Melting Pot: In praise of chicken soup

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The holidays are over. After weeks of cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner and taking care of others, I am left with the leftovers and dishes after everyone has gone home. And while I enjoyed watching movies and playing a host of board games, I now basically just feel like a slug. What better way to kick off the new year than by taking care of me? I want some good soup!

Soup is one of the most forgiving of all recipes and most soothing of all foods. I love how the humblest of ingredients contribute to creating the most nurturing of comestibles. Cleaning out your refrigerator? No problem. Get out a big pot and start adding stuff. Throw in that half can of chopped tomatoes. How about adding that ham bone or turkey carcass? Those limp vegetables left over from the New Year’s Eve veggie platter? Chop them up and put them in. Cover the whole thing with water, pour in the open half bottle of white wine, add a few seasonings and you’ve got soup.

Soup can be as cheap to make as you please – and as delicious as you can imagine. You can get fancy or stay plain. Some tricks, however, are important. A sautéed and caramelized onion contributes to the soup’s essence and aroma. Peppercorns, thyme and parsley create complexity. A good homemade broth, which is the most economical and most wholesome, delivers depth of flavor. And while vegetable broth can be delectable and nutritious, I really like my broth for soup to be made from a chicken.

To satisfy my “me time,” I recently made an exquisite soup by cooking a whole cut-up chicken for the broth. When it was ready, I strained the chicken broth into a bowl and picked the meat off the bones. In the big soup pot, I sautéed an onion and some mushrooms. Then I looked in my refrigerator and got creative. I added some chopped fresh herbs and the leftover wild rice casserole from last weekend’s dinner, threw in the chicken meat I had reserved and finally poured in the appetizing broth. Before I knew it, I had a soup that was both yummy and good for what ailed me.

Research has shown there are some components in chicken soup that reduce inflammation, that the amino acids present help soothe bronchitis and, while inconclusive, that in general chicken soup seems to alleviate the symptoms of many illnesses. There are legends of chicken soup curing colds or flu, aches and pains, melancholy and pneumonia. Many countries use chicken soup in folk medicine; it’s often referred to as “Jewish penicillin.” Even the son of Mahatma Gandhi, when ill with typhoid, was treated with a diet of chicken soup (against the will of his vegetarian parents) and recovered. Chicken soup is an international comfort food, from the noodle pho of Vietnam to creamy avgolemono from Greece to our own Taos staple, chicken and green chile posole. There are plenty of versions of chicken soup to choose from to help make it your “favorite medicine.”

The other day, I saw a video from Jacques Pepin, the great French chef. He said that recipes should be guidelines, not rules – and that every time you cook, it brings new circumstances to the effort. A slight difference in the ingredients, cooking time or technique will change everything. But the variation in result doesn’t mean you’ve failed at re-creating the recipe. You have succeeded, instead, in adding your own touches.

I wholeheartedly agree. We should always add a bit of our own personality and taste to the mixture. We should use a recipe as a framework, not a decree. There is no food like soup for letting us do this, for allowing our creativity and ingenuity to shine and, by the way, for helping us clean out the refrigerator. And you might even ward off that winter cold in the process.

The best all-purpose chicken soup

For about three quarts of broth

• 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts – or a whole cut-up chicken – or a carcass from 1 roasted chicken, plus 2-3 cups shredded cooked chicken

• 1 yellow onion, unpeeled, rinsed and cut into chunks

• 2 carrots, washed well and cut into chunks

• 1 piece well-washed leek (optional, but nice), roughly chopped

• 2 garlic cloves, smashed, peel removed

• 2 stalks celery, washed and roughly chopped

• 3 sprigs parsley

• 2 bay leaves

• 1 sprig fresh thyme or good pinch of dried thyme

• 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

• 5-6 whole cloves

• 10-12 cups water

Combine above ingredients in a large pot. (If using the carcass, reserve the cooked chicken for later.) Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 1-1/2 hours or longer if using a whole chicken.

With tongs, remove the chicken pieces or carcass to a medium bowl and allow to cool somewhat. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and skin and shred by hand or with a couple of forks. Set meat aside.

Strain the broth into another pot or a large bowl. Remove any remaining bones. Press the vegetables against the strainer with a heavy wooden spoon to release more of the juices. Discard the strained vegetables.

Finishing touches

This is where your creativity comes in. Using the large soup pot, heat 2 tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add a chopped onion and sauté over medium heat until translucent. Add a bay leaf, some fresh or dried thyme, a 1/4 cup chopped parsley. Stir to combine.

Add any or all of the following: 2-3 diced carrots, 2-3 diced celery stalks, 8 ounces sliced mushrooms, 1 cup chopped green chile, 1-2 crushed cloves of garlic, some grated ginger, 2 cups diced butternut squash, zucchini, potatoes, cooked posole. You get the picture. Sauté until tender, but not mushy. Add the reserved chicken, a cup of white wine and that great broth. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15-30 minutes until vegetables are tender. Add cooked noodles or rice if desired. Add salt and pepper to taste or a dash of soy sauce. Stir in a little sour cream, coconut milk or cream if desired. Garnish with a handful of spinach, some chopped fresh basil, parsley or cilantro. Serve with a green salad and some good crusty bread or a flour tortilla. Enjoy!

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