From Maimonides on, much has been made of the curative powers of Jewish chicken soup—“Jewish penicillin,” “the doctor who makes house calls,” and so on. Now it seems, the doctor often needs doctoring—and not just in America. A friend in Verona, Italy, confessed that Italian Jews too at times enhance their homemade soups with imported Israeli bouillon cubes for a needed jolt of flavor.
Broth is no more than the simmered essence of its ingredients, and the problem here, of course, is the weakened flavor of the chicken itself. Traditional Jewish chicken soup was always made from a tough old hen with plenty of character. Today’s battery-feeding produces picture-pretty birds with lots of fat and little flavor. And those “yellow rings” extolled in Antin’s story from 1911 have lost their appeal now—to us they taste merely of grease, not of chicken. So how do you coax out enough flavor from a lackluster bird to make a splendid soup?
Over the years I’ve gleaned some trues for preparing excellent Jewish chicken soup.
- Start with the best-quality fowl available, and if at all possible, buy feet, or at least some extra wings, to give the soup extra body. I find that, although chicken backs are fine for making chicken stock, they are too fatty and lack the requisite clarity of flavor for a soup meant to be served solo. It may seem extravagant to use a large hen for soup—after all, the cooked chicken cannot be served later as an entrée (you’ve already extracted all the flavor from it). However, the meat is perfectly good for chicken salad, sandwiches, Fried Onion and Chicken Kreplach, and dayenu (matzoh balls with snippets of chicken), or served cut up in soup.
- To compensate for the often anemic taste of today’s chickens, I add lots and lots of earthy, aromatic vegetables to provide the soup with strength and character.
- It’s a struggle, but I resist the temptation to use a lot of water. And if the soup tastes too watery when I’m finished, I reduce it as much as necessary, even though it pains me to see the fruits of all my labor just boiling away.
- Long, slow cooking will extract every bit of flavor from both chicken and vegetables. Using a huge stockpot—about 20- or even 24-quart size, far larger than the contents would warrant—and a tiny flame, so there is no danger of the soup boiling, I cook it for at least four hours, and more often, overnight.
- To prepare the chicken, I remove every bit of fat and some of the excess skin, since they don’t add any flavor and later I’ll just have to discard the grease they produce.
- Skim, skim, skim. Froth and scum taste bitter and look terrible.
- To prevent the precious flavors from evaporating, after I have finished skimming the soup, I cover the surface with a layer of the green part of the leeks used in the soup. If I have no leeks, I use the outer leaves of a mild lettuce.
- And lastly, I never bring the soup to a boil. That roiling bubble action traps fat and scum beneath the surface, bonding them to the liquid, so that the soup becomes clouded, murky, and impossible to clarify. Instead, I let it simmer gently the entire cooking period, “smiling,” as the French say of the tiny bubbles that open and close along the edge of the pot. (Boiling the finished soup—strained and defatted—to reduce it is, of course, another matter.)