An ode to chicken soup

An ode to chicken soup


And Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him. The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.
John Steinbeck, East of Eden

This week I made chicken soup and it was not the religious experience I had hoped it might be. There was going to be, I assumed, something inherently spiritual about boiling up this cure-all classic; as though the knowledge of hundreds of years would float inexorably from the pot and cling wisely to my skin like sun block on a hot summer’s day. However, no such wisdom reached me.

Plus, it took hours. Partly because I took the long way round of roasting and eating a whole chicken before using its carcass for stock, and partly because the soup-making process is a long and arduous one whatever the flavour. In fact, if you’re ill and someone offers to make you chicken soup, the chances are you will be better before the soup is finished. Which is somewhat comforting in itself.

Solid evidence of the ability of chicken soup to cure your ailments is negligible at best and while the steam may assist with opening the airways, steam does not rise from soup alone. The placebo affects are, however, well documented and if the world insists on such self-delusion I’m not about to tear back the curtain.

I didn’t have a recipe passed down to me by my grandmother or even my mother; instead I used a mash-up of recipes from Yotam Ottolenghi and Jamie Oliver, who in many ways are my culinary father figures. If a father figure is someone whose TV shows you’ve watched and your mum probably fancies.

I had to buy a new pan for the purpose, one large enough to entomb a carcass. My initial idea was to break the chicken up and stuff it into existing smaller pans, but then the thought of cracking bone convinced me that it was worth the extra financial commitment.

The supermarket yielded a pan, but no parsley, so I substituted basil. I can’t tell you how much difference this made because I don’t know, but let’s assume that the difference was more than ‘none’ and less than ‘significant’. Parsley is actually delicious but it is almost impossible to disassociate it from grim 1970s garnish so its loss was not too keenly felt.

Stock, mysterious as it seems, is just chicken and vegetables and herbs and water that are left on the hob for ages. You can let those cute little supermarket cubes seduce you with their shiny packaging if you want to, but make no mistake, you are a disappointment if you do. Or as my mum would say, a sloven.

Once the stock is bubbling you can leave it for quite a long time and get on with your life. Although much like in life, you do have to take pains, at intervals, to skim any rising scum from the surface.

I can’t remember ever having had chicken soup made for me, ill or not. So there is perhaps a tragic poignancy in now making it for myself. But let’s not dwell on that. I did eat a chilli chicken ramen when I had the flu a few years ago and felt better for a good twenty minutes afterwards while my passages were numbed with spice. But that was made not by a concerned loved one, but by Wagamamas.

Healing properties aside, pulling the remaining boiled meat from the bones post-stock is surprisingly soothing. There is also a cathartic joy in the recipe’s next instruction to ‘discard the carcass’. Presumably they mean for you to bin it, but I took a more direct approach of flinging the bones over my shoulder with wild abandon, causing further distress to my already soup-besmirched kitchen.

After that you just put whatever vegetables you like in with the strained stock and boil it all up even more until it feels like you’re trying to disprove physics in some way. You’ll have enough soup to live off for three or four days, although I’d recommend only eating a third as soup, freezing some and adding noodles and chilli to the rest. You don’t have to give in to big-batch monotony.

Despite the fact I learned nothing, the making of chicken soup is something of an initiation; it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, or the busy and when it comes to ingredients, everyone must forge their own culinary path. So shop around your relatives or celebrity chefs before you take the plunge. The only advice I can offer you is to use slightly more soy than Ottolenghi and slightly less lemon that Oliver.

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