The language of chicken soup

No matter the language of its recipe, it always means 'comfort.'

Courtesy of Gail Jokerst
Liquid gold: The author as a child, enjoying a bowl of her grandmother's chicken soup.

When it comes to comfort foods, two words have the power to bestow a sense of contentment the world over – chicken soup. I was recently reminded of this when my husband unearthed a long-forgotten photograph of my younger self serenely eating a bowl of my grandmother's chicken soup. With one hand holding a spoon festooned with noodles and the other hand cradling a freshly baked roll, I'm obviously more preoccupied with my meal than with the camera pointed in my direction.

Seeing the old black-and-white snapshot prompted me to call my Uncle Dan, who took the picture when I was 3, to ask him about it. Since he earned his living back then photographing actors and opera singers, I was curious why he had chosen to capture that particular moment on film.

"Oh, that's the tight shot with the spoon. Yes, I remember it," Uncle Dan replied after I described the image. "I've always liked to take unself-conscious candid shots of people doing things they have a passion for. You were concentrating on eating your soup. You weren't interested in me or the camera."

He was right. In my young life, few things could distract my attention from a bowl of homemade chicken soup or make me feel more replete. All my grandmother (Marion, but known to me as Nana) had to do was call our house to say there was a pot simmering on the stove and I would drop everything to run across the street to her fragrant kitchen.

In the years since that photo was taken, my affection for chicken soup has continued to grow. I guess you could say it has even gone global as I learned to appreciate how different cultures put a distinctive culinary spin on the golden elixir.

During high school, I discovered a Middle Eastern version, avgolemono, at a restaurant in my hometown of Lowell, Mass. It took just one taste to win me over to its tart lemon flavor and alter my priorities come weekends. While many of my teenage peers would rush off to see the latest blockbuster movie, I'd head to a Greek restaurant with friends for a dinner of chicken soup partnered with thick slices of crusty bread.

In my college days, Neapolitan neighbors introduced me to an Italian rendition of chicken soup reminiscent of the one I loved in childhood. They sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese in their bowls and ladled the clear broth over a mound of white rice instead of pasta. This always made me smile as I would recall how my grandmother, who hailed from Poland, served her soup strictly with pasta. Anything ranging from wee alphabet letters to long egg noodles was fair game to Nana, but never rice.

After moving to Montana, I became acquainted with a couple of unusual but delightful chicken soups that are now part of my repertoire. A farm wife told me about Zuppa Verde (see recipe), which translates in English to "green soup." She found the recipe more than 30 years ago in the pages of a Farm Journal magazine and reared her family on it. Loaded with chunks of chicken and chopped escarole, this satisfying old-world soup settles the rice versus pasta debate by ignoring both additions and no one seems to notice or care.

Another friend, who lived in Colombia, taught me to prepare Ajiaco Bogotano (see recipe), a cumin-scented chicken-corn soup. Served with avocado, cream, and capers and thickened with potatoes, it makes a delectably hearty meal in a bowl. This traditional Andean soup bears no resemblance to Nana's translucent broth, but that's fine with me. Where chicken soup is concerned, I'm open to many interpretations so long as they're tasty.

I have to confess, though, that as much as I adore this international staple – from whatever country claims it – I make chicken soup only occasionally because it is such a labor of love. And when I do fill my stockpot with chicken and vegetables and let time and heat work their miracles, I hoard every drop of the finished soup as liquid gold.

In a pinch, I've been known to substitute canned chicken broth in a recipe. But when I want to remember the flavor that once made me oblivious to my uncle's camera, only homemade will do.

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Zuppa Verde

1 (4-pound) chicken
1 gallon water
1 large onion
2 celery stalks with leave
1 or 2 carrots, scraped
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 medium head escarole
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

Place all ingredients except escarole and cheese in a large kettle. Bring to a boil and simmer loosely covered until chicken is tender, about 2 hours. Strain and cool broth. Skim off fat. Save carrot.
Remove and discard skin from chicken breasts. Cut breast meat into slivers to make 2 to 3 cups. Dice the cooked carrot.
Cook escarole in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. When tender, drain and squeeze dry. Chop. (It should measure about 1/2 cup.)
Add carrot and chicken to 2 quarts of chicken broth. Heat, add escarole, and serve with cheese on the side. (You can also stir the grated cheese into the soup if it’s easier for you than putting a bowl of it on the side.) Makes 8 servings. Remaining broth and chicken can be frozen.

Ajiaco Bogotano (Creamed chicken and potato soup with avocado and capers)

1 (3-1/2- to 4-1/2-pound) chicken, cut into quarters
Enough cold water to completely cover the chicken
1 can beef consommé
1 large onion
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons cumin
Dried thyme to taste (optional)
Salt to taste
1/2 teaspoon black or white pepper
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices
24 ounces frozen corn
Heavy cream
Sliced ripe avocados

In a large, heavy soup pot, combine chicken and water. Bring the stock to a boil and skim off any fat as it rises to the surface. This takes about half an hour. Add the consommé, onion, bay leaf, cumin, thyme (if using), salt, and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the chicken is tender.
Transfer the chicken to a platter and discard the onion and bay leaf. Remove the chicken from the bones, take off the skin, and cut the meat into bite-size chunks.
Cool stock for several hours and remove the fat that rises to the surface. Reheat stock to simmering and drop in potatoes and cook until tender. Mash them with a potato masher in the stock. Add the corn and chicken and cook until the corn is tender and the soup is nicely “stewed.” Ladle into 8 deep bowls and serve with cream, avocado, and capers on the side.

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