The Grandma Zone: Chicken Soup
I make my chicken soup in a 12 quart pot. That's huge. Most people have an 8 quart soup pot, maybe a 10. So, you will likely need to scale it back. I also do this almost entirely by feel - I know I've got the right amounts in by looking. I'll try to guestimate as well as possible amounts, but as a benchmark, know that the soup pot is pretty full of ingredients (with lots of airspace, of course) by the time it's time to add the water.
- A nice old soup chicken plus 2 additional legs, well cleaned of feathers and gunk
- 1 small and 1 medium onion
- 1/2 large bunch of parslely, rinsed, trimmed and tied up in cheesecloth
- 1 large green bell pepper, cored and seeded
- at least 3/4 lb. carrots, well scrubbed and trimmed (I prefer peeled)
- 4 - 5 pieces of celery, trimmed and cut to fit in pot
- at least 3/4 lb parsnip, well scrubbed and trimmed (I prefer peeled)
- kosher salt
- black pepper
Clean the chicken well. No feathers, and no junk. Place all the ingredients except salt and pepper in the pot. Fill to an inch of the top with cold water. Cover and heat until it gets pretty close to boiling (try not to boil it).
Just before it begins to boil get a teacup and a spoon, and skim off the foamy scum that is rising to the top and discard it into the teacup. Be as uptight about it as you like - the more schaum (scum) you skim, the better the soup will be. Keep skimming until the schaum is gone, or you're really going nuts.
Once you are done skimming, recover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer. At this point, I add 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. (Kosher salt has larger grains than table salt, so if you're using table salt, reduce the amount.) Bear in mind that I am using kosher chicken, and this is saltier than non-kosher chicken, so you may need to adjust up, but I would wait until later. Add 10 - 12 shakes of pepper.
Really try not to let it boil (especially boil over). Cook on low for at least 1 - 1.5 hours. It's done when the chicken is pricked with a fork easily. I taste it about 1/2 hour before I think it's going to be done to see if it needs more salt/pepper. Beware of too much salt - the soup tends to develop more body and flavor over time, so if in doubt, wait.
I always discard the unwanted vegetables as soon as the soup is done because the life has been cooked out of them and they will just disintegrate and cloud the soup. I remove them with a slotted spoon and press out as much liquid as possible back into the soup. These include: bell pepper, onion, celery. I also remove the chicken and transfer it to another bowl. I do serve chicken in the soup, but it's a lot of chicken, so I also freeze it and use it in agrastada or chicken salad. It's really good for using in other recipes, but bear in mind that while it's moist and tender, it's a bit bland by itself. My chicken salad and agrastada recipes allow for more flavor to be returned to the chicken and take advantage of its moist nature.
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- This recipe was taught to my grandma by her mother in law, for whom I am named. Late in life my grandma started adding MSG to her soup in the form of commercially available bouillon cubes that imparted an intense flavor when the broth first hit the mouth, but left a metallic aftertaste that was unpleasant. Decades prior, my grandmother would have been able to detect the difference (she lost her sense of smell later in life) and would have look askance at such an addition, and I follow the teachings of my younger grandmother.
- If you want to punch up the flavor (not that it needs it!) without the metallic aftertaste and risking giving MSG-sensitive people migraines you have options. First, consider making the broth out of entirely dark meat, or adding chicken feet, if you can find them. Even augmenting with an extra set of legs makes a difference if your pot is big enough. Also, the older and tougher the bird, the better the soup. Avoid using smaller chickens if possible - Cornish hens are bred and slaughtered for optimal use in a delicately flavored meal. If you are stuck using those, toss in some legs! The pot should be approximately 2/3 full of chicken and vegetables before you add water. If it isn't, your soup will not have enough flavor. So, one option is to add less water. You get less soup, but what you have will be rich. Parsnip adds a very specific richness to the soup - adding more parsnip will have a subtle but warming effect on the flavor of the soup.
- My grandmother used to do this elaborate thing where she'd stuff the parsley inside the cored bell pepper and strap on some celery sticks in there to keep the parsley in, using a rubber band or a piece of string to tie it all together. You had about 2 in 3 odds of the cockamamie contraption staying together for the full process of soup-making. One day I asked my grandma why she didn't just use cheesecloth, which was easier, and didn't have the problem where the rubberband would break or, even worse, impart the flavor of newsprint or something off to the soup. She rocked back on her heels in astonishment and said, "Oh my goodness. I completely forgot about that! Bubbe (my great grandmother) did used to use cheesecloth. But during The Depression we stopped using it and I never thought to use it again." So, now I of course use cheesecloth, which is just a way better way to deal with wayward parsley.
- Don't skip the skimming part in favor of filtering it later. (Although if you want to filter it at the end just to be really picky, go right ahead - just don't skip the step.) My grandmother maintained that letting the soup cook with the schaum (scum) in it imparts a bitter taste, and I believe her. I will also say that standing there over the pot of soup with the lid off a) feels great when you're sick and b) evaporates some of the water off, increasing the concentration of flavor and improving the soup.
- Do not add turmeric to yellow the soup. Turmeric is a lovely and subtle spice and it does add a particular aroma that is not consistent with Ashkenazic chicken soup. If you really want your soup yellow, add chicken feet. Also, using darker meat will help yellow the soup.
- You can buy a mesh spoon which is great for skimming schaum.