“Yes", said Cook. "That is soup that you are smelling. Times are terrible, and when times are terrible, soup is the answer."
- Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux)
Have you ever read any of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books? Basically, they're collections of short stories intended to lighten the reader's spirits and make them feel good. Some are funny, some are very heartfelt tear jerkers, but they inevitably leave the reader feeling better all around.
Chicken soup seems to have the same effect when eaten, which is undoubtedly A- what likely inspired these books' titles, and B- why just about every culture on the planet has some variation on this healing meal.
Many scientific studies have been done to sort out whether chicken soup really can treat a cold effectively (the answer is yes, apparently...), but ultimately, this dish's real power is in its soothing warmth and nutrition: every sip seems to soothe us right to the marrow.
When people are feeling broken and lost, soups such as these are like comforting hugs on the inside, giving strength as well as nourishment. Packed with vegetables—and hopefully plenty of garlic—it's an ideal soup for rebuilding strength when someone is run down.
As mentioned in my note about food substitutions, I make a meatless version of this soup for my husband using faux chicken made of tofu marinated in poultry seasoning, but if I'm just making a batch for myself, or for omnivorous folks, I use bones in the stock and shredded chicken breast and thigh in the finished soup. The vegan version of this soup is at the end of this post.
For the Stock (Standard Version):Ingredients:
- Bones, skin, and leftover bits from 2 chickens* (you can add in some of the meat as well, if you like)
- 2 medium-large onions, coarsely chopped
- 2-3 leek ends (green parts), sliced
- 2 carrots, peeled and coarselly chopped
- 2 stalks celery + their leaves, coarsely chopped
- 5 or 6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 2 teaspoons dried summer savory, or 1 teaspoon fresh
- 1/3 cup parsley, coarsely chopped
- a pinch of thyme
- olive oil
- white wine, sherry, or cognac
- 1 or 2 onion skins (optional)
Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large, heavy stock pot, then toss in the bones and skin. Heat these on medium heat until everything goes gold and brown, and bits start to caramelise on the bottom of the pot. Deglaze those browned bits with an enthusiastic splash of wine, sherry, or cognac, using a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape merrily until they loosen. Add about 2 cups of water and keep scraping and stirring for a minute or so longer.
Add in the onion, leeks, carrots, celery, garlic, and herbs, and then add just enough water to cover everything by about 1 inch. The key to a spectacular stock is to really condense the flavour, so you don't want to add too much water or you'll dilute it. The onion skins will give the stock a lovely dark golden colour, but adding them is totally optional.
Bring this to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let it simmer very, very gently for 2-3 hours. Remove from heat, allow it to cool a little bit, and then strain everything out. I start by using a slotted spoon to scoop out all the large bits, and then I pour the stock from one pot to another through a colander lined with clean cheesecloth. If you use this technique, squeeze the cheesecloth thoroughly so you get as much broth out as possible.
For the Soup:
- The finished stock, strained thoroughly
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 medium sweet potato, peeled and diced
- 1 large carrot, peeled and diced
- 2 stalks celery, tough threads removed, and diced
- 3+ cloves garlic, minced or pressed
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 2 handfuls fresh spinach, shredded
- 1 generous cup of cooked chicken breast and/or thigh meat, diced or shredded
- Optional: cooked pasta (egg noodles, acini di pepe, etc.), or spiralised vegetable noodles—as many as you like. 1 cup usually suffices for my tastes, but you might like your soup packed with more noodles. It's also lovely with cooked wild rice.
Heat the strained stock until it begins to bubble a bit, then add in the onion, sweet potato, carrot, celery, garlic and parsley. Bring up to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, or until the sweet potato and carrot are fork-tender.
Add in the chicken and spinach, and taste the soup to see if you need to add more salt.
Allow this to simmer for another few minutes just to let the flavours combine well, then remove from heat.
If you'd like a creamy version of this soup (which I do, SO much), this is the point at which you'd add a bit of dairy milk/cream, pureed cannelini beans, pureed cauliflower, coconut milk, or unsweetened soy milk until it reaches your preferred level of creaminess. You may have to adjust salt levels accordingly.
If you're serving this immediately and you'd like to add pasta, I find that it's best to place the noodles in the bottom of each bowl and then ladle the hot soup over them. If you're going to take this soup to someone as a food gift, pack the pasta or rice in a separate container rather than adding them to the soup so they don't bloat and soak up all that glorious stock. Same goes for spiralised veggie noodles: they'll get soggy and fall apart in the soup, and we really wouldn't like that to happen.
My usual caveat stands: I don't really measure when I cook, so consider this a rough guideline, and please adjust it to suit your own tastes! (I've made an Asian-inspired version of this soup by adding sesame oil and tamari, swapping out the spinach for watercress, and using soba noodles, and my Spanish DNA occasionally cries out for a sopa de lima version with fresh lime and cilantro, so be creative and make it your own.)
Vegan Onion Stock Version:To make the caramelised onion stock for the vegan version of this soup, slice 4 Spanish onions very thinly and toss them into a large, heavy stock pot along with a hearty glug of olive oil. You'll cook them on medium-low heat for 60-90 minutes, stirring only occasionally, until they're a deep, gorgeous brown.
Be careful not to let them burn! If you find that they're darkening too quickly, turn the heat down even lower. When you think they're ready, deglaze the bottom of the pot with wine or cognac, then follow the directions with the vegetables and other ingredients as listed in the standard version of the stock & soup above.
For the faux chicken, take half a brick of semi-firm tofu and shred it into strips with a pair of forks. Place these strips in a bowl and toss with about a teaspoon of poultry seasoning, a bit of minced garlic, and just enough vegetable stock to cover them. Let this marinate for 2-3 hours, then strain, and fry briefly in a bit of Earth Balance or olive oil until just browned. You'll add this to the prepared soup just before serving it.
* I keep bones and such in the freezer until I've accumulated enough to make a batch of stock, as it's a great way to use every part with respect.
Don't be alarmed if the stock you make with bones and skin turns gelatinous in the fridge: the natural collagen within is what makes this happen, and it'll liquefy again as soon as it's heated up.