Nothing soothes more than Grandma's chicken soup

Bertha Green lost much during the Holocaust, but not her beloved family recipe

In my house, chicken soup is more than a meal; it's a family heirloom.

My maternal grandparents lost all their immediate relatives and most of their possessions during the Holocaust. So when they immigrated to the United States, my grandmother, Bertha Green, didn't bring much more from Poland than the recipes hidden in her memory.

They settled on a New Jersey chicken farm, supplementing their income by selling older chickens to Campbell's for soup. Our family recipe, though, requires a considerably fresher chicken and many more vegetables than float in a can of Campbell's.

Chicken soup has been my grandmother's exclusive domain for most of my life. It was something I looked forward to, along with matzo balls, every time we visited her Brooklyn home.

That probably explains why, as a child, I much preferred reading Maurice Sendak's "Chicken Soup With Rice" to his more famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are."

As the title suggests, rice is the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of chicken soup. Egg noodles work well, too. Matzo balls are a must in addition to rice or noodles, though my grandfather preferred kreplach, a meat-filled dumpling.

Only in the past few years has my mother perfected my grandmother's recipe, and I've started cooking it on holidays, too. Each time, I call my grandmother, just to make sure everything is done right. Invariably, she will call back a couple minutes after we hang up with one more pointer.

The usual reminder is put the chicken (a pullet, larger than a frying chicken) into boiling water for just a few minutes. That way, it's easier to remove any remaining feathers or dirt from the bird.

With her help, my soup always turns out tasting the same as the recipe her mother made a century ago.

But as food critic Mimi Sheraton writes in her book, "The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup," you obviously don't have to be Jewish to cook - or enjoy - a well-made chicken soup.

"There is something almost universal in the gentle appeal of its limpid sheen, its soul-warming flavor, and the myriad enchantment of its garnishes," Ms. Sheraton writes.

Among Eastern European Jews in Poland, chicken soup is known by its Yiddish name, goldener yoich (golden broth), or zupp (soup).

My grandmother, who spent her early 20s hiding in a forest from the Nazis, wasn't able to make her first chicken soup for a Friday night Sabbath dinner until she arrived in the United States with her infant daughter.

She and her fellow refugee friends all shared the same recipe, though she added a parsnip and a leek to her mother's celery, carrots, dill, and onion.

It might be family bias, but few restaurant chicken soups compare to my grandmother's. The Second Avenue Deli in Manhattan, four blocks from where my dad grew up, comes the closest. They put big slices of carrots in every serving and, as a personal touch, pour the soup from a little metal cup into the bowl at your table.

The farther you get from New York, though, the worse the result. Most restaurants substitute bouillon for the fresh broth, creating a yellow, overly salty soup.

A good chicken soup should be nearly clear with only a slightly golden hue. As I learned the first time I made it, don't leave the parsley and dill in the soup overnight or the broth will look green the next day.

While chicken soup is usually reserved for special occasions, my grandmother makes other tasty soups, too. Tomato and mushroom barley are two of my mother's favorites.

Gramma cooks a big batch of these soups and gives my mother frozen servings sealed in small plastic containers. Before going to work in the morning, Mom will put one of these containers on the kitchen countertop to defrost in time for dinner.

In her ninth decade, my grandmother still discovers new soups. Bert, who helps around her apartment, recently introduced her to a kale soup from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Now when I visit my grandmother, I often find her tearing the kale she'd hadn't even heard of a couple years ago. And when my mom looks into her freezer, she has yet another soup to choose from.

St. Lucian Kale Soup

1 large yellow onion, diced

1 parsnip, diced

1/2 pound green beans, cut in half

4 stalks celery, diced

2 carrots, diced

1 bunch kale, cut in strips

4 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Salt and pepper to taste

1 head broccoli, cut up

1 head cauliflower, cut up

1/2 bunch dill, chopped

In a large stockpot over high heat, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. Add onion, parsnip, green beans, celery, carrots, kale, and garlic. Cook until vegetables are soft (about 1/2 hour) and add salt and pepper to taste. Add broccoli and cauliflower and cook another 1/2 hour, adding dill after 15 minutes.

The soup is ready when all vegetables are soft and the soup takes on a green hue. Serves 4 to 6.

Grandma Green's Chicken Soup

4- to 5-pound chicken, quartered

3 carrots, sliced lengthwise in quarters and then in half

2 celery stalks, sliced lengthwise in quarters and then in half

1 leek, ends snipped off, length and width cut in half

1 medium onion, peeled and halved

1 parsnip, halved

1/2 bunch flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1 bunch dill

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooked white rice or egg-noodle squares (about 2 cups)

Put quartered chicken (with skin intact) in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then discard that water and remove any remaining feathers from chicken.

Refill pot with enough water to cover chicken. (As a general rule, use 1-1/2 bowls of water for every bowl of soup.) Add all vegetables, half of the parsley, and half of the dill, and heat until boiling. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cover, occasionally skimming fat from top. Remove parsley and dill after 40 minutes, set aside, and replace with remaining fresh parsley and dill. After an hour, sample soup. It's ready when the chicken flavor overshadows the vegetables.

If not served immediately, put broth, vegetables, and chicken with herbs in 3 separate containers and store in the refrigerator until serving time. (If storing more than two days, freeze the containers.) Sprinkle the cooked chicken and herbs with garlic powder.

Before serving, return broth, chicken, and vegetables to the pot and reheat. With a slotted spoon, take out and discard the leek, onion, and parsnip pieces.

Serve soup over white rice (about 1/3 cup per person) or egg-noodle squares. Garnish with chopped fresh dill, if desired.

Serves 6 to 8.

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