When my friend Kamila starts telling her tales of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, I realize what a soft, useless child I was, and I feel pretty lame for all the nonsense I used to whinge about. The chalky medicine I had to swallow for earaches? She had to submit to an eardrum lancing when infection set in…and while I was held down, flailing, by seven nurses trying to gently swab my throat for a strep test, Kamila stoically bore a tonsillectomy sans anesthesia.
At her high school, part of the curriculum was a stint on a chicken farm, and not the cute, idyllic kind of farm, either; her tales of the processing room at this factory operation are enough to make your hair curl. The middle-aged overseers terrorized her and the other teens, but as soon as the gimlet-eyed harridans turned their heads, the younger ladies would slip chicken breasts down their shirts and smuggle them home for the family dinner (at the same time inventing chicken cutlets). To this day, Kamila still can’t order chicken in a restaurant and only trusts what she has sourced and cooked herself. Can you blame her?
As a result of this well-rounded education she's licensed to drive a tractor and a tractor trailer. She also had to catch a turkey behind the school as part of her final exam, while her friends looked on through the classroom window and taunted her. It took her a full hour to capture the "evil and ugly thing".
But the upside to these gritty experiences is that she's tough, no-nonsense, and can take care of just about any business you throw her way – and she has a great sense of humor about all of it. She gets a campfire going faster than you can say “s'mores.” She knits, she sews, she's an amazing cook. She teaches classrooms of kids to make masterpieces out of discarded cans and odd bits of fabric. Hand her a pile of frizzy wool and she'll poke at it with a needle until it's magically transformed into tiny families of fairies and forest creatures whose loveliness will make you sigh. Her cosmetic artistry could turn an old hen into a thing of beauty…and while we’re speaking of old hens, I'd like to talk about another nifty and thrifty trick she taught me, one that changed the way I thought about chicken soup forever.
This recipe, in fact, puts regular chicken soup to shame. It's hen soup, the difference being it's made from an older hen or soup chicken, which needs hours of slow cooking in water before the meat is tender enough to eat. Did you know that most of the fryers and roasters we buy from the store are only about 7 weeks old? Traditional chicken soup was made with a hen or soup chicken, which adds infinitely greater body, flavor, and nutritional value to the broth, but this practice fell by the wayside as soup chickens became more difficult to find. Now, with more Americans keeping backyard hens and buying from small, diversified farms, soup birds may be within closer reach. A good place to start, if you don't raise hens yourself, is a farm or farmer’s market; in our neighborhood, Fishkill Farms at the Carroll Gardens market on Sundays sells a cooler full of “soup chickens” that do the trick quite nicely, especially since the feet and necks are left on (see this post to find out what's so great about chicken feet). They also carry apples, cider, eggs, and frozen summer produce such as black currants. If you don't see soup chickens at your market, ask a farmer who offers eggs among his or her wares.
This soup is gentle and restorative and the broth has nourishing, savory depth, perfect for this “windy season” that might tease us with 75-degree weather one day, then wallop us with slicing rains and spring colds the next. The variety of root vegetables used – a bit of a change from the carrots-celery-onions triumvirate you may know – adds a subtle sweetness to the mix. It’s a simple, fortifying soup that you’ll want to have on hand at all times.
· 1 laying hen or soup chicken, organs removed, preferably with feet, neck, and wings still on (a regular chicken will do, just won’t make as rich a broth)
· 1 large onion, chopped
· 3 cloves garlic, smashed
· 2-inch knob ginger, halved
· 1 large carrot, split
· 1 parsnip, split
· 1 small celery root, chopped
· A few sprigs of Italian parsley
· Chopped carrots
· Chopped celery
· Other root vegetables, such as parsnips
· Dried or fresh marjoram, chopped
· Fresh parsley, chopped
· Small noodles or potatoes
Put chicken in a pot that will accommodate it and the vegetables snugly, and add cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and add other ingredients (everything in the first group). Simmer gently for 4 hours, topping off with water as you go so chicken remains covered.
It's best to make this the day before, then put the whole pot in the refrigerator to cool. The next day (or when chicken has cooled enough to handle), skim yellow fat off the top. Remove the chicken to a large bowl or cutting board. Strain broth with vegetables through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth into a clean pot, pressing on vegetables to extract all the liquid. Discard the vegetable pulp. To the strained broth add your chopped vegetables of choice (second list of ingredients) and marjoram. Bring to a boil and lower to a simmer until carrots are tender. I like to cook noodles separately, drain them, and add at the end with the chicken, but you can also cook them in there with the vegetables.
Meanwhile, remove and discard skin from the chicken. Shred the meat off the bones with your hands, removing every last bit, and add it to the pot once vegetables are tender. My children are partial to the tiny star-shaped noodles, which I add cooked at the end.
Soup is pictured up top with toast and melted Monte Enebro cheese from Stinky Brooklyn.
Kamila adds: If you have kids, save the wishbone so they can break it together.