When sheets of sleet slash the windowpanes and blizzards blow white snowflakes into a whirlwind there is one undeniable consolation: Chicken Soup. It’s been called “Jewish penicillin” for good reason: Chicken Soup soothes and warms you from within. If you have a cold it is certain therapy, providing the fluids you need if you have a fever. Some doctors even say that the broth’s steamy vapors can help clear the sinuses better than some non-prescription medications and without any negative side effects.
But Chicken Soup goes beyond cure. This one dish, the archetypical recipe that seems inborn in a Jewish mother’s being, is like an electric blanket set on high. A log crackling in the fireplace. A big hug. Not only good to eat but to smell. Aromatherapy.
Chicken Soup is one of the ways we nurture and nourish.
For all of these reasons, Chicken Soup is one of my go-to dinners during the winter and, I suspect, the same is true for lots of people. I get at least two meals out of it: the soup and vegetables on the first day and chicken salad, pot pie or some other leftover-dish the next.
When I was a little girl my grandmother made Chicken Soup that included what she called ayala — unborn eggs — little yolk spheres that were poached in the broth. Some were as small as marbles, others a little bigger and to my taste memory they were as light and fluffy as angel cake. My brothers and I would fight over the last of them.
Alas, we can’t find those yellow wonders today, but the Chicken Soup is still wonderful and happily, easy to cook. As my grandma used to say: start with a good chicken. She used a stewing hen, but my choice is usually a large roasting chicken or a cut-up chicken that weighs about four pounds. An older, heavier chicken is much more flavorful than a skinny broiler-fryer.
Don’t forget to remove the inner parts: neck, gizzard and so on. I cook these in the soup too, except for the liver, which would make the broth bitter, but you can save them for some other recipe or to make chicken stock. It’s also important to rinse the inside of the bird thoroughly; this helps keep the soup clear.
Place the chicken in a large soup pot, cover it with water and bring the liquid to a simmer. Don’t let the water come to a rumbling boil. Although some people call the dish “boiled chicken,” the meat is best when poached at a simmer, just below a boil, to keep it from becoming tough and rubbery.
Although soup can cook for hours without your input, you have to watch the water at this point because foamy-looking debris will rise to the surface and should be skimmed off (this process also helps keep the soup clear). Once this is finished, after about 10 minutes, you can add the remaining ingredients and go about your business until the chicken is soft and the soup is fully cooked.
What other ingredients? Here are the ones I always use: 4-5 carrots, one thick parsnip, one large peeled onion, 3-4 stalks of celery and a big bunch of fresh dill.
In the past I’ve tried recipes that included leeks and turnips. I used a parsley root a few times and sprigs of parsley too. Encouraged by my Argentinian sister-in-law I once made Chicken Soup that contained bell peppers and potatoes. But my family loves the original, my grandmother’s gold standard recipe.
I usually add 8-12 whole peppercorns to the soup, to give it a bit of a bite. I prefer peppercorns to ground pepper because they can be strained out before serving the soup. Because kosher chickens are soaked and salted, the broth usually needs no extra salt. Taste the soup about an hour after adding the vegetables; if you think more salt is needed, add it then.
I always let the soup cook until the chicken is practically falling off the bone. I scoop it out with an enormous strainer, then lift out the vegetables. Sometimes I strain the soup, but often I feel lazy and don’t bother. However, I do refrigerate the soup and other ingredients separately. That way the fat, which gives the soup flavor as it cooks, will rise to the surface and harden, and I can remove and discard it easily.
Gorgeously golden Chicken Soup is wonderful whether you serve it plain or with matzoh balls, cooked rice, kreplach or noodles. My family likes to make a one-pot meal of it; I remove the meat from the chicken, cut it (as well as the vegetables) into smaller pieces and serve it together.
Chicken Soup and a hunk of fresh Challah; it’s sunny and warm inside no matter what the weather is beyond.
Here’s the version of the Chicken Soup I usually prepare for my family. The Chicken Salad with Harissa and Chickpea Vinaigrette is one of the many recipes that have been created with leftover poached chicken. Harissa is a Middle Eastern condiment that’s made with chili peppers; it is available in many supermarkets. Just a small amount gives the dressing for this salad a pleasantly robust flavor. The second salad recipe is exactly what the title says: The Easiest Chicken Salad in the World, with apples and nuts for crunch and extra flavor.
Ronnie Fein has been a freelance food and lifestyle writer since 1980. She currently writes regular features for the food and community sections of daily newspapers and has written articles for Newsday, Cook’s Illustrated, Consumer’s Digest, Connecticut magazine, and many other publications. She operates the Ronnie Fein School of Creative Cooking in Stamford, Connecticut and is the author of three cookbooks, the most recent is
Hip Kosher (DaCapo, 2008).
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.