Flash in the Pan 

The soul of chicken soup

The seasonal craving for chicken soup gathers around the time the autumn frost kisses its first pumpkins. This widespread hunger lasts through flu season and the windy days of winter. It bathes the matzo balls of Passover and egg-layers of Easter.

Chicken soup comes in diverse forms, most of which are built upon a base of chicken, carrots, onions and celery. Brewed together, these ingredients constitute the soul of chicken soup, any chicken soup, from udon to posole to tom ka gai to coq au vin to Mom's, in which nothing but dill leaf is added.

As long as the ingredients are good, it's pretty hard to screw up a chicken soup, but the most common error is not enough acid. Lemon, lime and cider vinegar are great acidifiers, but add a little bit at a time so as not to overdo it.

At its simplest, the soul of chicken soup is a matter of putting chicken and veggies in a pot of simmering water. I prefer to roast the chicken before adding it to the pot. Ditto for the vegetables.

My chicken comes from a stash of pastured chickens that I bought from a local farmer at the end of last summer. Pastured birds purchased that time of year were fed peak summer forage, a great diet, so I bought a year's worth of those tasty birds, which I vacuum-sealed and froze solid.

The correct way to thaw a frozen chicken—or any meat, for that matter—is slowly, ideally in the fridge. But during peak chicken soup season, it's often a spontaneous decision, rather than premeditated. It's like, "Oh, I need some chicken soup now." Only then do I pull a chicken from the deep freeze and run it under blistering tap water long enough to slide the bird out of the bag. It hits the cast iron pan with a clang. The pan goes in the oven at 300 degrees, plus or minus 100 degrees—just don't burn it.

Turn the bird onto any position you can as it cooks in an ever-deepening pool of chicken fat, which you can drain and set aside as it collects. After draining the fat, I replace the grease with a half-inch of water in the pan, which hydrates the fond, as the French call that flavorful pan scum, and retards burning.

Roasting the veggies before adding them to the pot adds a browned complexity to the soup. If you wish to do this, do so in a separate pan, without oil, and use celery root (celeriac) rather than celery stalks. The only extra work this involves is putting the veggies in the pan in the oven and stirring them once in a while—you have to cut them either way.

On the other hand, if you want to fast-track your soup, stop at the store on the way home and pick up a rotisserie chicken. While a pot of water heats, cut celery, onion and carrot, and add to the pot. Now pull apart the bird and add the pieces to the pot. This is cheater's chicken soup. Cook time: less than an hour. Prep time: minutes. Pro-cheater tip: just throw the bird in whole and stir it around until it falls apart.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

As with my other pursuits, I only cheat at chicken soup if it's absolutely necessary. By contrast, going the old-fashioned route and cooking the chicken myself allows me to use superior raw ingredients, and affords me the opportunity to add love and spice to the bird as well.

After the chicken has spent a few hours in the oven, I like to sprinkle some garlic powder, red chile powder and thyme, along with salt and pepper, on it. The next time I turn it, I'll sprinkle the same on the other side, and in the cavity. When you're done roasting the bird, turn the oven off but leave the chicken inside until you're ready to pull it apart.

Whether cooking or cheating, the next step is the same: dismembering the chicken. Which parts you add to your soup hinge primarily on whether you want fat in your soup. As a sincere lover of many things fatty, including chicken fat, I'm repeatedly surprised to hear myself say that I prefer my chicken soup as fat-free as possible. My Jewish mother must be surprised as well that I turn my back on schmaltz—Yiddish for chicken fat—if only with regard to chicken soup.

Disassembling chicken is best done with fingers, after it has cooled enough to handle. Some people like fat in their soup, and thus add parts like skin or the "pope's nose," or butt, to the soup. I like to feast on the choicest specimens of crispy, fatty, spiced skin as I dismember the bird. Eating the hot skin not only tastes great, it diverts my hunger away from the chicken flesh itself, which I would otherwise surely devour before it ever reached the soup.

The final question is what to do with the bones. Unlike fat, the presence or absence of which is a matter of personal and cultural preference, bones are non-negotiable. They add a crucial element to chicken soup, but require time in simmering water to do so. And then they must be fished out, lest someone choke on them. That said, some soup recipes allow/require you to leave the bones in, especially the leg bones.

The easiest way to use the bones is to boil them, after stripping the meat, in nothing but water. Then screen out the bones by dumping the water through a colander into another pot. Add your chicken and veggies to this water, and simmer until it is the soul of chicken soup. Then turn it into the chicken soup that is for dinner. Perhaps with rice noodles, chopped green chiles and oyster sauce.

When making cheater's chicken soup, on the other hand, there is no time to boil the bones ahead of time, which would delay the whole process. In my house we have two ways to cheat around the bone step. She skips the bones altogether and uses a tablespoon of Better than Bouillon chicken base. I wrap the bones in cheesecloth and simmer them with the soup (bag and bones can be pulled from the pot at serving time).

But I have to admit, there is something appropriate about using Better than Bouillon in the cheater's chicken soup. I mean, if you're gonna cheat, then reap the rewards. Eat your chicken soup now. You can freeze the bones for later.

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