Best of Old Wives Tales: Chicken Soup

Old wives and their tales get a bad rap.  I have personally rolled my eyes at both of my grandmothers, old wives through and through, who always insisted on wrapping me in layers of scarves and jackets before going outside in the winter, lest I catch a cold from the icy air.

While that particular Tale is only vaguely linked to reality, the soup they fed me to treat the colds I invariably got (scarves or none) had more of a scientific backing.  Soup’s steaminess frees up your clogged airways, while the vegetables, liquids, and proteins force you to get something into your body other than tea and ice cream (I see you).  Making your soup from bones is absolutely the tastiest method, with positive-to-mixed nutritional reviews – you’re either the healthiest superhuman alive, or someone eating something whose nutritional efficacy hasn’t been entirely proven yet.

In any event, I make soup essentially every time I eat chicken at home.  It’s easy, and chicken broth truly does taste the best when made from scratch.  You can use the bones from your rotisserie chicken or your leftover Portugese take-out – as long as they’re bones, it’ll work.  I’m giving a bit of a recipe below, but it’s really a (chicken) skeleton that can be eaten as is or dressed up and substituted out as much as your imagination and refrigerator contents will allow.

  1. Boil the bones.  I use three hours of gentle simmering as a rule of thumb, but more time won’t hurt.  For one whole chicken of bones, I do a full soup-pot of water – but that’s a pretty flexible measurement.  Enough water in a big pot to cover the bones, ya feel?
  2. If there’s no leftover meat on the bones, you can add in onion and garlic skins, as well as whatever other vegetable scraps you might have.  They’ll lend their flavour and vitamins to the broth.  If there’s lots of leftover meat, I usually skip the veggie-bits, just to save myself the trouble of picking hot onion skins off of any bits of chicken that I want to save.
  3. Strain your broth.  If you want, you can freeze it now and keep it for a rainy day.  Otherwise, keep rolling.
  4. Add salt – more than you think you need.  A big tablespoon is a good start.  Taste it, and keep adding salt until it tastes really amazing.
  5. I’m serious. More salt.
  6. In a separate pan (preferably cast iron), melt a tablespoon or two of butter.  Add a chopped up onion, a few chopped up carrots and celery sticks, and a few smashed cloves of garlic.
  7. The Thai cooking instructor who taught me to smash garlic (by placing an unpeeled clove on your cutting board, resting the flat of your knife on it, and bringing the heel of your hand down hard on the knife to smash the garlic below) told us to imagine our ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends when smashing the garlic.  Feel to employ that method, if rage-cooking is your thing.
  8. Sauté the vegetables in the butter until they’re soft and cooked.  Throw in whatever other spices you want at this point, too.  A key trick to soup-making is that spices need to be sautéed with the vegetables to taste like anything – you can’t just dump cumin into the broth and hope for the best.  Use whatever floats your boat – I like a generous amount of grated ginger.
  9. Add the vegetables to your broth, which you’ve cleverly kept warm on a nearby element.  Taste it again – the flavours won’t be melded yet, but your salt level should be about right.  Add more salt if needed.
  10. This is the time to add tomatoes, lentils, or half a tin of coconut milk, if you’d like.  It’s the ‘extras’ stage – anything that doesn’t need to be sauteed for flavour.  It’s also a good time to throw in strips of any hardy greens you want to wilt into your soup, like swiss chard or kale.
  11. Leave that shit to simmer for a while.  It’ll taste good more or less right away, but it’ll taste better if you leave it on the stove for an hour or two.
  12. Before eating, I like to add a splash of something tart to cut the fat and salt.  I use apple cider vinegar, but you can use lime or lemon juice, too.  You might not see the need for this step – but I think it adds an extra layer of complexity that I love.

I only keep soup (or any chicken products) in the fridge for about three days – but it freezes well and makes great lunches when frozen into the appropriate tupperware containers.  Don’t be alarmed if it turns into a bit of a gel when it’s cooled – that’s just a sign that it’s full of collagen, which may or may not actually provide some health benefits (again, the science is mixed).

I promise you that this will be an excellent soup, and you can make it again and again with whatever you have left over from the night before, or whatever vegetables are going soft in your produce drawer.  You’ll feel like a grandmother, doling out soup to cure anything from a broken heart to the common cold.  Salty in good way, no?

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