Classic Chicken Soup

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Complex

  • Yield:

    2½-3 quarts

Appears in

Do you think there will be any yellow rings on the soup? I saw the chicken soup the women from the sick-visiting society brought old Rachel when she was sick, and it was all yellow on top —fat!—and smelt so good!

MARY ANTIN, “MALINKE’S ATONEMENT”

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Skim, skim, skim. Froth and scum taste bitter and look terrible.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.)

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Ingredients

  • One 5- to 6-pound fowl or stewing hen (not a roaster) and its giblets (reserve the liver for another use)
  • 2 chicken feet, or 1 pound chicken wings
  • 4 quarts cold water (quality is important here, so if you use bottled water to make coffee or tea, use it here)
  • Salt
  • 2 large onions, 1 peeled and quartered, 1 washed, roots trimmed but left unpeeled, and quartered
  • 2 parsnips (about ½ pound), scraped and cut into chunks
  • 3 celery stalks, cut into large chunks
  • ½ cup celery leaves
  • 5 large carrots (about 1–1¼ pounds), scraped and halved
  • 2–3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 6 fresh parsley sprigs
  • 1 parsley root (petrouchka), peeled and cut into chunks (often found in greenmarkets and specialty stores, as well as supermarkets with well-stocked produce departments; optional)
  • 2 large leeks, trimmed (reserve long green leaves), washed of all traces of sand, and cut into large pieces, or if absolutely necessary, 1 sweet red onion, peeled and quartered
  • 10–12 peppercorns, lightly crushed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Several leaves of mild-flavored lettuce, such as Boston or iceberg, if no leek greens are available
  • About ½ cup snipped fresh dill

Accompaniment

Method

  1. Prepare the chicken. I find it easier to work with the chicken (remove the fat, cover it completely with water and vegetables, skim thoroughly, etc.) when it is cut up, so I divide it roughly into quarters. Remove all visible fat from the chicken and giblets. Remove the skin from the neck and the neck and tail openings. Wash all the pieces thoroughly, including feet or wings, and place in your largest stockpot, which should be tall and straight-sided. Add the water and about teaspoons salt to begin with.
  2. Turn the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. As the soup cooks, keep skimming off any scum and fat that rises to the surface. When the soup begins to “smile,” that is, tiny bubbles open and close along the edge of the pot, turn the heat down to very low. Skim the soup constantly—at this point, you really need to fret over it. When the soup is just about clear, add the remaining ingredients (except the leek greens or lettuce and the dill) and raise the heat slightly to bring it back to a simmer. Continue skimming any froth or scum.
  3. When the soup is again clear, turn the heat down to as low as possible. Cover the surface of the soup with the leek greens or lettuce leaves, and put the pot lid on, leaving it slightly askew. Simmer the soup for at least 2½ to 4 hours—overnight is better still. Never let the soup boil; if necessary, use a flame-tamer, or blech, or put it on top of two burner grates stacked together. (But do make sure the bubbles are breaking very gently on the surface. If there is no surface movement at all, the soup might spoil.)
  4. Adjust the seasonings. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and carrots and set aside. Let the soup cool to room temperature in the pot, uncovered. (Hot soup in a covered pot may turn sour.)
  5. While the soup is cooling, pick over the reserved chicken and discard the bones, skin, and other inedible parts. Reserve the chicken for another use or refrigerate, along with the carrots, to be served later in the soup.
  6. Strain the cooled soup through a fine sieve, pressing down on all the vegetables to extract as much of their juices as you can, then discard the vegetables.
  7. Refrigerate the soup, covered, overnight or until all the remaining fat has congealed on the top. Carefully scrape off the fat and discard it. If the soup still seems fatty, line a fine sieve with a layer of paper towels and pour the soup through it into a clean bowl or pot (if the soup has jelled from chilling, bring it to room temperature first). If the paper towels become thickly coated with fat, you might want to change them once or twice during the process.
  8. Before serving, reheat the soup. Taste for salt and pepper and add lots of snipped dill. If you feel the soup is not strong enough, reduce it over high heat to concentrate the flavors. Serve the soup very hot, with additional fresh dill, the reserved carrots, and if desired, shreds of the soup chicken. It is delicious with kreplach or matzoh balls, egg noodles or rice, or just plain.

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