It’s strange, the things you remember.
Growing up as a kid in a large Italian-American family had many joys, one of which was the abundance of good food.
For more Sundays than I can remember, upwards of a dozen times a year, my cousins and I would go to a movie, usually in the neighborhood of the relative’s house our parents were hanging out in doing whatever it was that adults did.
Upon returning from the theater, there were platters of lunchmeat for sandwiches: genoa salami, bologna, ham, capicola, and bresaola, as well as different kinds of cheese.
On one of those relaxing Sundays, when I was eleven, my Aunt Rita, knowing about my love for homemade chicken soup, asked me if I wanted a bowl of her wondrous, piping-hot goodness. She had some leftovers. I eagerly said yes, because if there was one thing that I loved more than my comic book collection, it was chicken soup.
This fond memory has stayed with me. I don’t know why. Most of our childhood fades away. Is it because I didn’t have to eat yet another cold sandwich of my childhood? I wasn’t a picky eater, but I did have some odd dislikes. I never enjoyed mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup. Still don’t. Most assuredly, I would have a sandwich on another Sunday. Is it because chicken soup is so unvaried: a simple, well-made broth tastes good. Or is it because the answer is obvious: chicken soup made Michael happy.
That Sunday, as it always did, and still does, a bowl of chicken soup makes me very happy.
Classic homemade chicken soup is, for me, the perfect meal. The flavorful mix of broth, carrot, onion, and celery, when done correctly, is unbeatable. The dish can also be made more elaborate with additions of different vegetables or seasonings. As long as the base ingredient is chicken, the henhouse, not the sky, is the limit.
The history of chicken soup is long, and a little bit surprising. One might think it was an Asian or a Mediterranean staple. While it’s true that chickens, a member of the fowl family, were domesticated in either Southeast Asia or India probably 10,000 years ago, the culinary staple we call chicken soup was borne of colder climes.
Originally, chicken stock was a Northern European dish made popular because autumn’s root vegetables put into the broth took quite well to long-simmering cooking times. Nothing warms the heart, and the hearth, better than hot soup on a cold night.
The passion for chicken soup spread to the southern region of Europe, including to the kingdoms that would eventually unify to become Italy in 1861. The classic Tortellini in Brodo is the reigning Italian champion of ways to make chicken broth work its magic.
Chicken soup as we know it arrived originally to the North American continent from Poland and Scotland. Immigrants from those two countries, especially Jewish, Amish, and Mennonite settlers, traveled with a few beloved possessions and a wealth of recipes.
Scotland’s most famous chicken soup, called Cock-a-leekie, has rice, leeks, and prunes in it. Poland’s celebrated Rosoi, not only uses chicken, but Polish cooks also add a beef bone, some turkey bones, and cabbage.
Legend has it that chicken soup was so much a part of Jewish communities throughout the northeastern United States, that it came to be known as “Jewish penicillin” because of the theory that it was the best dish to have to fight the common cold. Even if was only from sipping the broth with some crackers added.
I’m not going to disagree. Some people eat raw garlic in the belief that its antibiotic properties will send a cold reeling. Others eat crushed ice it with a spoon to fight a fever.
Maybe they work, maybe they don’t. Neither is my choice. You’ve certainly guessed what my choice is.
Growing up, the leader of the kitchen in my house was my mother, Geraldine, who cooked meals for six children (three boys, three girls) and my father. When I think about the variety of meals she prepared, I’m astonished.
Peeking through the pleasant cloud of memories are always thoughts of my mom’s chicken soup. Her’s was as classic as classic could be. And, if there was a recipe, and I don’t know that one was ever written down, it’s irrelevant.
The key to my mom’s chicken soup was an old hen, well beyond its prime. Neighborhood butcher shops sold them.
A whole, aged bird was all it took to create magic. The smell of the chicken simmering in copious amounts of water, surrounded by a peeled onion, a pound each of coarsely chopped carrots and celery (with the leaves left on the latter), one tomato tossed in as a small flavor enhancer, and salt with minimal pepper was food potency. We were not a peppery family.
Pride of place went to the broth, which simmered on the stove for six hours.
There were also the fun shapes of Gioia soup macaroni, which were cooked separately and added to the bowl before the hot mixture of chicken goodness and vegetables was ladled on top. Ditilani. Stars. Rings. Acini de pepe. Little shells. Cartwheels. And, of course, the alphabet, with which we tried to spell words. It never really mattered which macaroni shape it was.
My mother’s cooking influenced me, and I’m not being vain when I write that I’m a good cook. I often make chicken soup. My three sisters, all very good cooks, each make a chicken soup that is uniquely their own. The culinary differences of the same dish, especially when prepared by members of one family, is truly one of the pleasures of cooking at home.
There are two kinds of soup that I make from scratch. The classic style similar to what my mom made, and a different one that is loaded with vegetables. The loaded recipe is included with this article.
For my classic-style soup, I’m a believer in simmering the chicken for an hour and 15-minutes (timed after it has begun to boil – with the heat then lowered). A couple of bay leaves and some Sicilian sea salt are added. I might use a large cut up chicken, which offers legs (thighs and drumsticks), split breasts, and wings. Sometimes, I mix it up. Nothing but bone-in breasts. All whole legs. All thighs. All drumsticks. Perhaps nothing but three dozen large wings.
Regardless of what parts of the chicken I use, I then strain the broth into a very large bowl and set the chicken aside. To the strained broth, which is put back in the pot, I add the celebrated chopped trio: onion, carrots, and celery and simmer for two hours. I taste for salt. I always stir in some fresh flat leaf parsley about 15-minutes before serving. I’ve taken the chicken meat off the bone and usually add it to the soup pot with the parsley. I make sure the broth returns to a slow boil. Some home cooks serve the chicken separately. Once, I used fresh dill instead of parsley, as in the classic deli chicken soup. The resulting broth was good.
I’ve also found that six boneless, skinless breast halves (from three whole breasts) do create a very good stock.
My sister Michele Cosmann, the oldest of the three girls, makes a soup that is loaded with the basic vegetables. I am always surprised to be told she uses two pounds of carrots, one entire bunch of celery (usually ten ribs or more), and at least a trio of medium-to-large onions. All are cut up. Bay leaves, salt, and pepper are part of the equation. Depending on what she’s bought, she’ll use a variety of chicken parts. Straining the broth is part of her process. The resulting bowls offer a heaping helping of vegetables with added macaroni.
What’s unique about Michele’s soup is not only that she adds poultry seasoning (the McCormick brand, to be precise), but it’s intensely peppery. She likes spicy flavors, and she uses a lot of black pepper. You taste it immediately. She’s really going against the grain of how we ate as children. Perhaps it’s because she’s a Leap Day baby, I don’t know.
My sister Jeanmarie’ Calleri’s soup is most like my mother’s. The basics are there: a bay leaf, a large onion, some chopped celery and carrots. She also adds a tomato, and surprisingly, a garlic clove. One, not two. Jeanmarie, who is the middle girl, follows the long-simmering method (four hours) and the usual straining and deboning of the chicken meat. Her salt level is always perfect. There’s only a pinch of pepper.
When I have Jeanmarie’s soup, I immediately think of sitting in our eat-in kitchen when I was a kid. The aroma and taste is exactly the same, as are the large chunks of carrot, celery, and onion. It’s as if my mother is guiding Jeanmarie’s knife when she cuts the vegetables and her large wooden spoon as she stirs the broth in the pot. Whereas Michele’s bowl of soup is thick with vegetables, Jeanmarie’s is purer. Chunks of carrot, some celery, slivers of onion sink into the traditional macaroni.
My sister Lisa Carver, the youngster daughter, makes soup that has smaller cuts of vegetables. Her broth is the clearest, because she strains it three times early-on. She uses an abundant amount of orzo, which is the rice-shaped pasta she prefers and is her favorite soup macaroni. She uses a lot of it. The content of her bowls look like porridge, or what’s known as Congee – a type of chicken soup thick with boiled rice and beloved in China and southern India.
At Michele’s house on Christmas Day, I talked to Colleen Sutorius, one of her in-laws, who adds a tablespoon of the famous Bell’s Seasoning, which comes in a bright yellow cardboard box, in the preparation of her chicken stock. I was unfamiliar with the product and have since learned that it’s a blend of rosemary, oregano, sage, ginger, marjoram, thyme, and pepper. Colleen uses the traditional vegetables, but she roasts large chunks of them for a bit and adds them to the water to help make the stock.
Colleen’s daughter, Caitlin Sutorius, also makes her own chicken soup. I was surprised to hear that she finely dices her vegetables and sautes them in a frying pan on the stove-top before adding putting them in the water. What she’s made – with this fine dice of carrot, onion, and celery – is the classic Italian soffritto, a superb base for stock.
I once made soup using only chicken feet, which I had purchased from the mammoth Asia Food Market at 2055 Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst. The flavor was revelatory. Fatty and delicious.
I’ve also made Cock-a-leekie and Congee.
Regarding the meat, if truly local is your preferred choice, you’ll do well by using a chicken, especially a roaster, cut up or whole, from Wendel’s Poultry Farm in East Concord, just outside Springville in southern Erie County. There’s a store on the grounds manned by friendly people, and the farm has a good website. The Lexington Food Co-op in Buffalo sells Wendel chicken products at both of its locations.
The mythology of chicken soup as a panacea for what ails a person is fun to think about. For me, of course, there’s the warm memory of a treasured dish from childhood.
Be it a healthy tonic or a youthful delight, there’s no denying that eating flavorful chicken soup makes you feel good. It’s called comfort food for a reason.
Michael Calleri writes about movies, entertainment, and culture for the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. His reviews are syndicated in the United States by the CNHI news network. Contact him at email@example.com.