Saturday, February 26, 2011

Annals of Chicken Soup

In October, I made my first chicken soup in the style of my grandmother, who made a simple but stunning, deep golden broth with rice. Because she left no recipe, I've been experimenting, relying on common sense, memory, and the recollections of my relatives.

I've made my soup about six times now; while it's very good, but it isn't exactly her soup. When I get it right, I believe I will know instantly, because I have a reflexive reaction whenever I taste things nowadays that could have come from her kitchen: I burst into tears.

My first soup experiment was close: the color was just right, and my eyes went a little misty. Since then, I've been trying different kinds of chicken, and tinkering a bit with the vegetables, although hers was a very simple soup with only a few ingredients. For chicken, I shop as she would have done, buying whatever is cheapest. In her day, I remember that wings were about 29 cents a pound. I know she often made her soup with wings; I realize that if I made soup with wings, I'd probably hit the sense-memory jackpot. But wings are never on sale, and they cost, like, $3.99 a pound, so I don't buy them because she would have collapsed in laughter at the idea of paying such a price. And my soup won't taste right if I'm feeling guilty over the price of the wings.

So far, I've used packages of soup parts — necks, backs, strange bits — from Savenors, which were pretty good. Sometimes they sell chicken parts that were compressed, frozen, and sawed into blocks. The price is right, but it seems that you get a lot of extra fat and skin, which do not make good soup.

At Shaw's, I've bought Bell & Evans thighs and drumsticks; these made good soup, too. I may be cheap, but I can't buy Purdue chicken. It tastes terrible no matter what you do to it.

I recently discovered that I can shop at Whole Foods — just as everyone else in the neighborhood has been doing forever. It's not much further away than Shaw's, and the prices aren't always astronomical. It took me a while (okay, 20 years) to warm up to Whole Foods because they were so hippie-granola in the beginning, back when it was still Bread & Circus. I'd buy their wholesome-looking bread and wonder why it tasted like styrofoam. When I commented on the bland taste, they replied that they didn't believe in using salt. Likewise, they wouldn't sell anything with chocolate in those days; they preferred carob. But although I gave up on them decades ago, they have certainly come around to my way of thinking. Their bakery department is a thing of beauty now, full of ganache and salty artisanal breads. And I find that you don't have to pay a fortune for your groceries if you are careful and can walk away from their $8 fresh berry cups.

I picked up an all-natural broiler chicken there for about $5 last week, a price my grandmother would have approved. We and the cats got a couple of meals from it and the rest went into the soup.  I've also bought legs and thighs there at good prices. You can buy loose celery stalks and carrots for about 20 cents apiece instead of having to buy whole packages. These usually rot in my vegetable drawer because I only make soup about every other week. (And I hate chewing raw carrots and celery. My jaw gets tired; I get bored. When I'm tired and bored, I think about pudding, or making Ghirardelli's triple-chocolate muffins. Carrots and celery are never healthy snacks for me.)

As long as I use close to 3 pounds of roasted chicken parts (or a meaty carcass), I get six or seven servings of broth. It doesn't seem to matter how I chop the celery, carrots, and onion. I've bought ready-made mirepoix from Trader Joe's (tiny minced onion, celery, and carrots layered in a tub) and that works well. But my grandmother would never have done that. I've found that chopping the vegetables very roughly yields the same flavor. I also add a few peppercorns, salt, two bay leaves, and two bouillon cubes (which we know she used). I cover everything with filtered water, bring it to a boil, skim it, and let it simmer for a couple of hours. Then I strain and toss all the solids, and pour the broth into canning jars, just as she did. I use a fine mesh strainer and layers of cheese cloth to filter out gunk. (It takes forever, it makes a mess, and I am not getting any neater at it, but I also don't care.) Then I make instant rice, as she did, or tiny Italian pasta "soup shells" from Pace's in the North End.  My grandmother cooked her rice or noodles separately and added them to the soup at the last minute.

My soup is — like hers — deep gold rather than yellow. It is delicious and satisfying. We usually have it with fresh Iggy's bread and a cheese from Harry's, in the Haymarket (his $3 specials are amazing), and call it a meal. I would serve this soup to my family, if they weren't all at least 350 miles away, and I know they'd approve of it, more or less. I know they would say it was close to the soup of our memories, but not quite the elusive elixir. Lost foods, like my grandmother's soup, are serious business to us. They would be frank and outspoken, as they always are. I'm not there yet, and I'd hear about it in some detail. But one of these days, wings will be on sale.


  1. Have you ever stuck a clove in one of your big pieces of onion? That was a popular addition in many of the chicken stocks in my family and I can tell when I don't remember to do it.

  2. I'm pretty sure my grandmother didn't use cloves or any other special ingredient in her soup, but what an intriguing idea for stock! Thanks!


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