Friday, October 31, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Autumn Soul....

It's that time of year-- colds and flu season is kicking into high gear. Those darned viruses! You may be someone who rarely falls prey, or you might succumb several times during a calendar year. A few facts about viruses will help you sort it out....

First, scientists disagree on whether viruses are actually living things. Many feel they don't satisfy the criteria for living organisms and describe them simply as packages of RNA with crunchy coatings, unable to reproduce until they're introduced into cells, where they immediately take full advantage of the host. Those aches and pains you feel when you have the flu? They're caused by your cells being ruptured by explosions of newborn viruses, liberating irritating intracellular substances into your tissues.  Ow.

Second, no one is immune to any virus-- at least that we know of-- unless that person has (1) had the illness caused by the virus or (2) been immunized against it. Even then, neither is 100% foolproof. Simply put, if you get hit with a full virus "load" (e.g., a full sneeze hits your face, or your hand picks up a hefty dose of virus from a doorknob-- and you then rub your eyes, inoculating yourself), you're probably going to get sick. Keep in mind that viruses spread in different ways, i.e, some are airborne, some are spread through contact with infected bodily fluids, etc. Know your viruses and be wary.....

But, this isn't supposed to be a medical post, although my medical background betrays me. I was a registered nurse for thirty years, and once a nurse, always a nurse. Here's my last thought on the subject-- my best suggestions to you for colds and flu season:
  • Get a flu shot, if you're not philosophically opposed (I swear by them; if you are opposed, I respect that, too-- to each her own);
  • Avoid crowds when you can;
    Don't touch doorknobs and other surfaces that a gazillion other people touch;
  • Wash your hands a lot; 
  • Take care of your general health (if you're healthy, you're less likely to get sick); and
  • Make chicken soup.
Which is why we're here, right?

My grandmother taught me to make chicken soup, and my mother added tips of her own. The process is simple, it fills your house with wonderful smells, and it makes a product infinitely superior to anything you can buy. And.... there is actual research supporting the health benefits of chicken soup. It may be good for the soul, but it's great for the body as well.

Let's begin by differentiating stock, broth, and soup. Stock is made by simmering bones with vegetables, herbs, meat/poultry, and seasonings. Broth is similar but doesn't use bones. Soup is what you get when you combine a finished stock or broth with other yummy items like pasta, beans, or veggies.

This blog post will focus on stock, and the first thing you'll need are some bones. You can use raw chicken parts or a whole chicken, bones leftover from a recipe, or a carcass from a roasted or rotisseried chicken. Turkey bones and pieces work, too. In fact, turkey wings are one of my go-to's for stock making-- they're incredibly flavorful and seem to have a lot of gelatin, creating a rich, dense stock.

You'll need veggies and herbs, too. As with any good cooking, the better your ingredients, the better the final product. Splurge! Buy from a local Farmer's Market or greengrocer if you can, take part in a local CSA, or grow your own. Work with fresh, organic components and buy local if you can.

Here's an ingredients list suitable for making a pot of chicken stock-- enough to make soup for four.

Note: Start the process 1-2 days before you want to serve the soup.
  • One "chicken-equivalent" of chicken and/or turkey parts, raw or previously cooked (raw is best)
  • 1/2 large yellow onion, sliced, skin on
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and chunked
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, including lots of leaves
  • 1 handful-sized bunch of parsley, chunked
  • 1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • 2-3 sprigs (each 3-4") of thyme 
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 12-124 fresh peppercorns
  • 1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • A pinch of ground allspice (my grandmother's secret ingredient) (she won't mind me sharing it)
Put all of the ingredients into a big (8-10 quart) kettle and cover with cold water. Why cold? You want the temperature to increase slowly, opening the pores in the bones and coaxing out every bit of the flavor and gelatin within. If you bring the water to a boil too fast, the results won't be nearly as yummy.

Place the kettle over medium low heat. Now go do something.... For several hours. It will take at least a couple of hours for the kettle to slooooowly heat up enough to begin simmering or even bubbling. Once it does, adjust the heat so the kettle is steamy hot but not quite boiling-- a hard simmer. You're going to let it do this all day. Check it every hour or so and add water to keep all of the ingredients submerged. You're not trying to reduce the volume-- you're simply letting everything simmer and get cozy.

Here's the fun part: at the end of the day, turn the stove off, put a lid on the kettle, and leave it right there, overnight. There's no need to refrigerate it. (In French country cooking, it's not uncommon for cottage folk to keep a stock kettle going on the back of the stove all the time, adding bits and pieces and dipping into it as needed.) When you get up in the morning, turn it back on and bring it back to a simmer.

As the Day Two simmer progresses, allow the volume to begin to reduce somewhat. As the bones begin to break down, you'll be able to push and crush them into the bottom of the kettle. Later in the afternoon, turn the stove off and let the kettle cool down for a couple of hours. Then, strain the stock into a clean kettle or large glass or ceramic bowl. (Please don't put hot stock into a plastic bowl-- this may release carcinogens! Bleh....) Taste it and add salt if needed.

Tuck the bowl into the refrigerator-- overnight, if possible. The fat in the stock will rise to the surface and congeal, and you'll be able to lift it off. (Note: if you're a foodie, tuck some of this chicken fat-- also called schmalz-- into the freezer to use another time.) Your chilled stock will resemble chicken jell-o, thanks to all the great gelatin you coaxed out of the bones. (Good job!)

You're now ready to make soup. I usually use diced chicken meat; diced celery, onion, and carrot; and some sort of rice or pasta, but another wonderful variation involves diced chicken meat, sliced kale, and white beans. It's easy to find good recipes in cookbooks or online, and because you're now starting with your own fabulous stock, the soup will be delicious.

  • Some people like to roast their bones before cooking; doing so deepens (and changes) the flavor. If you want to try this, roast the bones in a 450 degree (F) oven in an open shallow pan until the pieces are a deep brown-- but not burned!
  • I like to freeze stock in 2 C portions; I use plastic freezer bags and freeze them flat, allowing me to stack the frozen bags in the freezer. They may it easy to make a quick small amount of soup, and they're also excellent for adding stock to stews, vegetables, or casseroles. 
  • I also keep at least a quart of chicken soup in the freezer on stand-by, just in case I come down with a cold. It's my very own emergency soup back-up kit.
  • And, little bits of leftover stock can also be frozen in ice cube trays. Pop them out when frozen, store in a freezer bag, and add to whatever you're cooking. One cube adds immensely to a stir-fry or a quick vegetable saute.
Enjoy! Yum....

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