Chilly weather calls for comforting chicken soup

November 12, 2012

It might have been the wet and windy weather, or maybe because we had to turn back the clocks last weekend, but whatever the reason, I was hungry for a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Not the salty stuff from a carton or can, I wanted sinus-clearing broth, rich egg noodles and chunks of meat.

There are as many kinds of chicken noodle soup as there are varieties of the common cold and sniffles the soup is reputed to cure. Cooks all have their favorite recipes, usually handed down from their grandmother. Some are particular about which vegetables are appropriate. Carrots and onion are standard; green beans and corn aren’t typically welcome. Each recipe calls for signature seasonings, such as parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Some sprinkle in turmeric to add a deeper yellow color, although I’m not a fan of that particular flavor.

Cooks also feel strongly about whether to add noodles or one of several substitutes. Pasta can replace the noodles, with the smaller shapes and sizes working best. Rice is a popular choice; brown rice holds its shape and adds body, while white rice tends to disintegrate into the broth. Many of us are familiar with hearty matzo balls, flavored with fresh herbs and typically cooked separately before joining the broth. The Chinese omit noodles and add strands of whisked eggs to thickened broth to create delicate egg drop soup. An Italian version combines Parmesan cheese with eggs for stracciatella soup (after the word for “little rags,” which is what the eggs resemble).

No matter what else goes into the pot, one key to success is to pay attention to the basics: begin with the highest-quality broth. You can find some commercial broths and stocks that are flavorful without too many additives, while purists will insist on making their own. A quick and easy approach to chicken broth requires only raw chicken, cut into pieces and simmered for a few hours to extract flavor from the bones.

Another approach is to use the carcass and skin of a roasted or rotisserie chicken, which will impart the essence of any herbs used to season the bird and color from the browned skin. The richest stock is made in the oven: place pieces of chicken in a roasting pan with a chopped onion, carrot, celery stalk and water, then roast until browned and fragrant. Deglazing the roasting pan further enriches the stock, which can be strained and defatted for perfect clarity.

Once you have the broth or stock ready, you can start to assemble the soup. I like to sauté chopped onions and carrots in a saucepan and then pour in the broth. After this simmers long enough to soften the vegetables, I add the cooked chicken. About 10 minutes before serving, stir in the noodles and cook until barely done.

To avoid serving a thin, watery soup, consider a finishing touch to enhance the texture: thicken it with a roux. Instead of the ordinary slurry of flour dissolved in water, combine butter and flour in a skillet and cook it until golden blonde. Whisk in enough broth to suspend the solids and return the mixture to the soup. Any flat, floury taste is replaced with buttery notes and a silky mouth feel.

I’ve included recipes for a basic chicken broth, the chicken noodle soup in the photo, and a simple approach to matzo ball soup – some delicious ways to keep warm and maybe clear your sinuses, too.

Chicken Broth

4 lbs chicken parts
1 chopped onion
1 chopped carrot
1 chopped celery stalk

Preheat oven to 425 F. Combine the ingredients in a large roasting pan and add water to barely cover chicken. Bake, stirring often, until chicken is browned, about 60 to 90 minutes. Pour mixture from roasting pan into a stockpot. Deglaze roasting pan with 1 C water, scraping up the browned bits. Add this liquid to the stockpot and bring to a gentle simmer over a low heat. Cook, uncovered for about 3 hours. Allow to cool and remove the chicken pieces. Strip the meat from the bones and save; discard bones, skin and cartilage. Strain the liquid into a covered container for storage under refrigeration.

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 t butter
1 chopped onion
3 diced carrots
3 minced garlic cloves
2 chopped celery stalks
1 T parsley
2 bay leaves
1/4 t thyme
4 C chicken broth
1 1/2 C cooked chicken meat
3 oz noodles or pasta
1 T butter
1 T flour
salt & pepper to taste

Melt butter in a soup pot and stir in onions. Cook over medium until softened. Add carrots, garlic and celery; continue cooking until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add parsley, bay leaf and thyme. Pour in chicken broth and simmer until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes. Add chicken and bring to a gentle boil. Add pasta or noodles and cook until al dente. Meanwhile, make a roux by stirring the 1 T butter and 1 T flour together in a small saucepan over a medium heat until golden. Ladle some broth into the saucepan to dissolve the roux and then whisk into the soup. Season to taste. Yield: 4 servings.

Matzo Ball Soup

4 eggs
1 t salt
2 T minced parsley
1 T snipped chives
1/4 t pepper
1/3 C seltzer water
1 C matzo meal
6 C chicken broth
salt & pepper, to taste

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and salt until frothy, about 1 minute with an electric mixer. Stir in parsley, chives, pepper and seltzer water. Add matzo meal and mix until well blended. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Once the dough is chilled, form 12 matzo balls with moistened hands. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add matzo balls. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. When ready to serve, heat chicken broth in a soup pot and add cooked matzo balls. Adjust seasonings and garnish with parsley. Yield: 6 servings.

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