No matter where on this globe one happens to be, if there are chickens in the barnyard and sick people in the house, there will be chicken soup in the pot. The details and flavorings that go into that pot will vary, depending on the culture and the cook, as will the age and size of the bird. It’s often called “Jewish Penicillin” in our country, but the faith in it as a curative really has no territorial or cultural boundaries.
The really interesting thing is how completely our strong emotional preferences with this soup give away our cultural background, a fact brought keenly home by a recent conversation with a culinary colleague and her academic historian husband. They both love to dabble in the cuisines of other cultures, but when it came to chicken soup, there was a line in the culinary sand, and her usual tolerance for his curious, exuberant experimenting ran dry.
When he tried adding rice, it was the last straw.
“Rice!” she grumbled. “Can you imagine? Chicken soup is supposed to have noodles in it. Period!”
That pronouncement would be startling not only to many traditional cooks here in the lowcountry, where rice once was to the cuisine what pasta is to Italy, but to many a traditional Southern cook from the past: almost all the old recipes, from Old Virginia, Kentucky, and even western Georgia, included rice.
In my own childhood, I found myself embroiled in a similar battle of wills with my father, whose mountain-born Scots-Irish mother always enriched her chicken soup with milk. I’d be sick and want clear broth and noodles. Could I have that with the milk in a glass on the side? No, I could not: for my father, I needed nourishment, and nothing would provide that but his mother’s soup. And that was that.
It was a struggle that neither of us won, and to this day, I won’t eat chicken soup with milk or cream in it. When winter’s ailments do catch up with me—and sometimes when I just need comfort—only clear broth and noodles, its aroma made heady with lots of carrot, celery, onion, and ginger, will do.
Where that came from, I don’t know, since neither my mother nor my grandmothers made chicken soup like that, but never mind: It speaks to something deep in my soul.
Homemade Chicken Broth
Chicken soup worth having begins with homemade broth. Really: it doesn’t take a lot of time and absolutely no skill. Although it does have to simmer for hours, it does that mostly unattended, and putting it together, straining and degreasing it, all take just minutes.
Makes about 5 quarts
6 pounds chicken necks and backs, or 1 whole 6-pound stewing hen
6 quarts water
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 rib celery, with leaves attached, thinly sliced, but with leafy top left whole
2 or 3 sprigs each of parsley and thyme
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
3-4 quarter-sized slices fresh gingerroot
1. Put the chicken and water in a heavy-bottomed 10-to-12-quart pot and add a little salt. Warm it over medium-low heat until scum begins rising to top, about 45 minutes. As soon as the scum begins to form, carefully skim off, and continue to do so as more forms. Do not stir.
2. When the scum no longer forms, let it simmer half an hour. Raise the heat to medium and add the onions, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, and ginger. Add salt to taste and let it return to a simmer, again skimming. Reduce the heat as low as you can get it and gently simmer, uncovered, for at least 3 hours, making sure it never boils. The surface should just “shimmer,” the steam bubbles not quite breaking the surface. Turn off the heat and let it cool.
3. Strain the broth into lidded containers made of stainless steel, enameled metal, ceramic, or glass. Discard the solids. Let it cool completely uncovered, then cover tightly and refrigerate. When the fat is solidified on top, remove and discard it. Homemade broth will keep 4 or 5 days, refrigerated, or for up to 3 months, frozen.
My Chicken Noodle Soup
12 cups Homemade Chicken Broth (previous recipe)
5-6 quarter-size slices fresh gingerroot
2 medium yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and diced small
3 large carrots, trimmed peeled and diced small
3-4 ribs celery, washed, strung, and diced small
1 cup diced cooked chicken
2 cups fine egg noodles
½ cup thinly sliced scallion
1-2 tablespoons minced parsley, to taste
1. Bring the broth and gingerroot to a simmer over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, and celery. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes. Remove and discard the ginger.
2. Add the chicken, let it come back to a simmer, then stir in the noodles and green onion. Bring it back to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles are tender, about 4-5 minutes longer. Stir in the parsley, taste for salt and adjust it accordingly, and serve hot.