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Chicken Soup - Culinary Poetry and Its Secrets 

From colds to broken hearts, it is the favourite cure around the world. Do you know the medical reasons why and the culinary secrets of making a great chicken soup? (info)

chicken and rice soup

Variations on the basic theme - Chicken and Rice Soup with Lemon and Cilantro


Ah, chicken soup!  Fragrant, inviting, filling the kitchen, wafting out into the dining room, its invisible curls of scent reach every room and beckons to come and taste it, welcoming any visitor with its aroma.  Culinary poetry, it can be as mystic and pure in its simplicity as a haiku, as philosophical as Goethe or as detailed as an epic.  


Chicken soup invokes nostalgic memories of childhood - perhaps a mother or grandmother preparing it for the family or for someone suffering from yet another cold or bout of influenza.  It is balsam to the heart and eating a bowl of it feels cared for, cozy and healthy.  It is the ultimate comfort food.


But what does it have to do with the cold season?  Cold as in temperature or cold as in ill, it does wonders.  Warming, as any good soup is, it puts colour back into the cheeks and gets the circulation going down to the frozen fingers and toes.  Generations of grandmothers may not have known the medical why it works, except the not so secret that it does.


Ancient Egyptians prescribed it as a treatment for the common cold as well as Maimonedes who praised it in his 12th century treatise.  Most cultures have their version of chicken soup for medicinal and culinary purposes, however in North America, it is jokingly referred to as Jewish Penicillin and is a cure-all for ailments such as the common cold, stress or perhaps even for the occasional broken heart.  Historically and especially amongst the Central European Jews (Askenazic), chicken was the cheapest meat to raise, requiring little land and was the most transportable, hence it was omnipotent and a favourite cure-all.


Its origins are untraceable, and really who cares?  Pre-dating Christianity, all those cultures cannot be wrong about the healing powers of chicken soup, be they physical or emotional - it is simply delicious!  


Medical Research

Over 1051 doctors and researchers of such respected institutions such as Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami, University of Los Angeles, University of Nebraska in Omaha and various European institutions have all come to the conclusion that certain properties of chicken soup mitigate upper respiratory diseases, stimulate neutrophil activity which helps loosen mucus, clears congestion and opens sinuses.  


It also significantly inhibits the migration of an inflammatory white blood cell, lessens the inflammation of rhinoviruses, hence has a mild anti-inflammatory effect on nasal passages and has other medically beneficial substances. 


Since chicken is a protein, it contains the amino acid 'cystein', which is chemically similar to 'acetylcysteine', a drug commonly prescribed to those with upper respiratory infections as it thins the mucus collected in the lungs.


Though eating spicy foods, sipping on hot liquids or drinking other soups may have a similar effect, the decongestant effects of chicken soup last for up to half an hour.  The 'patient' must eat it with a spoon and not sip it though a straw as it is the steam carrying the micro particles of fat and other properties that have an almost instant effect on congested nasal passages.  Within minutes of drinking a bowl or two of it any patient will begin feeling the full effects of the magic chicken soup imparts.  Besides chicken and serious amounts of onion, the love it is cooked with is surely a major ingredient.


Culinary Secrets to a Great Chicken Soup

Since the subject is chicken soup and not chicken stock the following are suggestions for most households.  All you need is a large soup pot that will hold one chicken, water to cover it with still a third of the pot remaining to allow for cooking and added vegetables.  


Chicken soup is made around the world.  My personal favourites are Cuban style (mostly onion, garlic as secondary ingredients) or more in a German tradition with celery, celery leaf, parsley, onion and my addition of some garlic.  Some Jewish mothers make theirs with sweet potato, turnips and fresh (never dried) dill weed.  Not my favourite way, but then the variations are endless.


The most important secret to a really unforgettable chicken soup is the chicken to water ratio.  Use a lot of chicken to the amount of water which will result in a concentrated broth.  Being economical and using only backs or wings results, in my opinion, in a boring soup that delights only the cook in its frugalness.  Most of the flavour is in the dark meat, and large bones.  However, a soup made only of dark meat lacks the balance of flavour the white imparts.  For a really superb chicken soup that will have your guests (patients) begging for more, use chicken stock in place of water.


1. Buy a large roasting chicken plus one or two legs (dark meat has a more intense flavour).  These are usually a little larger and older than a frying chicken.  A larger bird will be more mature and have more flavour.  Do not choose a stewing chicken which is the bird of choice for a stock as the meat is tough, difficult to digest and inedible (your pet won't mind, though).  Have the butcher cut the chicken into pieces and chop through the leg bones (optional) as this will release much more flavour (this is not done in stocks as the marrow may cloud the broth).  If you don't have a good butcher, then do it yourself or purchase the parts separately and freeze the excess.


2. Remove the skin except from the wings.  There will be enough chicken fat in the meat and wings.  (If cooking for a 'patient' with a sensitive stomach, you can always skim the fat or chill it and remove the solidified fat layer more effectively.)


3.  Rinse the meat under cold water, place in pot and cover with cold water to about the length of about the length of two finger joints above the meat.  


4.  Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to a gentle simmer.  Though skimming the foam is a classic habit, a must for stocks (improves clarity) and is something purists do, you are not removing 'impurities' but important nutrients and flavour.  The foam that rises is a colloidal juice from the meat that you would eat if you cooked it another way.  It just looks unappetizing.  If you forget, it will disappear back into the soup anyway.  Myths abound as to what it is:  blood, impurities, gives a bitter flavour.  In my opinion, leave it in for the patient and skim it if a crystal clear soup is important to you.  Tip:  allowing any soup or stock to boil for long will cause the fat to emulsify with the water and make it cloudy - it will still taste good but will not be clear.


5.  There is no logical reason to sauté the onion and celery first before adding to soups that require long cooking times.  Add the coarsely chopped onion and not too coarsely chopped celery now along with the bay leaf.  If using carrot and/or leek, add after one hour.  They will have imparted their maximum flavour by the time the soup is finished yet not have overcooked.


6.  Add a teaspoon of salt once the soup simmers to extract maximum flavour from the meat (which will be rather tasteless) and bones and give a richer broth or stock.  Allow to simmer at least a half hour longer than suggested cooking time and taste when finished and adding more salt if necessary.  Add the salt at the end, if you wish the meat to be still moist and flavourful (broth will still be delicious). Tip:  soft herbs that go well with chicken such as basil or cilantro should be added at the end and the soup allowed to rest for a few minutes for the flavours to develop.  Hard herbs such as fresh thyme:  add half when the soup is half finished and the rest 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.  Lemon juice freshly squeezed into the soup bowl is especially delicious with thyme or cilantro.


Oh, and my personal recipe?  I have two favourite ways to make it as I mentioned earlier in this article:  Cuban style or in a more central European fashion which you will find in The Recipe Collection of The Epicurean Table.  Chicken Soup - it's culinary poetry for the soul and good for you too!


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Patricia Conant,  columnist and food writer   

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