This time of year, chicken soup — comforting, restorative, and delicious — is pretty easy to make if you have the right chicken. I learned this the hard way. For years, I blamed any flat-tasting soups on the recipes. But in a conversation with Wayne Martin, I learned it wasn’t me at all; the fowl was to blame.
He’s an educator with the Alternative Livestock Systems in the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service. Martin explained that the breed of chicken, and where and how the bird is raised, makes a difference. Heritage chickens, such as Kosher King and Freedom Ranger, are the best choice for flavorful soup.
These breeds have smaller breasts and larger thighs and live on pasture. They develop more muscle and fat, factors that make for a richer tasting soup or stew. You can find such chickens at our farmers markets, independent butchers and natural food co-ops.
Unlike many of the older soup recipes that advise cooking the chicken for many hours, cookbook author Julia Moskin advises poaching the chicken for a short time to create a clear broth and tender meat. I like to toss in extra chicken bones from previous dinners for oomph. (Store the bones in freezer bags to have at the ready.)
Using this method, there’s no need to remove the skin from the chicken before poaching because the fat that is rendered adds a silky texture to the broth and any excess is easy enough to skim off after it’s cooled.
The broth is simmered with celery, carrots, leek, parsley and bay leaf for flavor that are all discarded before making the soup. (By that time, these vegetables have turned limp and weary. Some cooks, however, purée and add them back into the soup to give it more body.)
Once you have made the broth and cooked the chicken, the soup is open to a range of interpretations.
Try adding cellophane noodles, a few coins of ginger, a spoonful of miso, a shot of soy, and garnish with chopped cilantro for an Asian rendition. Or, take the soup south of the border by stirring in hominy or cooked black beans and chile peppers, then serve topped with crumbled tortilla chips and a dollop of sour cream.
Chicken soup with fat noodles, parsley and thyme sends me back to my grandmother’s kitchen and, when served with a few Parmesan crisps, this bowl of childhood comfort gets an elegant twist.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.