Chicken Soup!

a big bowl of get-well-soonSure enough, the frick'n plague which is currently traveling through LA has hit our usually-never-sick household. The Boss, since he is almost never sick, ever, is not very tolerant of cold and flu symptoms so, like a lovely and not-so-sick wife, I'm making him a big ol' pot of chicken soup. Even if the nutrient-packed brew doesn't kick the ass of those cooties, at least he'll have some nice, tasty throat-coating goodness to enjoy under that cozy blankie. 

Now, there is no scientific evidence I know of showing a direct relation to a proper chicken soup and kicking the ass of whatever ails you, but one can't really argue with the results. A nice steaming bowl of home-made chicken soup makes you feel much better, at the least cures the feeling of *meh* which takes hold. If nothing else, it's a delicious way to care for a loved one when they feel a bit oogey. Who doesn't feel a bit better and, ultimately, loved when handed a bowl of slow-cooked get-well-soon?

I know I do.

Making what I would consider a proper soup can take two tracks. One is the super-old-timey stock from scratch method, which is the best if you have the time. But, if you don't happen to have 6-8 hours of stock simmering time plus 1+ hours of soup-making free, the method I'm about to show will do just fine. Basically, what we're doing is using canned broth instead of water to cut out several hours of stock time. Mind you, it's still not a short path from start to soup; you'll need about 3-4 hours, but that sure beats the fuck out of 9 or more.

The first step is to prep your soup base ingredients.

#1 - The chicken
soup "base" partsSince you'll be simmering the bones and not-quite-as-soup-worthy bits for some time before the good parts come into it, plus will want it to fit in the pot, the first thing you want to do is break down your chicken. I usually use a whole chicken (since you'll want the back, giblets, neck and such) about 4-6 pounds. The steps, for those of you not quite as comfortable with this are:
1- Cut off the wings. It's easier if you make a bit of a cut from the top, then flip the chicken and pull the whole wing back while cutting away near the joint where it attaches to the body. Pop the whole wing, tip and all (hooray extra bones and cartilage!) aside with the "base" parts.
2 - Cut the skin between the body and thighs, then flip the bird over again and pull back on the thigh until you hear the joint pop apart. Now it will be easier to cut it away from the body. Don't sweat this (or any of the breakdown cuts) being perfect or cutting all the meat off. A little more meat in the base is never a bad thing. To make it easier to fit in the pot, feel for the joint between the leg and thigh and cut to separate them. Set aside with the "soup" parts.
**extra recommended step: Before separating the leg and thigh, cut the skin off for less fat in the base, thus less skimming to do later!**
the "soup" parts3- Cut down the sides of the chicken to separate the back from the breast. This is done more easily (and safely)  by cutting downward with the chicken on its side on the cutting board part-way on both sides, then flipping the chicken to have the neck down (cavity toward you) and pulling the halves apart as much as possible by folding outward. There will be some connective bits and bone near the shoulders, but once the halves are apart, it's easier to find the connection and cut through it. Set the back aside with the "base" parts. Next, cut down one breast along the breast-bone down the length of the breast, then pull gently to cut along the rib cage until the breast is free of the carcass. Set the white meat aside with the "soup" parts. Repeat with the other side of the breast. Set the rest of the chest bones and cartilage aside with the "base" parts. If you have a smallish pot, you may want to split the breast part of the carcass, but it's not necessary if you have a big soup pot.
**extra recommended step: Before breaking down the body section, remove the skin on the breasts and down the back bone.**

4- IMPORTANT! Store the "soup" parts immediately in the fridge (ideally in something which will not allow cross-contamination - salmonella is nothing to scoff at), put the "base" parts in your soup pot, and thoroughly clean your cutting board, knife, and hands with soap and water as hot as you can handle and the working area with a disinfecting cleanser before moving on. 

Now you've successfully broken down your chicken and are ready for the rest of the base ingredients.

turkey necks for the base#2 - The extra somethin'-somethin'
Just a chicken alone will make nice soup, but when somebody is sick and you want good old-fashioned Nana-quality chicken soup, you're going to want to add a little more something to the mix, something to bring more bones and cartilage to the party for a more unctuous gelatinous mouth feel which will help coat and soothe a scratchy, cough-ravaged throat. Usually, I use chicken feet (yeah, I'll wait while some of you freak a little), which are the perfect addition. I take the little extra time to chop off the toenail bits because, really, we DO know where they've been, and give the remaining feets a thorough wash before they go in the pot. This time, apparently, there are a lot of sick folks in the neighborhood and a lot of Russian and Armenian ladies making pots of chicken soup so the feets were totally sold out *sigh*. Instead, I grabbed a package of turkey necks to boost the base plus add some more meaty flavor.

Just pop those in the pot right on top of the "base" bits of your chicken.

#3 - The cheap bastard bags of soup goodness
I think we've established that I am, indeed, a cheap bastard. Being as I am also a hedonist, what I'm looking for is the least-expensive route to the best-tasting food. Fortunately, with my mind also focused on trying to bring as much sustainability to our budget-based menu as possible, all parts come together with what I refer to as "my bags". I keep several bags in the freezer, awaiting the next pot of soup or braise, with remaining bits to add flavor and richness. In one, the bone bag, I keep the remaining bones of any roasted, fried, or otherwise not soup-prepared chickens (or turkey near the holidays); sometimes, I'll keep beef bones, but it's much more rare to have them not already cooked out. In another, the umami bag, I keep mushroom stems and other umami flavor builders for beef soups and braises. In the last, the scraps bag, I keep leek tops, veg trimmings, and other vegetable and aromatic bits which I don't want in a finished dish but SURELY want in a soup base or stock.

Yes, if you don't already do this, it seems like an awful lot of extra work. But, really, it's not. It's just a matter of keeping the bags somewhere accessible in your freezer and, if you take more time between soup pots than I do, squeezing out the air and re-wrapping in foil. For a few extra moments when you're prepping ingredients, you'll have a MUCH more flavorful and satisfying soup without having to buy a bunch of extra stuff, especially those leeks, which (sadly) rarely ever go on sale (and I buy the fuck out of when they do and store LOTS of scrap bags after making my leek soup with the whites).

Pop whatever "bag" ingredients you have handy right on top of the other stuff in the pot.

#4 -  The veg-type stuff
the soup base vegGenerally, with a traditional chicken soup, you want to think carefully before going outside the usual stock/base suspects. At this stage, whatever you have in the pot is going to have a distinct impact of the finished soup, since it will be a main flavor component of the broth. If you're tinkering, there's lots of fun things to play with ... for the moment, I'll list just what I've got in THIS pot for a traditional soup. We can get into fun and funky variations at the end or another time. Here are your classic base veggies and aromatics: carrot, onion, celery, garlic, leek. In a plain old Nana pot of soup, I don't fuck with what works. These are like the chicken soup holy grail; miss one and you'll taste it.

What I generally use is 1# carrot (split and cut into 1-2" chunks), a good-sized onion (quartered and dirty nub bits removed), 4-5 stalks celery (split and cut into 1-2" chunks), 3-4 leeks (greens cleaned WELL and cut into large chunks for the base - whites reserved for later), and about 6-8 cloves of garlic (smashed - my Nana and her Nana swear by garlic to get and stay healthy ... judging by how seldom I ever get sick and how quickly I recover when I do, I'm inclined to trust the old Hunkies). Bear in mind, if you were doing a 6-8 hour stock with water as a base, you could cut the veggies bigger, since they have much more time to break down. With this sped-up process, having the veg a bit smaller will help it cook down faster, which is very good for your soup.

You may also want an extra something in the herb dept. I'm usually pretty basic, either thyme (most often for just a little added savory touch) or sage (when I want that Thanksgiving aroma and taste). Whatever your herbaceous pleasure, just drop in a few springs to make them easy to strain or fish out later.

#5 Liquid
If you were doing the old-timey stock, you'd just use water here. But, since we want to put the spurs to it, just pop in about 6 (14 oz) cans of chicken broth. This will make you a MIGHTY pot of soup with enough for leftovers and even some to store in the freezer for possible days later in the season when you need some soup and are don't have time to make some.

Just pour that over the top of everything and don't worry if it doesn't cover it all, since the veg, especially leeks, will break down and it will soon enough.

Step 1 - Turn up the heat to HIGH and bring that sucker to a nice bubbly boil. Once it reaches a boil, turn it down to a slow SIMMER (you should just see random little bubbles slowly hitting the top once the temperature equalizes) and set your timer for 15 minutes.

The weird floaters are scum. You skim it.Step 2 - At the 15 minute mark, go back to your pot and do two things: check the temperature to make sure you're not bubbling too hard (if so, turn down a tad) and skim your scum. The chicken parts will release funky scum-like crap which will float to the top of the pot. You don't want in there. Use the flattest large spoon you have (or a skimmer if you have one) and just skim it lightly over the surface to scoop those nasty little suckers out. Added bonus, you'll also be skimming excess fat rising to the top, too, when you remove the scum. Repeat this process every 15 minutes for the first hour of simmering. Then at the 30 minute mark for the second hour.

Do you HAVE to skim? Well, technically, no. But, if you don't you'll have funky not-so-tasty floaters in your soup and a bit more fat than you probably want, too. The few extra minutes will give you a much better, clearer, and tastier soup in the end, so well worth a few extra trips to the stove during cooking.

**helpful tip: Some time during this soup base process, you might want to prep your soup veg to save time later and have finished soup faster. The soup veg part is just below.**

Step 3 - This is the optional hour. If you want a more full-bodied soup and have the hour to spare, let it go for another 60 (still skimming at 30 minutes). If you're in a rush, you can just skip the extra cooking time and move along to the next step.

Step 4 -  You are ready to transition from base to soup! Hooray! You're so frick'n close now and the whole house smells delightfully of Nana soup. NOM! Here's what you want to do:

- First you also want to take your "soup" parts out of the fridge to lose their chill. It will make it MUCH easier to start the pot back up if they're closer to room temperature. 

- Let the rest of the soup base cool enough to strain without scalding (scalding burns are no fun, trust me). Let it stand for at least 20 minutes or so, stirring fairly often to help the cooling process. If the "base" chicken parts are big enough to grab out with tongs, go ahead. It will make straining MUCH easier. Once you're comfortable you can do the straining without burning from broth or steam, move on!

- Place a big wire mesh strainer over another big soup pot and SLOWLY (I can't emphasize enough how important being patient with this is ... again, major burns? no fun) pour the soup base into it to strain. If the strainer starts to get full, stop a moment to mix up the stuff in there, knock the strainer, and push a bit with your ladle to get all you can from the base ingredients. Then, once they've yielded as much liquid as possible, discard them into a scrap pan and pour some more base into the strainer. Don't rush this, seriously. All your flavor is in the stuff you'll be discarding, so don't toss them too fast, before they've given up all they can. Better to do this in several stages taking your time than rush and wind up with a weak-ass broth ... because that doesn't help anybody.

ball o' strained-out base stuff (w/lovely kale adjacent)**bonus points for better broth: instead of just using a discard pan, pop those discards into a second strainer over a small pot to catch whatever additional liquid they may yield (because there's always more). Give them a shake or flip now and again to loosen them up, too. Then at the end, you can add all that broth back to the soup pot**

**cool tip for straining: You know how you sometimes see chefs flipping stuff in a saute pan? Use that same sort of circular motion while grasping the handles on both sides of the strainer to flip the soggy remains in your strainer (over a pot to catch liquids) and form them into a sort of ball-like mass, repeatedly smacking against the strainer. Then tilt the strainer while doing the flipping motion to catch all the little nasty oogey bits clinging to the wire to help clear out the mesh PLUS release more liquids for your broth. More flavor win + easier cleaning win = EPIC COOKING WIN.**

Step 5 - Now you have the base, the broth of your soup! Go ahead, taste it! It's pretty fucking good already, right? This is good for if you have a really sick flu-like person who is not quite ready for solids. We'll be moving on from here to make the full-tilt chicken soup, but this really is the most critical part. To get the soup done, here's how it goes:

 - Get your pot back on the burner. Add the rested "soup" meat to be cooked. Then add whatever veg you'd like in the finished soup. Here's what I added:
veg for the soup   1# carrot - halved and sliced
    3 stalks celery - halved and sliced
    1# green beans - end snapped off and broken into bite-sized bits
    1 bunch kale - hard stems removed and leaves torn into bits
    leek whites - split, cleaned well, and sliced thin
    other stuff I'd add, were it looking good at the market or in season
    peas - snapped pods or shelled
    kohlrabi - not the easiest veg to prep, but SO worth it
    parsnips - if you want a little extra sweet in your savory soup
    cabbage - cooked down to almost caramelized, white or red ... if you have the time, it's SO good
    whatever other veg floats your boat, really ... it's your pot of soup, so add what you like

Step 6 - Once you have all your goodies in the pot, turn the heat back up to HIGH until it boils, then reduce back down to a SIMMER. Let it go until the chicken is cooked (about an hour), then pull it out to cool enough to handle. Then, pull the meat from the bones and cut up into little pieces, adding it back to the simmering pot. Once it's heated back up, you're ready to SERVE that soup!    
Extras: If you'd like a bit more starchy heft in your bowl, you can also add saffron rice (which is SUPER GOOD in soup), barley, noodles, pre-cooked white beans or garbanzos, potato, or any other tasty starch if you want. So long as they're not cold, you can just pop them into the bowl and ladle hot soup over the top.

Step 7 - Enjoy your Nana-approved home-made soup which, hopefully, you're not making because someone is sick.

Okay, here's the part where I talk about variations you can do from the traditional chicken soup. Honestly, there are as many of these as there are cooks with imaginations ... and then some. But here are a few of mine, anyway.

Asian - For veg/herb/spice, use ginger, galangal, shallot, scallion, lemon grass, star anise, and clove

Red Hungarian - Use same veg, but add red peppers + tomato paste to base + soup, plus a generous amount of good sweet Hungarian paprika. Use kohlrabi and cooked down (caramelized) cabbage in finished soup. Top with a dollop of sour cream or middle-easter yoghurt

Italian/Mediterranean - Use more garlic and red peppers + tomato paste and stewed tomatoes in base as well as some basil and fresh oregano. In soup, add basil leaves, garbanzo beans, roasted red pepper, roasted garlic, and spinach.

I'll be back with a few new comfort food recipes and stuff next week. Until then, hope you all can steer clear of the cooties ... or at least have someone to make you some soup!