At first glance the title of this posting seems faintly ridiculous—the words “art” and “chicken soup” are an unlikely couple. After all, what could be more simple or more basic than chicken soup, a comfort food that nourishes the body and the spirit? But think back to chicken soup you have eaten, either in the home or at a restaurant. Has it always been rich, flavorful, and golden? After eating one bowl, did you want seconds? If your experience is anything like mine, then the answer is no. All too often, chicken soup is bland and watery, and one bowl is usually more than enough. Honesty compels me to admit that I have made chicken soup that is, shall we say, edible but forgettable. But over the years I have learned how to make a fragrant chicken soup, and here are some tips.
The first and most important one is this: Do not think you can make a decent chicken (or turkey) soup from bones that have been stripped of every shred of meat. I realize that frugal cooks love the idea of taking said bones and making, as it where, something from nothing. I like the idea myself, but sad experience has taught me that when you use chicken bones with only a hint of meat and try to make soup from them, what you get is a thin, boring soup. No, what chicken soup needs is a fair amount of chicken on the bone that can be simmered for hours. There are two ways you can do this. You can buy chicken just to make the soup, and I occasionally do this. But the better way is to purchase more than you need, say, two small birds or a very large one, and have roast chicken one day. (I season mine with oil, salt, pepper, and dried thyme.) Then, resisting the impulse to strip the chicken clean and make sandwiches, you leave most of the remaining meat on the bones and into the stockpot they all go with enough water to cover the bones. If there is a lot of chicken, I will remove a bit to add to the soup after the simmering is done. But only if there is a lot of chicken.
With this, you have a good start, but more is needed. To the stockpot I add one whole onion, with a few cloves stuck in; two large carrots, peeled and cut in big chunks; three or so cloves of garlic, again peeled and cut in large chunks; a couple of stalks of coarsely chopped celery, if I have them (and I don’t always); and a bay leaf.
Now comes the tricky, watchful part. You want to bring this all to a slow boil, and just as it starts to bubble, turn the heat down so that you have a gentle simmer. (Leave the cover on as it simmers.) You don’t want to have a furious witch’s caldron of swirling bones, fat, and vegetables. You want things to merge and blend slowly. Depending on what kind of stove you have, this can take a fair amount of jiggering with the burner’s heat. Next comes the skimming, and do not skimp on this part. The more fat and froth you skim from the stock, the brighter the soup will be. So, for four or five hours, simmer those bones gently and periodically skim. I know. This is starting to sound like a Julia Child recipe. But a big pot of soup will last for several days and is oh so nice during the long, dark cold of winter. Soup made with boxed chicken broth is a sad, sad imitation, and I’m not even going to get into Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.
Once the stock has simmered for many hours, strain the broth, pick the meat from the bones, and set the meat aside. Discard the scraps and the vegetables. What you should have now is a golden broth that needs a bit of salt and pepper but not much else to flavor it. Because I am from Maine, I add potatoes and sliced carrots to the broth, but rice or pasta would do as well. Or, if you want a Mediterranean touch, white beans, celery, and a bit of rosemary could be used. The choice is yours, and they are all good ones.
Once the potatoes and carrots are tender, I add whatever reserved meat I have to the pot. Make some biscuits or some muffins, and you have yourself a pretty nice meal.
2 small chickens, adding up to ten pounds or so, or 1 large chicken. (If you are feeding a lot of people, you can up the ante to two large chickens.) Roast, have a meal, and leave a lot on the bones to simmer.
1 small onion, left whole and stuck with several cloves
2 large carrots, peeled and cut in chunks
2 stalks of celery, cut in chunks
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in chunks
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
Follow the aforementioned simmering and skimming instructions. This is pretty much an all-day event. For those who work outside the home, this will be a weekend meal. But here’s an added bonus: Your house will smell heavenly while the stock is simmering.
After all of this simmering and skimming, it seems very appropriate to end with a “bon appétit!” And perhaps a bonne chance?