Middle-aged Jews of Eastern European descent may remember their grandmothers’ kitchens as a scary place: carps swimming in the bathtub (on their way to becoming gefilte fish), the perpetually-imminent explosion of the pressure cooker, the chicken feet waiting to go into the soup...
Miraculously all that scary stuff ended up on a shining white tablecloth, softly lit with Shabbat candles, tasting like home, family and love.
My grandmother, an excellent if reluctant cook, used to come back from the butcher with a big bouquet of chicken feet, chicken bones and assorted root vegetables. True to the frugal imperatives of Ashkenazi cuisine (Rae Bernamoff of Mile End Deli points out that the Jews cooked head-to-tail way before it was trendy) nothing got thrown away and bones and feet were assigned to soups.
Bones and feet provide a lot of gelatin but flavor, not so much. To make up for the lack of flavor cooks used lots of aromatic root vegetables and the secret ingredient of the 70s: MSG-laden chicken soup base.
Later in life I was introduced to a different version of chicken soup made with a whole chicken instead of bones and feet. It tasted very chicken-y but lacked the intense freshness of abundant root vegetables. The secret ingredient, I was told, was laying hens and the end of their career which, being older, are very flavorful. Those were no good for eating per se but, just like chicken feet, they were good enough for soup. The gelatin in this version is provided by cow’s marrow bones.
So I set out to marry these two great traditions to a soup that has great chicken flavor AND root-veggies freshness. After many trials and errors, here are my secrets to a clear, intensely flavored Jewish chicken soup:
Use a flavorful chicken: Chickens raised on pasture are best. Try to choose the largest available (which means more flavor). If you live in Central Jersey, Griggstown Poultry Farm’s chickens are delicious and readily available. Unfortunately, other local farms are out of meat chicken for now, but I'd like to mention them anyway for future reference. I have a soft spot for chickens from Lima Family Farm, which are bred and fed on pasture to maximize quality. Double Brook Farm has heritage chickens, Simply Grazin', better known for their beef, have chickens and a new mobile chicken slaughter house. You can also search for local chicken at http://localharvest.org/.
If you get a supermarket organic chicken, get “stewing chickens” that are larger and older.
Use a whole chicken: Each part - breast, legs, wings and back - contributes to the well-roundedness, freshness and richness of the flavor.
Consider using chicken stock as a base: Not always, but on a super-special occasion, use chicken stock instead of water. The result is a more intense flavor. You can find the recipe here.
Root vegetables are NOT an afterthought: Root vegetables and chicken are a natural match. Moreover, Chicken Soup Season, that time of the year when we long for a steamy bowl of soup, is also Root Vegetables Season. Historically root vegetables were the only vegetables available in the Eastern European winter and hence became the Crown Veggies of our diaspora. Get smaller, un-waxed vegetables with a taut, unblemished skin.
Add the right amount of water: which is the exact level of the chicken and vegetables. No more and no less.
Keep it at a simmer: Flavors need to leach out and mingle slowly and gently. Rapid boiling just ruins it. More importantly, it causes the protein in the meat and vegetables to break and make the soup cloudy. This is especially critical if you are using a marrow bone.
Jewish Chicken Soup
4 quarts water or chicken stock here.
1 large cut-up chicken, traditionally stewing or large roaster, but a good pastured chicken will do. Try to get the biggest one you can
Marrow bones (optional)
2 whole onions, unpeeled 4 parsnips, peeled and left whole
1/2 cup chopped celery leaves plus 2 stalks celery and their leaves
1 rutabaga, peeled and quartered
1 large turnip, peeled and quartered
1 parsley root, quartered (optional)
½ celery root, halved
6 carrots, peeled and left whole
6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 6 tablespoons snipped dill 1 tablespoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Put the water and the chicken in a large pot and bring the water to a boil. Immediately turn down the heat and bring simmer. Skim off the froth.
Add the marrow bones, onions, parsnips, celery, 3/4 of the rutabaga, turnip, parsley root, celery root, 4 of the carrots, the parsley leaves, 4 tablespoons of the dill, and the salt and pepper. Cover and simmer of 2 1/2 hours, adjusting the seasoning to taste.
Please stay in the kitchen and hover over the soup. It should never boil. You want to see a very slow, lazy bubbling.
Strain, pressing the vegetables and chicken down lightly to release flavorful juices. Discard the vegetables and reserve the chicken. Strain the liquid again through a double layer of cheesecloth,
Refrigerate the liquid to solidify the fat. It takes 3-6 hours, depends on your refrigerator. When the fat solidifies, remove it from the soup.
Remove the skin and bones from the chicken and cut the meat into bite-size chunks. Refrigerate.
Just before serving, reheat the soup. Cut the remaining 2 carrots into thin strips and add to the soup along with the remaining rutabaga cut into thin strips. Simmer about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked, but still firm. If you want to add the chicken meat, heat it up separately and add now. Serve with the remaining snipped dill. You can also add noodles, marrow, or matzo balls.