Chicken soup. I can’t get it out of my mind. Passover is coming. But more to the point, I’m home sick from work resting to prevent what I hope does not to turn out to be some full-blown flu. And all I can think of is a bowl of rich, flavorful chicken soup. If I could get off the couch, I would make some.
Among my friends, my chicken soup is legendary. And that’s even before there’s a light, fluffy matzo ball in it. I’m not sure why, exactly. What I do is simple: I pack the pot with a lot of vegetables and an old stewing hen—on second thought, maybe that’s the reason; more on the hen later—and then I let it simmer for about 3 hours, just like my mother did. I’m not shy with the vegetables, either. In professional cooking classes they’ll have you make a giant pot of stock with two carrots, a stalk of celery and an onion. That’s water, not soup. I work in pounds.
About the chicken. Young fryers or roasters just won’t do for a flavorful pot of soup. You want an old, tough, tired hen or even a rooster, age 3 or 4. A pullet—a yearling who has just started to lay eggs—will work in a pinch. A pullet was my mother’s preference because often she would find unborn eggs inside, like spherical yolks, and they would end up as a garnish for the soup. I supplement my old bird further with the necks and wing tips of other chickens I collect in the freezer and, to my partner’s horror, two or three chicken feet, nails clipped. The feet add flavor and viscosity to the soup. I buy them in a package of 8 or 12, chop off of the claws, and freeze them in little bundles of two or three so I can just dump them in the pot. All of these out-of-the-ordinary chicken soup chicken parts are available at a good butcher shop or in a Latin or Asian grocery store, or at a first-rate farmers market. If you haven’t looked, you might be surprised how easy they can be to find.
About the vegetables. As I already said, I like them in large quantites. In addition to the standard carrots, onions, and celery (I use the top 1/3 of an entire bunch, leaves and all), I always add a few parsnips, a small turnip (which gives a pleasant, faint sweetness), and a parsley root, if I can find it. A handful of parsley, a few sprigs of dill, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, a whole clove, and a single point of a star anise and there you have it, the best soup my friends have ever tried. Why can’t people cook?
A few last pieces of advice. If you can, make the soup at least a day in advance. Strain it, let it come to room temperature, and refrigerate it overnight so the fat congeals and you can remove it. Chicken soup also freezes perfectly for several months (leave some room in your freezer containers for expansion or they will explore) . Don’t throw the chicken meat away. Remove the bones and the vegetables, refrigerate the meat, and use it for chicken salad. Also, instead of serving mushy vegetables to guests (not that I don’t pick them out of the strainer to eat, I just wouldn’t serve them), I cut additional carrot, parsnip, and turnip into small pieces and cook them in a bit of the soup until just tender. Then I use these vegetables as garnish (pour the soup they were cooked in back into the pot).
You’ll have to come back for my secret to light, fluffy, flavorful matzo balls. I promise to post them before Passover.
Mitchell’s Chicken Soup
Adapted from The Mensch Chef
Makes about 4 quarts
One 4 1/2 pound soup chicken, stewing hen, or pullet, cut into quarters and rinsed, with neck, heart, and gizzard (don’t use the liver; set aside for another purpose)
2 or 3 chicken necks, skin removed, and/or chicken feet, nails removed
4 large yellow onions (about 2 pounds), roughly chopped
Top 1/3 of a large bunch of celery, leaves and all
7 or 8 carrots (1 1/2 pounds), peeled and halved
1 large parsnip (1/2 pound), peeled and roughly chopped
1 small turnip (6 to 8 ounces), peeled and cut into chunks
1 parsley root (6 to 8 ounces), with top, cleaned and roughly chopped, or 10 sprigs fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 point of a star anise
1 whole clove
4 to 6 sprigs fresh dill
2 tablespoons kosher salt
Place the quartered chicken and its neck, heart, and gizzard in a pot along with the additional necks and/or feet, onions, celery, carrots, parsnip, parsley root, if using, peppercorns, star anise, clove, dill, and salt in a large, 12-quart stock pot. Fill with cold water up to an inch from the rim (about 5 quarts). Set over high heat and bring to a boil, about 20 minutes, depending on the power of your stove, skimming off any froth that rises to the top.Turn down the heat to a gentle simmer, set the cover ajar on top of the pot, and allow to cook for about 2 hours and 45 minutes, skimming occasionally. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.
When cool enough to handle, ladle the soup through a fine sieve (lined with a double layer of cheesecloth if you are very picky) into storage containers. When the soup has come to room temperature, refrigerate at least overnight and up to a week. Remove any fat that has congealed on the surface (note, you can use this fat as the schmaltz in your matzo balls, but not in your chopped liver because the flavor of dill is too strong). To serve, reheat to boiling and garnish as desired. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, if necessary.