A Mourning for Chicken Soup

She woke to the twittering of early morning birds. Stretching, she cursed the cold air for making the birds seem so bloody loud. Oh well. Time to get up anyway.  Into the kitchen to turn on the kettle, into the shower, out to the front porch for the paper, to the desk to fire up the laptop. Emails, scheduling, a lecture to write for this week, an article to proofread. Glad to stay home and work. Glad to spend time getting things done with only the tweeting to disturb her.

The telephone shrieked, scattering the birds and smothering her thoughts. Damn. Who would call so early? Mom. “Hi Mom… Oh. Oh my God. Oh no… When? Who was with her? Oh no…umm…I love you too….I know she did….I’ll phone as soon as I’ve booked a flight….Oh…Ummm…How are you doing? OK…Yeah, I will….I love you too….OK…Bye.” She turned to the laptop and booked a flight for the following day. And then she sat and wished that the birds were still fluttering nearby.

She stared past her screen-saver and saw her family: sitting down, standing up, walking in, walking out, lips moving, hugging. Her neck and shirt were wet. She stood and took a step one way and then the other. Where’s the kleenex? She shrugged, swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and crawled down to the floor, curling in like a caterpillar. She sobbed. And sobbed. And then she sniffled. Rolling onto her back she heard the birds come back to the yard. She asked them, “What should I do now? What am I supposed to do now?” Her voice echoed and then disappeared. No meaningful response. She sniffled again. And again. And then she knew. Her tear-drenched lips almost smiled as she rose. Once in the kitchen, she laid a pot on the stove and filled it with everything needed to reassure herself and to help her remember until tomorrow’s flight home.

Chicken Soup Like a Grandmother Used to Make

I don’t actually have a recipe because it’s never the same twice. Here’s what my baba used to do, what my mom and I still do.

Get out your chicken, either a whole chicken or some thighs, drumsticks, wings or some combination. You need about 3 lbs, more is fine. Always use chicken that has skin and bones when making soup. Put the chicken into a pot that fits it with at least a couple of inches to spare.

Add one or two peeled carrots broken in half by hand, one or two stalks of celery (with the leaves from the tops if they look nice) similarly broken, a half or a whole onion (with ends removed, you can leave the peel on), a couple of whole garlic cloves peeled, a teaspoon or so of coarse salt (less if using fine salt), a bay leaf and 5-10 whole peppercorns. Throw in a little of any fresh herb you happen to have on hand or add dashes of dried thyme, sage, tarragon or rosemary or just use poultry seasoning.

Pour water into the pot until the chicken is just covered. It’s ok if some of the veggies are poking out. You don’t want too much water. Better to have less water and a more flavourful broth than to have too much water and a weak broth.

Put the pot onto the stove and bring it up to a boil over high heat stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low and put a lid on the pot crookedly so that some steam can escape. Leave it simmering slowly like that for 1-1.5 yours. Taste it after 1 hour to see if the broth is flavorful enough. You may need to add more salt or you can wait longer and see if the flavor deepens with longer simmering..

Meanwhile, peel 2 large carrots and then slice them. Slice 2 stalks of celery.

Remove the chicken or chicken pieces from the soup (use tongs) and put them on a plate. Snag a carrot from the pot and eat it. Taste the broth and add more salt if necessary. Stir.

Put a strainer over a large pot and pour the broth through the strainer. Discard contents of the strainer (unless you want another carrotty snack). Skim some fat off of the broth if it seems like there’s a lot.

Add the raw sliced carrots and raw sliced celery and put the pot over medium-high heat until it returns to a simmer. Then lower the heat and let it simmer until the carrots and celery are tender, 5-10 minutes.

If your soup is brothy, you can cook some egg noodles in the soup when you cook the sliced carrots and celery. Add a couple of handfuls of  noodles once the soup has come to a simmer. Simmer the soup for the length of time indicated on the noodle package (or follow instructions in my soon to appear recipe for homemade egg noodles). Taste a noodle to see if it’s cooked the way you like it. Be warned: Noodles that remain in leftover soup will get kind of mushy and will thicken the soup a bit. To me that’s a hallmark of leftover chicken noodle soup. If you don’t like mushy noodles in your leftovers, cook the noodles separately according to package directions then put some of the noodles in a soup bowl and top with soup. Toss any leftover noodles with a bit of olive oil, cover and store separately from the soup.

Using tongs if the chicken is too hot to touch, remove and discard skin and bones from the chicken while placing pieces of meat on a cutting board. Roughly chop some of the chicken meat and add it to the pot. Stir and decide if you want to add more or not. How much meat you add is a personal choice. Are you in the mood for a meaty soup or a brothy soup? (Chicken meat that you don’t add to the soup should not be wasted but should be used for chicken salad or in any recipe that calls for cooked chicken). Simmer the soup for a moment or two to re-warm the chicken.

Serve the soup on its own or with buttered white bread for the ultimate comfort food (grainy bread for more wholesome comfort).

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  1. #1 by Cheryl M on December 14, 2010 - 4:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story. It’s amazing but cooking soup helps us in so many times.

    • #2 by cookthestory on December 14, 2010 - 4:51 pm

      You’re welcome! I am also always amazed by how restorative soup can be on both the body and the soul and in both the preparing and the eating.

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