Capitol Pill | Close to the bone

Marya 1934I am beside myself mad / sad / disheartened about so many things right now. I am not sure there’s any point in enumerating the reasons why, other than just to verbally perform the equivalent of hurling glassware into an empty fireplace in hopes of drowning out the screeching of a broken heart with the sound of shattering crystal against stone — something I do actually recommend when called for.

So, rather than subject you nice people to my current laundry list of things that make me want to replace my morning cup of tea with a mug of bourbon, I am going to offer you something a little more useful for the season: My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup Recipe. (Sincere apologies to those of you who would never eat a chicken, for whom I will gladly furnish my own excellent miso soup recipe if you come by the shop mad about this, demanding some kind of amends.)

People around the world make versions of this to heal from illness, recuperate from depletion and soothe the weary soul.  Anyone can make it – all you need is a really big pot, a handful of ingredients, the ability to operate a stove and a couple of hours. In the waiting period between turning on the soup and straining it, I suggest reading a book, a real book, made of paper pages that you can turn, and taking a break from all the fancy gadgets with the screens… but that’s just my opinion and could lead to a rant… so, here you go, as dictated to me dozens of times over the (rotary) phone by the marvelous Marya Shepanik:

Get a whole chicken. Remove the little packet of items that’s often hidden inside of it. (I do actually cook the liver because that is the food of my people, but I can’t deal with the other bits.) Put the chicken in a large stockpot. Tell it thank you for letting you eat it. Mean it, don’t just bullshit it, if you are actually going to talk to the chicken. (Marya most likely did not talk to her chickens, but if she did, she was probably cussing about something unrelated.)

Toss in these things: 2-3 large onions, 5-6 stalks of celery, 5-6 large carrots, an entire head of garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons of thyme, a couple of bay leaves, a tablespoon of whole black peppercorns, and a big pinch of salt. (Don’t over-salt it; you can add more later.) Fill the pot with water so it comes up over all the ingredients plus a few more inches. Top it off with more water while cooking if necessary; just make sure the top of your water line is well below the rim of the pot so it doesn’t boil over. Nobody wants that. If you like, you can add a knob of fresh ginger and one or two star anise in place of the thyme.

Turn the stove on high and cover the pot, keeping an eye on it until it boils. Once it has reached a full boil, turn it down to medium heat and keep at a good strong simmer but not a full on rolling boil for about an hour and a half.  I know – that’s not very specific. Sorry. You’ll know when it’s done because the chicken will long have cooked through to the point where the meat is falling off the bones, the vegetables are soft and the onions translucent, and the broth will have a good strong flavor. That’s when you turn it off.

Let it cool down a bit before you strain it.  Taste it, and decide if you want to add more salt or pepper or other seasoning. Lift the chicken out first and set it on a platter, taking the meat apart to add to the soup or use for other recipes. I save the carrots as well, slicing them into the soup, and if I am making this because I’m coming down with a cold, I eat the onions right then and there. The rest of what’s left floating in the pot I discard into the compost after straining the broth.

You can eat the soup right away, and it also freezes well. You can deliver it to friends when they are sick, like one of my favorite galpals did for me recently – because I had failed to make my autumn stash in time, and because I am the fool who, despite owning an herb shop, did not have any herbs at home when the stupid cold hit. It worked. It works every time.

We’ve asked Karyn Schwartz, owner of the Sugarpill apothecary on E Pine, to contribute to CHS about health and Hill living on a semi-regular basis. If you’re an expert and want to share with the community in a recurring CHS column, we’d like to hear from you.

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4 thoughts on “Capitol Pill | Close to the bone

  1. This reads like our family’s (Polish) chicken soup recipe. We use parsley instead of thyme (must try that next time), and add parsley root whenever we have it (freezes well; I buy a lot when I see it). The latter’s contribution is subtle, but valuable.

    Yes, everyone, save the carrots! We kids made sure that the carrots were equitably distributed when the soup was done.

    Living on the Pacific Rim, I’ve learned to add ginger and garlic…and always do now., although I grew up on very thin egg noodles for our chicken soups, I’ve found that the yam/sweet potato and the cornstartch noodles available in Asian markets work are wonderful because they absorb the chicken flavor if you give them the time to do so, and are very soothing on a cold- and flu-bothered throat.

    BTW, those roasted chickens that Costco sells make great soup, still with or without most of the meat.

    Thanks for the article on this windy, wet day!

  2. Now my mouth is watering. My Bubbie (grandmother) made a mean soup in her day, and my mother has carried on the tradition. They both added parsnips to the veggies you’ve listed here. They’d add the parsnips, carrots, and onion back to the soup.

  3. If you add a tiny bit of vinegar, it helps the bones break down a bit and you’ll get a little more calcium goodness in there. I also like to add a parmesan rind (of which I have half a dozen languishing in my freezer for just this purpose) in the last 45 minutes of cooking to add incredible flavor. Thanks for the reminder that it’s time to start building the stash for the cold months.

  4. For some really great chicken soup, find a hen or a capon, instead of the chicken you get at the store (which is a young bird that hasn’t really had time to develop much flavor. If you buy at a regular supermarket, remember, these birds are like 8-12 weeks old when they are packaged. You can get a little more plump at a coop or natural food store. You have to hunt a little to find a real bird, like a hen.

    Also, why stop at carrots? Rutabaga! Turnip! Peas are wonderful in chicken soup. And parsley, possible more than 1 bunch. But back to carrots. I’ve experimented with, can you put too many carrots in a chicken soup? At least within the size of pots that I have, the answer seems to be, no.