Chicken Broth for the Soul (and the Soup!)

As the weather cools and I trade in my battered but comfy shorts for my favorite jeans and my beloved flip-flops for my knockabout sneakers (I’m in Southern Cali, after all!) my mind invariably drifts to soup. Soup is one of those things that’s easy to master with time and a little care; in fact, it’s one of the first sorts of food that I figured out how to make with confidence in my early days tinkering, before food became my life and my profession.

In my cramped dorm-room kitchen overlooking Washington Square Park (and later in a series of shoe-box apartments) I would muck about making chicken soup, mulligatawny, beefy veggie soup, Manhattan clam chowder, and a rich crab bisque pretty much ripped off wholesale from the “soup nazi”. In the winter when the icy winds would howl through lower Manhattan or snowstorms would blanket the city, I would spend whole days tending to my soup, listening to music, drinking tea or whiskey, and taking breaks for homework and the occasional cigarette (not anymore!!). It was then, and still is now, fun. And soup is truly “good food”, a maxim no less true for being said to death in marketing campaigns and elsewhere. It warms the body, it nutures the soul, it’s (most of the time) full of nutrients, and anyone can make it.

A friend recently asked me to post a recipe for matzo ball soup, something I make probably once a month. Definitely one of my favorites, good matzo ball soup can be found in any great Jewish-style deli, and this city has a few – Nate N Al’s, Art’s, Langer’s, Canter’s. But homemade will always be better!

But before you can make great matzo ball soup, you need a great chicken broth. It’s not for nothing that chicken soup is called Jewish penicillin – there’s truly no substitute for great broth. It can drive away a cold, take away your shivers, restore you when you feel ill. If you feel a cold coming on nothing will get you back on your feet like a bowl of hot broth, perhaps with a few chunks of chicken and some simple veggies. Now I can’t say that good canned broth won’t make great soup, but take a little extra time and the results can astonish you.

This recipe produces about 7 quarts of broth, which can provide the base for several soups, including the matzo ball soup recipe (which I hope I can post tomorrow).

Part of the foundation of this broth is the carcass from a roasted chicken with the meat pulled off. Whenever I roast a chicken I save the carcass, bones, the skin, and sometimes the roasting juices – I’ll pop it into a zippy bag and freeze it. If I serve pieces of chicken “on the bone” to others I won’t use the bones that have been gnawed on for stock; however if it’s chicken you’ve gnawed on yourself and you’re cooking only for yourself, feel free. You may wish to re-roast those bones with the chicken necks and backs in the recipe.

Now maybe you don’t have chicken carcasses just laying around like I do, but a good quality store-bought rotisserie chicken will serve well enough, although I urge you to make sure you get an all-natural, preferably organic roasted bird. Don’t settle for some industrial big-chain rotisserie chicken. Another thing to think about – you want a simple roast chicken, herby or maybe a little lemony is okay. Some heavily spiced chicken with curry or rosemary will make an off-tasting broth. You want simplicity.

2 pounds chicken necks or backs (ask your meat guy)
1 or 2 carcasses and bones from previously roasted chickens including skin and roasting juices, meat reserved for the soup
8 quarts of water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
a tiny pinch of sugar
3 carrots, cut into 3 inch pieces
3 celery stalks, cut up
2 onions, split in half and pulled apart, skins included
2 garlic cloves, crushed, skins included
1 sprig parsley

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Season chicken backs or necks with salt and pepper. Roast for 40 minutes. In the meantime put the water in a large pot, add chicken carcass and all remaining ingredients. Bring water to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Add roasted chicken pieces and simmer for 3 hours. If any foamy impurities rise to the top skim off as needed. Be sure to simmer. Boiling the stock produces a cloudy broth. Slow and low, that is the tempo.

Strain broth through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard solids. You might notice quite a bit of chicken fat in the broth, especially if you’ve included a fair amount of skin in the stock. If using immediately, remove fat by slowly skimming with a large ladle. If you’re not using the broth until later, refrigerate it. All the fat will rise to the surface and congeal, making it easy to remove.

Before using this broth for matzo ball soup or anything else, please check for seasoning – add salt or pepper as needed.

Hope you love it!

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