How to make chicken soup

Before the advent of test kitchens, lo-carb diets, and Twinkies, there were recipes, but they were not recipes as we know them now. I recently read an op-ed piece on Salon which decried the modern recipe as a prime example of our faddish love for scientific precision taking over our willingness to be experimental or inventive.

When I told a friend this morning that I was going to make chicken soup today, I was asked, “How do you make it?” I responded with a list of ingredients when I realized that I honestly didn’t have measurements for chicken soup; I just knew how to do it. Perhaps, while sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, I picked up some of the basics that, without realizing, I’ve since incorporated into my own cooking.So how does one make chicken soup?

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First, you have to drive over to a friend’s house to help her move out of her apartment. You have to work for a few hours, until you realize that you don’t have enough time to go home and cook some kind of dinner for the people who were helping her move. Then you have to give your keys and a bit of money to a friend, who then goes to the store for you, buys the food, and heads home to your kitchen to harass your cats and cook in your kitchen.

While you’re helping, she makes everything happen. She roasts two chickens, makes green beans and mashed potatoes, and bakes some rolls. Everybody comes over, exhausted from helping the friend move, and they devour as much of the chicken as they can possibly eat.

Afterwards, the chicken carcasses get hacked apart at the joints and piled into the crockpot. Then you fill the crockpot almost totally full with water, turn the heat on low, and gratefully tumble into bed.

The next morning, you wake up and the house smells like the beginnings of soup. You lie in bed and stretch for a little while, and then ponder how good the soup will be once it’s got vegetables and egg noodles in it. But then you realize that you’ve got errands to run and a package to mail, so you get up, get dressed, and leave the crockpot on low for another hour or so while you do the things that need doing.

You come back home, eventually, and turn off the crockpot. If you’re really in a hurry, I suppose you could lift the lid to let everything cool down a little faster. You write a few emails to friends, then wander back into the kitchen and get started. A nice, fat stockpot and a fine-mesh strainer probably wouldn’t hurt for starters; the idea is to separate the solids from the liquids. Strain the broth into that big stockpot, and put all the chicken bits into a separate bowl.

Now comes the fun part. Since the crockpot’s dirty already, why dirty up another bowl? Start picking through the chicken bits. Break the meat into chunks and throw it into the stock; put the bones, skin, and other gristly bits into the crockpot to dispose of later.

(While you’re at it, take a peek at the chicken’s vertebrae. They’re delicate but strong, and very intricate. Who says cooking can’t be interesting?)

Once you’ve got the chicken and broth reunited, put it on the stove and turn the heat up to a nice medium. You want to bring it to a boil eventually, but you’ll want to have a bit of time to pick up and soothe the kitty that’s clamoring for attention, and then you’ll need to wash your hands afterwards.

After that, you’ll want to chop up some carrots, potatoes, and celery. I bought three carrots, so that’s what I used; I used only two sticks of celery because Jeff doesn’t like it as much as I do, and I used the three small-side-of-medium potatoes I had lying around in the kitchen from some previous meal. If I’d had an onion, I might’ve added that too, but I was out.

Then, remember that you’re scatterbrained and that you have a little herb garden out front. A few springs of parsley and thyme wouldn’t hurt matters. Rosemary’s probably too strong and sage is just all wrong for this soup; both are diva herbs and like to be the star of the show. Throw the herbs in a pot, make a phone call or two, and then come back in about thirty minutes.

It’s probably time to add in a bit of water. Usually, somewhere around a cup or a cup and a half of water replaces the water you’ve lost to boiling.

Taste your soup. Probably a little flat, isn’t it? Straight chicken broth always is. A few generous pinches of salt and a goodly bit of pepper will change the flavor dramatically. I’ve never understood what it was about chicken that made it so responsive to a bit of pepper and salt, but I must say that I’m not going to argue. After you’ve seasoned and stirred, take a taste again. Better? If so, leave everything alone for a little while. If not, start tinkering gently—a bit more pepper first, then green herbs, then salt last.

So why’d you add the water? Because it’s time to add the noodles, of course. Don’t skimp—get hearty, rich egg noodles. Why spend all this time on soup if you’re not going to do it right? I think I used three handfuls of noodles, but I have small hands. Be generous, but not overly so; remember that noodles swell up nicely in soup and they’ll take up all of the extra water you added and then some, so you’ll have less liquid than you did before. Once your noodles are soft, taste again. Pepper and herbs before salt, of course.

Happy with it? Turn off the heat and fish out the herbs, which have exhausted themselves in the name of culinary duty.

You could serve this soup immediately, but I never have. Take a break. Call a friend and invite them over; this is the kind of recipe whose results you’ll share with a battalion of friends or eat for lunch all of next week. Settle in and watch a movie. Find out where the cats have gone to sleep.

…and, if you’re me, you’d come into the computer room and write out a domesticat entry while the soup cools itself down to a temperature that will mean you won’t spend all of next week nursing burns on the roof of your mouth.

Once you’re done, and you’ve had a good laugh about how much you’ve written about a silly chicken soup recipe, you’d probably realize you were hungry, post the entry, and go have some dinner even if your spouse wasn’t up from his nap just yet.

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That’s how.