My gentlemen housemates do not consider soup a meal. It is a promissory note for the meal ahead. This often works out for them, because we always have soup for family gatherings. But at my house, soup is enough for me, so they’re SOL and eating cheese and crackers by 8pm. I don’t know what to say about that. I could be a better menu planner, with a more robust offering to go with the soup. But yeah, not likely. I’m the worst.
When I was a kid, Sunday was Chicken Soup Day. We would go to my grandparent’s house, and woe be on you if you missed it. Lives were arranged around Sunday Soup. It’s funny to me that when I wrote the title to this post, it didn’t occur to me to say Chicken Soup. Grandma’s Chicken Soup is the triple-OG soup. Other soups might be based on this (like Uncle Jack’s Stracciatella alla Romana – the link goes to a recipe that’s pretty close. We never used semolina, though), or Minestrone. But Soup means Grandma’s soup. And Grandma’s Soup means Chicken Soup.
As with all things in La Famaglia, there are arguments about the One True Recipe. It Super-Waybackland it always started with a whole chicken in the pot – we don’t necessarily do that anymore. Sometimes, there’s a whole tomato put into the broth to give it that lovely golden hue. Sometimes it’s a whole yellow onion. Sometimes the person who offered one or the other of those hints swears that they never said that. I was 14 when my grandma died, so most of my soup learning experience comes from my mom, Auntie V, or Uncle Jack. When he gave me a compliment about any of my cooking, I took that as a true top-shelf compliment, since he had, when he died, 97 years of all of us cooking similar-but-slightly-different things for him. And he liked my soup. I also know that he was a character, so when he leaned in to give you a tip, it was likely a tip he learned through misadventure in his own kitchen, and it strayed from his mother’s (my great grandmother’s) recipe in a delightful way.
The test of good soup is how willing it is to turn into Chicken Jello when you put it in the fridge. Some chickens make chicken water, which is sad. Sad! I always use chicken feet. I get them at the Cambridge Market from Southern Pride Poultry. Feet have a ton of collagen to give up to make (in the words of Alton Brown) an “unctuous mouth-feel” to the stock. And collagen equals Jello. If feet give you the heebie-jeebies, use whatever bones you want. Backs and wings work pretty well, too. Backs are a pain in the butt to sift out of the soup after – you’ve been warned.
Also, whenever I roast chicken parts in the oven (which is often), all the pan drippings go into a bottle in my fridge. I skim off the schmaltz into a different bottle, and keep the drippings to augment my soup. You don’t need to do this, but I make pretty great soup. Just sayin’.
To the method!
Put in a pot: chicken feet (the bag of chicken feet I buy is about a gallon bag size or so. That’s also the size of freezer bag into which I collect other chicken bones in anticipation of soup), a few thick peeled carrots (you’ll be mashing these later, so peeling now is easier), a few ribs of celery (or fennel. Or both), a yellow onion bigger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball (or whatever, this is art, not science), 2 (or 6) cloves of garlic, salt, and enough water to cover everything. Put the pot over medium low heat and go do other things for a few hours.
[interlude music – my default interlude music is Girl From Ipanema. I don’t even know how that happened. YMMV]
When the chicken feet are cooked and flappy (meaning they’ve released the collagen), use a slotted spoon or a spider strainer to fish everything out of the pot. Mash the carrot and garlic roughly with a fork and put it back in the pot. Add the jar of pan drippings and a few handfuls of frozen peas. For the love of all that is holy do NOT use canned. Taste and add more salt if it’s required. Also, at this point, if you used bones, sometimes you come to the realization that you made Chicken Water. It’s OK, it happens. Add some commercial stock to make it more flavourful. You can still take credit for homemade soup.
When the pot comes to a boil, add your pastina (the amount will depend on how thick you like your soup). My grandma’s soup used Acini de Pepe, which are tiny balls of pasta. My mom always calls them Acha-di-Peppine, which I think is adorable. Use whatever noodles you like though. At Christmas, I use stars. This week, I have a craving for wide egg noodles or pappardelle (but I know that I’m still likely to use Acini de Pepe). If you’re going to use thick pasta (like fusilli, say), maybe boil your pasta separately so the soup isn’t too starchy.
To serve, put it in a bowl and top with grated Romano cheese and ground black pepper.
Troubleshooting your soup:
- Mike likes chicken-ier chicken soup than me (to make it more dinner-satisfying), so I usually either boil (which is what my grandma used to do, kinda – the whole chicken got boiled into soup, and we had the chicken after we finished our soup) or add some leftover chicken, shredded into the soup.
- If you use backs, my grandma used to tell us that if you got a bone in your bowl, that was good luck. She was still embarassed when it happened, though.
- If you like other stuff in your soup, like actual chopped bits of onion or celery or potato or whatever, add them. We’re not judgy.
To eat this soup I spoon out all the broth first. When I have only pasta and peas and carrotty bits left, I put cheese on and eat it like pasta. My grandma didn’t like when I sucked all the broth out first, but when I’m not serving it to others, I still do that, 30+ years later. Sorrynotsorry, Grandma.