The Way of Cooking: Chicken soup

When you’re really not feeling well, there’s few things better than chicken soup to make it all better. So what is it about chicken soup that makes it so popular as a cold remedy? Is it just the warm liquid soothing the chest? Hot vapors loosening nasal congestion? Or is it something more? At least two different scientific studies have taken a crack at what mothers and folklore the world over tout as the best cold remedy. The earlier study showed that warm chicken soup “increased nasal mucus velocity” (what a lovely term!) and so would alleviate the “acute rhinitis” (stuffy nose) that accompanies the common cold. (A) The later study, in 2000, demonstrated that the synergistic combination of chicken and vegetables in a homemade chicken soup inhibited the movement of white blood cells (called neutrophils) that caused inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. (B) By limiting the number of neutrophils at the infection site, the inflammation was reduced, and so was the duration of the cold. Interestingly, the second study also tested several commercial brands of chicken soup and found some of them had a better or equal anti-inflammatory effect as the homemade soup. (See the list of the commercial soups in the survey)

But what’s the one key ingredient all the commercial brands of soup will be missing? TLC, of course — love. Chicken soup is not hard. Here’s an easy, foolproof method you can start in a crockpot. The only catch is, I recommend starting the day before you serve so you can chill the broth and remove most of the fat. I usually start this in the morning and let it do it’s thing until evening. (Meanwhile I can do my thing and not fret too much over an open flame)

In a 5-7 quart crockpot, place:
3-4 lbs chicken backs, or a 1-2 whole stewing chicken
2 well-scrubbed unpeeled carrots, cut in half
1 large well-scrubbed unpeeled onion, quartered
green tops of one bunch of scallions
1/2 hand of ginger, sliced

Cover with water and set crockpot on High setting for 3 hours, skim as impurities form “scum” in broth.
Turn setting to Low and simmer for another 6 hours. (The long simmer is necessary to extract maximum goodness from the bones)
Remove broth to a large shallow pan to cool, then in a container to refrigerate overnight.
When cold, remove all or most (I leave about 10-15 % in for flavor) of the layer of yellow fat at the top of the broth.
Chicken backs and vegetables start the soup base
Now you can do anything you want with it — add all the vegetables you like; add chicken, seafood; add macaroni, orzo, rice noodles, rice or potatoes; add herbs or more spices; add . . . your imagination!

Here is one of our favorite chicken soups. It’s a Filipino soup with green papaya — called Tinola. The papaya is supposed to be a stark white color. The one in these pictures had started to ripen on the inside, although the outer skin was still green. But it was very firm, not sweet, and stood up well in this soup. The watercress is not traditional in the original Philippine version, but I love watercress and think it adds a great flavor, not to mention all the extra nutrition from the greens. I”ve also seen this made with togan (also called winter melon) or upo (also called loofa gourd), instead of green papaya.

(Look here for a more traditional Chicken & Vegetable Soup)


(Chicken and green papaya soup with watercress)

1 large knob of ginger, julienned
1 onion, sliced
3-5 cloves garlic, chopped
8-9 cups prepared chicken broth
1 whole chicken breast, cut in half
1 whole green papaya, peeled and cut into 4-inch cubes
1 large bunch watercress, cleaned and chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 TBL fish sauce (patis)
1-2 tsp ground black pepper
sea salt, if necessary

The most important step in developing the right flavor for this soup is to saute the ginger, onions and garlic together until the onions become translucent, then slightly brown. Add chicken broth, and breast halves and bring to boil. Remove any scum that surfaces. When chicken is fully cooked, remove from broth.

Add papaya pieces, watercress, patis and pepper. When cool enough to handle, remove meat from bone, tear into large chunks and return to soup. Cook over medium heat until papaya is just tender (pierces with a fork). Taste and adjust seasoning.
Raw green papaya Chicken and green papaya soup
Although this is a soup, you’ve probably guessed from the large chunks that this is not eaten directly from the bowl. I was taught to eat this with fork, spoon, plate of rice and a side dish of patis. We’ve given up on the tableside patis for health reasons (like all fish sauces, it’s very salty with a high sodium content), but still eat this the traditional way: put some meat and vegetable on your plate and eat it with rice. You can use the broth to moisten your rice and/or drink the broth separately.

(A) Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach study (1978)
(B) University of Nebraska Medical Center report: “Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro*” (2000)