removed we are from the old country (wherever in Eastern Europe that may be), it’s a primal dish, a cornerstone of Jewish culture – right up there with bagels and chopped liver. And like bagels, it’s one of the few Ashkenazi dishes to have infiltrated mainstream American culture.
Campbell’s Chicken Soup: Is that Jewish or American? You get my drift.
Fragrant, delicious chicken soup is very easy to make – easier, I’d say, than running out to a deli to pick some up, should you happen to be in possession of a chicken, celery and carrots. In fact, if you’ve never made it before, once you try it, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to make your own.
It goes like this: Cut up a chicken, ask the butcher to cut up one for you or buy one already cut up. The benefit of the first two are you can keep the back and neck to put in the soup – they add lots of richness. Cover it in cold water, bring to a simmer and skim. Add aromatic vegetables: onion, carrot and celery. My mom always added parsnip, too, so I follow suit, but it’s not essential. If you skip it, add another carrot. Throw in a bunch of dill. Let it simmer 1 1/2 hours or two hours.
Add salt and pepper, and it’s basically done.
My mom always cooked fine egg noodles separately, put some in each bowl, and then strained the soup directly into each, along with carrots and celery. She would give us a plate of the chicken separately, and I shudder to think now that we often ate it with ketchup.
I usually strain the whole soup – reserving the chicken meat, carrots, celery and parsnip and adding them back into the clear soup. Put some cooked noodles in each bowl and ladle it in.
My recipe includes measurements, but you don’t have to measure things to make chicken soup; it’s a soup made by feel. My mom never put garlic in hers, but I often do – especially if the soup is serving as Jewish penicillin. Then I throw in a whole head, separated into cloves but not peeled. Sometimes I add a leek, or parsley.
Joan’s chicken soup
Serves 6 to 8
A 4- to 5-pound chicken, including the back and neck, cut into pieces
1 medium onion, diced
4 to 5 stalks celery (7-8 ounces), cut into 2-inch lengths
3 large or 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 small parsnip (about 4 ounces), peeled, or a 4-ounce piece of a larger parsnip
1 head garlic (optional), separated into cloves but not peeled
1 small bunch dill
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the chicken pieces in a large soup pot and cover with 8 cups of cold water, or a little more if necessary to cover. Bring to a simmer over high heat. Once it’s simmering, turn the heat to medium. Use a skimming spoon or other large metal spoon to remove the scum that rises to the surface. Skim several more times, until no more scum rises. Pour in 1 cup of cold water and skim again, until it’s clear on top.
Add the onion, celery, carrots, parsnip, garlic (if using) and dill, bring to a full simmer, then adjust heat so the soup is simmering gently. Let it simmer for another hour and a quarter or hour and a half (your entire living space will smell wonderful!), then stir in the salt.
Strain the soup into a clean pot, reserving the chicken and vegetables, and pressing gently on the solids. Add the celery, carrots and parsnip back into the clear soup, along with any garlic cloves you happen to see (if you used them). Remove and discard the skin and bones from the chicken pieces (along with the dill and onions), and add the chicken meat back into the soup. Taste the soup and add salt if necessary. Keep the soup warm until ready to serve.
A few minutes before you’re ready to serve the soup, boil the noodles in salted water until tender, then drain. Place some noodles into each of the bowls, then ladle soup on top. Pass a pepper grinder so everyone can add freshly ground black pepper to taste.