UPDATE: Whilst I'm keen for you to continue reading the rest of this post, I wanted to point out that I've altered my recipe a bit, for no other reason than to make it more tasty. You can find the new one here.
Healthy does not necessarily mean tasteless. Chicken soup is the finest example of this. It is known by a whole host of names, but two of the most common demonstrate health and taste are not mutually exclusive. The soup is renowned for its curative powers and has earned the tag, the Jewish penicillin. This is not simply hyperbole, there is surprisingly enough, some medical evidence supporting the claim. It is also known in Yiddish as Goldene Yoich, which translates as golden broth. The reason for the distinctive colour was because of the golden chicken fat globules floating on the top of the soup. I accept in these fat-fearing times of ours, it might be difficult to make the causal leap of chicken fat=penicillin-like benefits, but given the other ingredients are common or garden vegetables and aromatics, I like to think that the fat off the humble bird plays a key part.
I've realised that one of the major problems with this occasional series on kosher food is that I feel compelled to keep referring to the differences and similarities between Ashkenazi, Sephardi and any other Jewish traditions. Chicken soup it seems, once again throws up these issues. Initially I thought I was on safe ground with this archetypal Ashkenazi dish - how I wrong I was. When people think of chicken soup, they think of boiled poultry, some root vegetables, a couple of aromatics and some sort of dense dumpling thrown in for good measure. My trusty culinary sidekick, Claudia Roden's The Book of Jewish Food informs me that under names as beautifully diverse as Shorba bi Djaj (p268) and Gondy (p278), chicken broth, in various guises, is central to Jewish cuisine wherever you are. Whilst Roden notes "In the Sephardi world, chicken soup does not have the place it has in Ashkenazi culture", she then goes on to list five separate recipes for what is, at its most base, heated chicken, water, vegetables and carbs. There's no getting away from the fact that this combination is important for Jews, wherever they are.
The recipe and directions I give here are pretty standard. I've been making it like this for years and although it reflects a number of influences (my mother, my grandmothers and no doubt the odd cookery book or two), this is a pretty traditional, bog standard method for making the father of all soups. My one addition, that my maternal grandmother in particular would not recognise, is a clove of garlic. For me, it adds a peppery depth to the soup that is otherwise unattainable - it lifts it to another level. For any garlicphobes out there GO AWAY. Only kidding, you're allowed to stay, but please include it in your soup, it won't end up tasting like a Frenchman's armpit, but it will taste delicious.
So here's my list of ingredients. As you'll notice I haven't given weights for anything. As I see it there's no point. You don't want to make an exact amount, you want to make enough to last you and friends and family a few servings over a few days. This recipe will offer up the best part of 10 decent size bowls of soup:
- 1 roaster chicken with giblets & feet
- 1 onion, peeled and halved
- 1 carrot, peeled and chopped into large pieces
- 1 stick of celery, destringed and chopped into large pieces
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1 stick leek, out leaves removed and chopped into large pieces
- 2 fresh bay leaves (if using dried, just use 1)
- 4-5l water (or enough to cover all the ingredients in a large pot)
Or to put that list another way
Frankly the directions couldn't be much more straightforward. Put everything into a large pan and heat slowly. As the pot comes close to the boil, impurities from the chicken and vegetables will bubble to the surface of the soup, keep skimming this away. You'll know when this tiresome but crucial job is done, when there is no more froth (grey, black or white) sitting at the top of the pot. What you need to make sure you don't do is remove too much of the fat. Afterall, the golden globules are what give it its taste and in my view, its health benefits.
The crucial element to this dish is how long you cook it for and how many giblets and feet you have in it. Although the chicken feet and giblets are not the most aesthetically pleasing bits of the bird, the gelatin that comes from boiling them, adds a real depth to the dish. Harold McGee in Food & Cooking (p628) explains the thickening and emulsifying benefits of gelatin in soups. In McGee's example he offers up bouillabaisse, but the theory is the same with chicken soup. Fat is rendered from the bird as it is boiled, as is gelatin, from the bones of the bird. "When the soup is at a vigorous boil, the fat breaks up into tiny globules and is coated in the stabilising layer of gelatin. The consistency is thus a combination of gelatin's viscosity and the enriching creaminess of the emulsified oil droplets."
In my experience the ideal cooking time is to bring the soup up to the boil and let it simmer for two hours. Remove the chicken, giblets and feet. The chicken is delicious eaten as is, with a bit of the broth poured over it and some chips. Throw away the giblets and feet. Let the soup cool and put it in the fridge, if possible for 48 hours. The longer you leave it for (within reason) the better it gets, the flavours seem to mature as the soup settles after cooking. Then, when you are ready to eat it, reheat, bring to the boil and serve. It's that simple.
Chicken soup is not only easy to make, there are no real secrets to it - any that are, are busted by McGee's science. As with any cooking, the higher quality your ingredients, the higher quality of the finished product. Leaving the soup to sit in the fridge for a couple of days does no harm either. The trick of this is the simplicity and patience required to make it.
The one thing I haven't yet mentioned and will save for another post, is the glorious subject of knaidlach, kreplach, mandlin and all the dumpling type things you have to have in your soup. The photo below is my finished product, with a fluffy, light kneidle (singular of knaidlach).