I come from a long line of shtetl-raised Russian Jews. When anyone gets sick, and by that I mean someone sneezes once, my family makes chickens soup. I used to think it was my crazy family, but turns out Andrew’s family does the same. I suspect chicken soup might be an Ashkenazi Jewish answer to Windex in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
It has also occurred to me that I’ve never met anyone who dislikes chicken soup. I’ve met people who don’t eat chicken—for religious and other beliefs—but I’ve not met those who eat it and dislike it. Sure, there are endless arguments about what starch you add to the soup: the noodle vs potatoes vs rice argument is as old as the soup itself.
A chicken soup is a thing that cannot be rushed. It is also a perfect food for anyone with a cold, flu, general malaise, and so on. The problem is that if you’re the principal soup-maker in your household, then you have no one to make soup for you when you are the one sick. Takeout soups are just not the same. It needs a touch of a home kitchen. It needs time and while it’s one of the simplest things to make, process wise, it is a little fussy when you think about it. Straining stock is one of my least favorite things to do.
This recipe has become our favorite and go-to soup. Even my husband, who is a traditionalist when it comes to the ultimate Jewish penicillin, prefers this version to the one he grew up with. I can’t explain why it’s so good, but it tastes like the very thing you need that very moment. I tastes restorative in the most incredible way.
Pick a day when you’re healthy and it’s not-so-nice outside, and get to work. Most of the process, blessedly, is hands-off, so you can go about your business at home and do you thing, periodically returning to the kitchen to do a few things here and there. The soup is even better the next day. I recommend making a big pot and freezing the whole batch–—minus the rice and garnishes—until you’re really sick and need something to bring you back to life. And if you bring this to a sick friend, they may never stop thanking you.
Whatever you do, do not skim the fat off the soup. It’s adds to the taste, flavor, and overall restorative properties, making this soup a true meal.
Stay healthy, friends. But in a pinch, here’s your cure-all, restorative fix.
my cure-all chicken soup
This soup was cobbled together from many places. Some of the soup tricks came from Julia Turshen’s chicken soup recipe (namely fishing out the breasts first and leaving the rest of the chicken in); the flavoring elements from the Elizabeth Street Cafe cookbook. And I learned to char aromatics from my friend, chef Soulayphet Schwader, of the excellent Khe-yo in Tribeca. If you cook the soup properly and give it the proper amount of time, it should solidify to a gelatinous block the following day; this is how you know you’re in soup heaven. A quick note on rice: certainly use whatever rice you prefer and have on hand, but I really like glutinous white rice here. It lends a chewy, comforting note.
One (4 lb/1.8 kg) chicken
1 large yellow onion, unpeeled and halved
1 (3-inch/3½ cm) piece ginger, peeled, halved lengthwise, and smashed
3 whole star anise
1 (4-inch/10 cm) cinnamon stick
1 (4-inch/10 cm) square kombu
Fresh cilantro sprigs, tied together, plus more for garnish
1 cup (195 g) glutinous white rice, or rice of your choice
Mung beans sprouts, for serving
Asian basil leaves or regular basil leaves, for serving
Slivers of white onion, for serving
Sambal oelek, for serving
Sriracha, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
Cut the chicken into 8 pieces: 2 breasts, 2 wings, 2 thighs, and 2 legs; reserve the backbone for another use (like making stock). Heat a clean dry pan over high heat (I prefer a cast iron) until smoky. Add the onion, and ginger, flat side-down for both, dry roast until blackened on one side, about 7 minutes. Transfer the vegetables to the largest pot you have.
In a separate, small pan set over medium heat, toast the cloves, star anise, and cinnamon, until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Transfer the toasted spices to the pot with the onion and ginger.
Add the chicken pieces, cilantro, and 1 tablespoon salt. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, skimming off and discarding any foam that rises to the top, until the chicken breasts are firm to the touch, about 25 minutes.
Using tongs, remove the chicken breasts from the pot and set them aside in a bowl. Continue gently simmering the stock, stirring from time to time, and skimming any foam that rises to the top, until the vegetables look completely beyond saving and the chicken seems like it’s seen better days—a sign of flavorful broth that will propel your soup to greatness), 2 to 3 hours. The stock should a rich dark-golden color. If you find yourself wanting to add a bit more liquid to the stock, do so a little at a time—you don’t want to dilute the flavor, but I understand if you don’t want to lose too much liquid to evaporation.
While the stock is simmering, cool the chicken breasts until they can be handled by hand, then discard the skin, remove the meat from the bones (discard the bones), and shred the meat. Transfer the meat to a container with a lid and set aside. You can even refrigerate the meat, but just be sure to bring it to room temperature before serving.
Also, while the stock is simmering, make your rice according to the instructions on the package, or in a rice cooker. If you have a fancy Japanese rice cooker (they are totally worth the cost), it will keep your rice warm for you (for days!)
Ladle the stock through two fine-mesh sieves (this ensures a super clear stock and no need for cheese cloth!) into a clean pot or a large bowl. Rinse out your original pot and return the stock to the pot. Discard the contents of the sieve.
Bring the stock back to a boil and season to taste with fish sauce (I like an aggressively seasoned stock, so I season generously). Add the reserved chicken breast meat to the soup and let it warm up for 1 to 2 minutes.
Ladle the soup into bowls, add some rice to it, and garnish with cilantro, sprouts, basil, onion, sambal oelek, sriracha, and a squeeze of lime. Serve immediately.
serves 6 to 8