The virtues of the chicken are many, but none is so great at its near-mystical malleability. While I respect the chicken’s plain economy, and admire the cleverness of nature in making every part from the feet to the blood to the livers (even the tongues) truly useful, these are, in fact, just examples of the chicken as transformational shape-shifter: feet into luxuriously gelatinous fat; blood into a deep, rich sauce; liver into a silky mousse. And oh yes, the meat itself, which we tear up and loosely bind for one of the world’s great simple dishes, chicken salad; simply slice for the world’s finest sandwich; mince and mix for homey croquettes, sausages, raviolis of every culture, or meatballs; puree for elegant aspic or quenelles; crumble for robust chili or tacos; dust and plunge intact into hot lard for the inimitable fried chicken. Roast, boil, sauté, or fry, chicken doesn’t mind, and rewards both your choice of method and choice of other ingredients with an earnest desire to please that exceeds that of even the most docile and self-subjugating “I’ll be whatever you want me to be” person you’ve ever encountered. Its willingness to change at your beck and call is so great that we might be tempted to say it had low self-esteem. But is, rather, that rare thing: genuinely generous, a kind of mundane miracle.
One of the most miraculous transformations it makes is from carcass to consommé—from bones into that rich, soothing, fortifying, universal broth-based cure: chicken soup. Chicken soup has been considered a treatment for colds and flus for so long, and in so many regions in the world, that its restorative powers are unquestionably prescribed as the cure for what ails you. And, indeed, there is some recent research evidence that chicken soup acts in an anti-inflammatory or even antibiotic capacity. Not that we needed scientists to tell us what grandmothers have for generations: we know without such evidence that it makes us feel better.
I’m making chicken soup today because I am recovering from pneumonia. I have no grandmother to make it for me, so I must do for myself. This might be sad were I not so happy to be out of bed, feeling not only well enough to stand, but to stand at the stove, for the first time in two weeks. As my disappeared appetite (that is how sick I was) has slowly returned, there is nothing I’ve wanted so much as some homemade chicken soup. My course of meds is about to end, but I am not quite all well, I know. My body speaks, and I listen: make yourself a little chicken soup.
Some general guidelines for making chicken stock and chicken soup
Old hens are hard to find in markets, so if you don’t live in an area where you can readily get one, use the largest roasting chicken you can find or, if you want to make a relatively small amount, a broiler. I don’t use the giblets, as they make the stock murky.
Start the stock in cold water to cover the chicken—about 5 quarts for a 5-6 lb bird. Season with a large onion, skin on and cut up; a carrot or two, scraped but with the tops on, cut in chunks; a large stalk of celery, leaves on, broken into pieces; 2 cloves garlic, skin on but bruised; 2 medium-size bay leaves; 6-8 sprigs of fresh parsley; and 8-10 whole peppercorns. Do not overcomplicate the seasonings, and do not salt yet.
Cook chicken stocks for a maximum of 3 hours; two hours is often enough. Pull the breast meat off after one-half hour of cooking, or when just cooked through. Reserve for another use, including to garnish the soup.
Cook at a low, not rolling boil, lid slightly ajar.
Salt only near the end of the cooking, in the last 15 minutes or so, adding a ½ teaspoon at a time. Taste first; you may find you do not need any salt at all.
Strain the stock well, pressing down very lightly on the solids. You do not need to clarify the stock unless you are making consommé.
Cool stock in the refrigerator. You can skim the fat when the stock is cold if you wish, reserving it for cooking; it is excellent for sautéing vegetables, tossing with plain egg noodles, or as the fat in making empanada dough. However, leaving at least part of the fat in the stock makes your soup rich and nutritious, so I always do. Bring stock that has been refrigerated more than 2 days to a full boil for 1-2 minutes before using.
Freeze chicken stock for up to 6 months; leave at least 1” head space in glass jars or they will crack when the stock expands; leave space in plastic as well or the lids will pop off. If you’ve made a lot of stock, it’s useful to freeze some in 1- or 2-quart containers for soup, and some in 1- to 2-cup containers for use in sauces. Always freeze stock that you do not intend to use within a few days.
For your soup, cook vegetables and noodles, if using, separately, and add only as much as needed to your stock for immediate consumption. I like to sauté vegetables lightly, in a little of the chicken fat, cover them with a little of the stock, and cook only until they are crisp-tender. Again, stick to the basics: onions, carrots, celery, perhaps a few mushrooms; chopped tomato is also nice. Also add reserved chicken meat, if using, at the last minute, just in time to heat it up but not cook it further.
Freshly grated parmesan cheese, borrowing from the Italians, is a superb garnish for chicken soup, topped with cracked pepper. And sticking with the Italian theme, I am partial to the addition of a few tiny meatballs if I have a little ground beef around.