Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My Formerly Feathered Friend

Fall is here.

First day of school...check. Umbrellas and rain boots pulled out of storage...check. Gutters cleaned...check.  First runny nose of the season...check.

Yep. It was Typhoid Willy and I must say, I felt a little ill-prepared.

It seems that just last week we were wearing floppy hats, dangling our feet off the back of the boat and sucking down snow cones.

But suntans gave way to sniffles last week so I found myself running to the trusty medicine basket only to find that our anti-viral arsenal was pitifully depleted.
A couple lingering Airbornes rattled in the plastic vial, an oddball Emergen-C poked itself out of a re-purposed sippy cup with some calcium chews stuck to the bottom, and a dusty tub of assorted Gummy-Vites snuggled up against a vat of Kirkland Ibuprofen...this isn't gonna do it, I thought...this calls for the big guns: chicken soup...STAT!

Time to drag out the cauldron and start brewing my witchy elixir...good old Grandma's penicillin...guaranteed to cure what ails ya.

I don't really know what it is about chicken soup but somehow, just putting it to simmer on the stove, makes me feel like I've got the answer. The answer to what, you ask. Well, I'm really not quite sure. Every time I plop a roaster into a pot filled with veggies and herbs, it just feels like I'm doing something right...something healing, something nurturing...unless you're the chicken, I guess.

Every year it seems I start to "soup up" sometime around Halloween only to hoist the big copper stock pot back onto the garage shelves shortly after the last spring sniffle.

During those months, you'll likely find a pot of stock simmering on my stove most murky Sunday afternoons. Generally I find motivation in my crisper drawer as I clear out for the week's fresh produce.

Ahhhh...a few floppy celery stalks, a carrot or two that have seen better days, a a couple of onion halves shoved toward the back of the drawer, wayward remnants of Tuesday's stir fry and Thursday's spaghetti sauce...together with the chicken-sicle I usually keep handy in the freezer, the dregs of my pantry are mere hours from transforming into something magically delicious.

So, into the pot it all goes: a decent-sized bird, about four stalks of celery or so, a few carrots, and an onion. If I have a bunch of parsley in the drawer, I rip of the stems and throw them in for good measure too. If you've got organic goods, all the better, but this time, I'm using the good old pesticide-ridden, hormone-laden stuff I have.

Next, fill the pot with water...enough to cover the chicken and veggies but not so much that it will boil over when your brew starts to bubble. At this point, I toss in a few peppercorns and a bay leaf or two.

Now, let the games begin. Turn the heat up to high until it starts to boil.  Skim off any yucky stuff that starts to float to the top then reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 45 minutes or so (or until your chicken is cooked through). This will depend on the size of your formerly feathered friend.

Carefully remove your chicken from the broth and place it in a bowl to rest until it is cool enough to handle then pick all of the meat from the bones and return them (the bones) to the pot. Reserve the meat for your soup.

At this point, the house should be filled with the smells of homey goodness. Look to the couch and find whatever loved one happens to be stretched out at the time and snuggle on up. Doze off to the muted sounds of cartoons, football or trashy TV and take deep breaths of the warm, steamy air wafting from the kitchen.

Now, let that stock simmer for at least a couple more hours or so on low heat to complete it's transformation from bath time for chicky to rich chicken stock.

The stock will look pretty ugly at this point: tired old veggies, chicken bones and all. Time to strain everything out and reserve the broth. I used a cheesecloth to remove any sediment this time as my stock was a little more murky than usual. Note: try not to let the pot boil beyond the initial heat up as this can make your stock cloudy.
Toss out the gross stuff (veggies and bones) and place the stock in the fridge. Most of the fat will rise and solidify on the top so you can easily scoop it off. Feel free to reserve the fat for later...it's good stuff! In Jewish cooking, it's called schmaltz and is a key ingredient in making matzo ball soup...rumored to be a more potent cure than penicillin! If nothing else, save it just cause it's fun to say the word schmaltz when someone asks what the gunk in the fridge is.

So, you've got your skimmed stock and your beautiful poached chicken...time to make some soup.

For a big pot of soup, I use about 2 cups of celery, about the same of carrots and about one cup of onion (all fresh...not the droopy stuff). Sometimes I like my veggies chunky but lately I've been in a small dice kind of mood. I find that if you plan to freeze your soup, the veggies can get a little rubbery if they are too big.

Saute your diced veggies in a combo of olive oil and butter until they are tender.

Add your yummy stock and the reserved chicken. I usually like to shred it into irregular pieces but feel free to cube it or whatever suits your taste at the time.

Time to season. I like to add a handful of finely minced fresh parsley, about a half tablespoon or so of dried crumbled thyme and lots of salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste (you'll be surprised how much salt it takes).

A couple of notes about seasoning: 1.) Under-salt the soup at first. Put a little in a bowl and let it cool. Taste it warm, taste it cool and go from there. I find that after smelling soup in my house all day, my taste buds are a little off...easier to add salt when you serve it than try to remove it later (no can do). Also, if you are making this for sickies, their taste buds are probably off too so they may need to adjust as well 2.) Feel free to experiment. I like my soup simple...just parsley, thyme, salt and pepper but you may have other ideas. 3.) I generally add noodles or rice at serving time. Boil them separately and add to the bowl as you serve. That way, you get an even distribution of the goodies and they don't soak up all of the broth during cooking or storage.

This recipe is the perfect base from which you can create a million different meals. In our house, we pour it steaming hot into a bowl filled with a big mound of shredded cheese (just like my Mama does).  Eat the first batch like this, then freeze some for later and try these add-to's:

Matzo Ball Soup: add parsnips, dill and matzo balls (use that schmaltz)!

Tortilla Soup: toss in some diced roasted Ortega chilies, diced tomatoes, a little cumin, chili powder, some tortillas strips, shredded Mexican cheese cilantro and diced avocado to garnish

Chicken and Dumplings: grab a box of Bisquick, mix up some dumplings, plop them in to steam and yum!

Asian Noodle Soup: throw in some rice noodles, cilantro, fresh ginger, bean sprouts, a splash of fish sauce, soy sauce, chopped scallions, maybe some chili paste and a squeeze of lime

Minestrone-Style Soup: add big fat rigatoni, white or kidney beans, diced tomato, oregano, shredded Swiss chard or other veggies on hand,chopped garlic and lots of Parmesan sprinkled on top

Last Sunday, I just happened to be going to see a friend who was down for the count so I thought I'd fill a Mason jar, steaming hot right off the stove and bring it on by. This time, I had some ABC pasta on hand and decided to toss it in...I thought it might make her smile. It did.

Chicken Soup
Place in a large stock pot and cover with water:
  • 1 roasting chicken
  • about 4 stalks of celery
  • about 4 carrots
  • about 1 onion
  • maybe a handful of parsley stems if you have them
  • a few whole peppercorns
  • a bay leaf or two
Bring to a boil, skim off scum, reduce heat to simmer until chicken is cooked through (about 45 minutes). Remove chicken, cool, remove meat from bones, reserve meat, add bones back to pot and simmer for a couple of more hours until stock is rich and concentrated. Strain stock, chill and skim fat.

Saute in a large pot:
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • about 2 cups of diced celery
  • about 2 cups of diced carrots
  • about 1 cup of diced onion
  • about 1/2 Tablespoon dried crumbled thyme
  • reserved shredded chicken
Season with :
  • a big handful of chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste
Enjoy in good health...L'Chaim!