The display read 101°F when the digital thermometer beeped, which might have been okay if we were proofing yeast. But we were in the bedroom, not the kitchen — and the thermometer was under the tongue of my very achy, very sick wife. “You are not going to work,” I said. “And I am coming home early and making chicken soup.”
I don’t have an operatic range as a cook, but chicken soup is one of the dishes that I do well. I wish I could say that I follow a Secret Family Recipe steeped in a Romantic Patina of age and memory, written carefully in cursive on an index card that is Stained with Character and Creased with Use.
But the truth is that I found my chicken soup in a cookbook while we were living in Seattle, and I was first drawn to it by the fact that it had a gimmick: You start with a whole chicken and some vegetables, and end up two hours later with soup. The trick is accomplished by cutting the chicken (except for the breast) — bones and all — into very small pieces and sautéeing them before making a super-quick broth. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s reliable, and it tastes fantastic.
I can modestly admit to having made a few small discoveries and tweaks to the basic recipe. The original calls for a 4-pound chicken, but I discovered that the larger the bird, the more tasty the soup. These days, we’re getting lovely little 3- to 4-pound birds from the Soul Food Farms CSA, so I add some feet, necks, and wings from the stock bag in the freezer to bring the total weight up to five pounds. I also cut my onions as finely as possible instead of the original medium dice, because I like them to melt into the soup.
Finally, the original recipe calls for noodles, but I much prefer dumplings. I make a slightly wetter version of my standard biscuit dough and — when the soup is almost done — float globs of the dough on top, cover the pot with a lid, and steam for about 10 minutes.
Hearty Chicken Soup
- adapted from The Perfect Recipe
3 T vegetable oil or chicken fat
2 medium onions, cut into small dice
1 whole chicken (about 5 lbs.; add extra necks and/or wings if your bird is smaller)
2 bay leaves
1 large carrot, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 celery stalk, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
- adapted from Joy of Cooking
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp double-acting baking powder
6 T chilled butter
3/4 cup plus 1 T milk
Cut up the whole chicken as if you were going to cook it in parts, splitting the breast into two pieces, but keeping the meat on the bone. (Cooking for Engineers has a nice post on breaking down a chicken. Alton Brown also does a good tutorial, although he takes the breast meat off the bone.)
Set aside the breasts and use a cleaver or poultry shears to hack the rest of the chicken — including the back, neck, and feet if you have them — into 1- or 2-inch chunks. Cut through the bones!
Heat the oil or fat over medium-high heat in a large soup pot. Add half of the chopped onion and all of the chicken pieces except the breast. Sauté until the chicken is no longer pink (I like to see some brown on the chicken pieces, but that can be tough to do in a crowded pot. Be careful not to burn the onions!). Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the chicken releases its juices, about 20 minutes. Increase the heat to high and add 2 quarts of cold water, along with the chicken breasts, 2 teaspoons of salt, and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer, then cover, reduce heat to low and barely simmer until chicken breast is cooked and the broth is rich and flavorful, about 20 minutes.
Skim the fat from the soup and reserve it, then remove chicken breast from the pot and set aside. Strain the broth into a large bowl and discard the rest of the chicken pieces and bones. When the breast is cool enough to handle, remove the skin, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding it into bite-sized pieces. Discard the skin and bones.
Return the pot to medium-high heat. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the reserved chicken fat, the remaining onion, the carrot and the celery, and a pinch of salt. Sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, broth, and shredded chicken. Simmer until the vegetables are tender and the flavors meld, 10 to 15 minutes.
If you like pasta, you can add two cups of egg noodles and cook until tender. Taste the soup and correct the seasonings — it will almost certainly need more salt. However, be careful with the salt if you’re going to add dumplings, as most dumpling/biscuit dough has salt in it somewhere… and I wouldn’t do both dumplings and noodles.
To make the dumplings, put the flour, salt, and baking powder in a food processor and pulse until well mixed. Add the butter, cut into tablespoon-sized chunks. Pulse until thoroughly mixed. Add the milk and pulse until the dough comes together. Drop globs of dough from a spoon onto the surface of the soup. Cover and simmer until the dumplings are cooked through, approximately 10 minutes.
Sprinkle with the parsley and serve.
Farmers and food artisans who created the ingredients for this week’s meal:
Spring Hill Cheese Company, Petaluma: butter
Soul Food Farm, Vacaville: chicken
Guisto’s Vita-Grain, South San Francisco: sea salt, flour
Catalán Family Farm, Hollister: onion, celery
Straus Creamery, Petaluma: milk
…and our own homegrown thyme, carrots, bay, and parsley
(Exemption: baking powder)