Open letter to my cousins: Many of you claimed that your mother's chicken soup is the best. My mother’s made the final cut for two reasons. First of all, this cookbook was my idea, and when you write your cookbook, you can say your mother’s is the best! Second, I am including it because it really is the best, and anyone who disagrees either has never had my mother’s chicken soup or is congenitally taste-bud challenged. It is dark golden in color, intensely flavorful, and, in short, an elixir of the gods. I hoard the leftovers to use on special occasions in recipes calling for chicken stock (the real secret of my stuffing and gravy). You see, my mother adheres to the “if some is good, more is better” school of cooking. While this theory usually spells disaster in the kitchen (notably in her meat loaf!), it is the method of choice in making chicken soup. And this is one case where the method is as important as the ingredients.
While her exact ingredients vary as the mood hits her, here is her recipe from a typical day. Serve the soup with matzoh balls and lokshen (thin noodles), or on Passover with mandlen (soup nuts).
Yield: Makes about 3 quarts
2 chickens (3½ to 4 pounds each) with giblets (no liver), quartered
2 pounds carrots (yes, 2 pounds, not 2 carrots)
2 large onions, cut in half
5 large ribs celery with leaves, cut in hall
2 large parsnips
1 small sweet potato (6 ounces), cut in half
1 turnip (6 ounces), cut in half
1 rutabaga (6 ounces), cut in half
1 small celery root, cut in half (optional)
½ large green bell pepper, stemmed and seeded
½ large yellow pepper, stemmed, and seeded
2 large bunches dill, coarsely chopped (about ¼ cups)
½ bunch curly-leaf parsley (about ¼ cup)
3 cloves garlic
Kosher (coarse) salt and freshly ground block pepper to taste
Chopped dill for serving (optional)
1. Place the chicken in a 16-quart stockpot and add water to barely cover. Bring just to the boiling point. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and skim off the foam that rises to the top. Add all the remaining ingredients (except the optional chopped dill) and only enough water to come within about two thirds of the height of the vegetables in the pot. (Most recipes will tell you to add water to cover. Do not do this! You want elixir of the gods or weak tea? As the soup cooks, the vegetables will shrink and will be covered soon enough. Eight to 10 cups of water total is plenty for this highly flavorful brew.) Simmer, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 1½ hours.
2. Remove the chicken and about half the carrots from the pot, and set them aside.
3. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot or container, pressing on the vegetables to extract all the flavor. Scrape the underside of the strainer with a rubber spatula and add the pulp to the soup. Discard the fibrous vegetable membranes that remain in the strainer. If you’re fussy about clarity (and we’re not), you can strain it again through a fine tea strainer, but there goes some of the flavor. Cover the soup and refrigerate overnight.
4. When you are ready to serve the soup, scoop the congealed fat off the surface and discard it. Reheat, adding more dill if desired (and we do). Slice the reserved carrots, add them to the soup, and serve.
When the chicken is cold, cut some into half-inch cubes to serve chicken quarters in the soup with matzoh balls, lokshen, and carrots for a steaming and bracing one-pot dinner. Mom and i are big fans of boiled chicken served hot or cold, preferably with Uncle Lou’s horseradish, and have no trouble “using up” the leftover chicken for meals until it’s gone. Not everyone, however, enjoys plain boiled chicken served au natural, even prepared in a brew as flavorful as Mom’s. Cube or shred the chicken, and heat it in your favorite sauce, store-bought or homemade, and serve it over pasta, rice, or couscous. Add it to stuffed baked potatoes, tacos, pizza…the possibilities are endless. Grind some to make chicken kreplach instead of beef. Cubed and served cold, this dill-drenched chicken turns a tossed salad into a meal, or mix it with mayonnaise for chicken salad (but you already knew that).
P.S. If you think this chicken soup is controversial, wait till you get to the kugels and mandelbrot!
P.P.S. Actual message on my answering machine from my friend Diane Weiss in New Jersey after I sent her a copy of Melting Pot Memories: “Judy? I just made your mother’s chicken soup, and my whole family is standing around the pot slurpping with a straw!”