Chicken soup has a meaning far beyond its role as a nourishing bowl. Serve chicken soup to someone and you’re offering warmth and love. You’ve gone out of your way. You’re taking care of them. You want them to feel better. A bowl is comforting, nourishing, uplifting. Shoot me if I ever use the words penicillin and chicken soup in the same sentence, but its restorative powers are legendary and real.
My favorite chicken soup story (I have many) concerns a woman who went on and on about her soup and how wonderful it was. She had a secret to what made it so good but no one was allowed to know. She had told only her daughters and practically asked them to sign an NDA.
Decades later, she decided I would appreciate her recipe. It had not been written down anywhere before in case someone happened to rifle through her recipe box and discover it. Reading it, I learned that the well-guarded secret to her perfect pot was two spoonfuls of chicken bouillon granules. She went to all the trouble of simmering chicken bones and vegetables for an hour, straining that broth, discarding the solids, then cooking chicken parts and more vegetables in the same broth to ladle into bowls. She diminished all that effort by adding cheap seasoning with a fake chicken taste. There are a hundred unattractive metaphors for what this well-meaning but misguided cook did to pure culinary gold by stirring in those granules.
A pot of chicken soup should be the first thing all young cooks learn to make in the style of their own cultures. Generations of cooks in my family made Jewish chicken soup, simmered in a giant aluminum pot, a chicken with feet (we kids fought over those delicious, bony little feet). The soup spent the day bubbling on a back burner and the chicken collapsed into the spoon when my grandmother dug it out of the broth. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that the soup was watery. There’s only so much you can ask of one little chicken, even with feet that are full of collagen.
Today, we’re all reinventing the way our parents did everything, and this time we’re doing it right. Take me seriously when I say that I make the best chicken soup I know. I’ve tasted soup in delis in every city I’ve visited (cf. bouillon granules, above), in remote villages, made by grandmothers still working the old way, and around many Jewish holiday tables.
What I want in homemade chicken soup is for the meaty flavor of the chicken to be front and center. It goes without saying that you must start with a quality bird and flavorful root vegetables. But the real secret to great soup is more chicken and less water. The reason most pots of broth don’t offer savory depths of flavor is that the bird-to-liquid ratio is off. Up the poultry quotient, decrease the liquid. Just use chicken parts (especially wings, which make fabulous soup) or bones or chicken feet, if you can find some — and plenty of them. You want to achieve what I call Chicken Jell-O. The soup, when it cools, is solid with gelatin drawn from the bones.
Pull out your soup pot and let’s get going. You’ll need about 4 pounds of chicken parts. I often add three or four wings to the pot with a whole chicken that has been quartered with kitchen shears. If you simmer the chicken whole, when you lift it out of the finished soup it falls apart, so you might as well begin with pieces. With your fingers, remove the dark liver-like bits that run along the inside of the backbone. If you buy chicken backs and necks, clean them the same way. One combination I also like is chicken bones and bone-in thighs, which deliver much more flavor than delicate breast meat.
For vegetables you need a large onion, about four large carrots (multi-colored look grand in soup, especially the bright yellow ones, but avoid the purple, which turn the broth too dark), a stalk of celery, and a rutabaga. Rutabaga cubes are the unsung heroines of my chicken soup. They’re in the same family as turnips but don’t have a sharp turnip taste. Rutabagas are sweeter, and in the pot, they turn pale yellow. Many cooks add a parsnip or two, but again, like turnips, they’re strong and can dominate the other flavors.
Cut the onion and rutabaga into 1-inch pieces, thinly slice the celery, but leave the carrots in large pieces. If they’re slender, just halve them crosswise; cut large ones in half lengthwise, then into long lengths.
Transfer the vegetables and chicken to the soup pot with just enough cold water to cover everything by an inch. Never add commercial chicken broth or bone broth at this point or ever. Don’t let it anywhere near your homemade soup. Add a generous spoonful of salt, about a tablespoon. Bring to a boil and skim the surface. Then lower the heat, add a bay leaf, a few whole peppercorns, some parsley stems tied together (chop the leaves to use as a garnish), and cover with the lid. You’ll have to skim the surface thoroughly and repeatedly, every 15 minutes or so during simmering, to keep the broth clear. The liquid should barely bubble so the fat from the chicken doesn’t blend into the broth and give it an unpleasant taste.
Give it an hour, or a little longer if the meat hasn’t pulled away from the bones, and you’re done. Instead of straining, use a large slotted spoon to lift out the vegetables so they stay intact and transfer them to a large container. The chicken goes into a bowl until it’s cool, then use your hands to discard the skin and bones and any pockets of fat, and shred the meat into pieces. Now you can strain the broth into a large container, or another pot, let it cool, and chill it. The next day remove the solidified fat from the top of the broth, and return the chicken and vegetables to it. Bring it to a boil and let it barely simmer for five minutes.
If you want to add noodles or matzo balls, cook them separately rather than in the broth (they’ll soak it up and make it cloudy). Same for rice. Add any of these to the bottom of the bowls before ladling in the soup. I like lots of chicken and vegetables in each bowl with a sprinkle of parsley, so it’s a main course and the most welcoming meal on a frosty night.
This soup is solid gold. It comes with bragging rights.