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Soup's On: A steaming bowl of chicken soup cures all ills.

Chicken Soup for the Tummy

Making chicken soup is as good for you as eating it

By Sara Bir

Let's talk about chicken soup seriously, because it is a serious matter. The distance we have put between ourselves and our food (purely circumstantial, of course) has created a kind of chicken-soup identity crisis, with any one of the following three scenarios resulting:

1. Junior: Mummy, where does chicken soup come from?

Mummy: Why, from a can!

2. Junior: Daddy, where does chicken soup come from?

Daddy: Why, canned chicken broth and boneless, skinless chicken breasts, son!

3. Junior: Billy, where does chicken soup
come from?

Billy: Well, first you get a chicken . . .

Ah! scenario three--there's the bottom-line truth, so obvious it seems scandalous. Believing that chicken soup comes from a can is like saying babies come from the stork. But the real-deal chicken soup--that's like when you say "Mommy and daddy love each other very much, but sometimes they love each other a lot. . . ." In both instances a child is the result, but in the latter, there is both process--a wonderful process!--and result.

So it is with chicken soup. It is a thing of rare satisfaction to put a chicken in a pot with vegetables and water and, four hours later, find yourself with soup. It's a closed circle with perceptible origins: the miracle of creation! The act of making chicken soup is both wholesome and empowering, and while there is nothing too ethically wrong with preparing chicken soup via can opener, every eater of chicken soup should, at least once, see his or her own chicken soup evolve from chicken to bowl. Which does take time, but it's not demanding of time; chicken soup more or less makes itself as its chef vacuums the rugs, folds the laundry, and drinks the wine.

First, you get a chicken, a whole chicken: a roaster or broiler or fryer. Usually I get the smallest one I can, about two to three pounds. Bones and skin and fat are the keys to a stock with flavor and body, and all three are handily located on a whole chicken. It's like nature's chicken-soup kit! While at the grocery store, get a head of celery, two or three onions, three carrots, and some kosher salt.

To begin, rinse off the chicken. Give it a little chicken shower to wash away any of the mystery-processing-plant evil lurking on its pimpled skin. Next, reach into the chicken and pull out the soggy bag of giblets. Give them to the doggie or do whatever you do with giblets. The neck goes into the pot with the chicken.

Ah, the pot. It should be spacious, big enough to give the chicken some room to float around in--float, not swim. Toss in a peeled carrot, a stalk or two of celery, and a chunked-up onion. Other things to add, if you have them, are a bay leaf or two and a few peeled garlic cloves. Herb stems, thyme or parsley, are helpful. Cover all of this with cold water (I don't know how much; just be logical, you're all grown up now) and bring to a boil over high heat.

Keep an eye on the pot. The very second it comes to a boil, turn it down to a gentle simmer. Scum, the yellow stuff that looks like the foam in a polluted creek, will rise to the top. Get rid of that by skimming it off with a slotted spoon. These are the impurities from the chicken rising to the top, begging to be disposed of. If the scum is not skimmed off, the soup will be cloudy and taste yucky. Usually you have to skim three times or so.

While the stock simmers (meaning teeny, tiny bubbles leisurely making their way up to the outer edges of the pot), prepare the vegetables that will go in the soup. The vegetables bouncing away in the stock pot were for the broth; these are for the soup. Peel three carrots or so (a parsnip is nice too, just for variety) and cut those up as you like--half-moon, medium dice . . .--just as long as everything ends up roughly the same size and is small enough to fit in the bowl of a soup spoon. Cut up the celery and, if you feel like it, an onion. All of this chopped stuff does not need to be pretty: remember, the flip side of pretty is rustic, which is always well-received.

Set the chopped vegetables aside. Once again, use your brain: if you like chunky soup, cut up more vegetables. Now check on the stock. The longer it simmers, the better--four hours is ideal. Three is pretty good. Two hours can work. The house will swell up with that poultry-onion-celery aroma that's definitive of Thanksgiving. When everyone is in a good mood because of the Thanksgiving smell and it's impossible to lift the chicken out of the stock because the meat slips right off the bones, it's probably ready. Put a colander over a large pot or bowl and strain the stock. Set the stock aside.

The solids left in the colander will look pretty rank. It's OK. Let them cool off for 10 minutes or so and then come back to pick the chicken. This is the one tedious task of chicken-soup making, but the meat pulls apart much more willingly while it's warm, so do it now. Get out a bowl for the skin and bones and junk, and set the cleaned, shredded meat into another bowl. Break up the larger pieces of chicken into bite-sized chunks, and look out for teeny little bones and gristle. They can be sneaky!

Next, defat the stock using a ladle. Once you think you've nabbed all of the fat, more will miraculously replace it. Persevere and skim on. Keep in mind that the rendered fat is now schmaltz, which is like fatty liquid gold, and you can save it for making matzo balls or adding to mashed potatoes.

Rinse out the stock pot. Set it on the stove over medium heat and add a teeny bit of just-skimmed chicken fat. Add the cut-up vegetables and cook until just barely tender, maybe five or 10 minutes (this is called sweating, and it builds up flavor.) Now add the defatted stock and the meat, bring to a simmer, and cook for half an hour or so. Throughout all of this, season the soup gradually with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper (it's easier to do it bit by bit, as the flavors change and deepen, rather than all at the end, because all of the tasting numbs your palate).

Presto: chicken soup. From this point on, you are now a complete person. Congratulations! Now feel free to indulge in the many moods of chicken soup:

*Add cooked noodles or cooked white or wild rice. You can cook the noodles or rice directly in the soup if you like, but keep in mind that in the leftover soup they will absorb stock and become soggy, especially if the soup's frozen.

*For matzo ball soup, use the precious schmaltz to make some matzo balls. Cook them in highly salted water or strained chicken stock.

*Instead of any of the above, make dumplings. You can even cheat and make them out of Bisquick, though I can tell you now they won't be as tasty.

*Roughly chopped fresh parsley or dill is very good with any of the above soups.

*For tortilla soup, leave out the cut-up celery and carrots. Simmer a canned chipotle pepper with the strained stock and chicken. Garnish soup with chopped tomato, fresh cilantro, shredded jack cheese, and corn tortilla strips. Pass lime wedges at the table.

*For the Scottish soup Cockie Leekie, leave out the cut-up celery and carrots. Sweat three small julienned leeks (white parts only--use the clean green tops in the stock) in a little bit of chicken fat, add stock and meat, and bring to a simmer. Add two peeled julienned potatoes and cook until tender. Garnish with thinly sliced prunes. This may sound pretty gross, but it's really very good.

*For Asian noodle soup, leave out the celery and carrots, and use any combination of the following: sliced scallions, cilantro stems, shredded bok choy or Napa cabbage, cubed firm tofu, or any kind of rice noodle. Garnish with soy sauce and sesame oil or fish sauce and lime wedges.

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From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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