Friday, April 18, 2008

Fun Playing with Chicken Soup

We prepared our Chicken Soup over the last two days. It was an interesting experience for me. I realized, after reading about stock-making here, that in a way, my soup-making process combines the stock and soup making processes into one.

This is NOT the way my mother made it - I began to studying the process of soup-making after seeing the movie Tampopo in the late 1980s. I loved the way Barbara Tropp wrote about stock and soup making in her book "China Moon Cookbook." It was here that I learned about the importance of chicken feet in soup making, and never letting the pot come to a boil. Well, that's not entirely true - my Chinese cooking teacher, Jo-Mel, taught me that the phrase "a watched pot never boils" is actually Chinese in origin, and doesn't mean that you should NOT watch the pot - it means that if you constantly watch the pot, it won't come to a boil and ruin the soup. As famously depicted in Tampopo, there is chemistry in poultry bones that will cloud the soup if the soup should boil.

One thing my mother did teach me was to make my soup from pullets. Indeed, every classic Jewish cookbook I've ever seen says to start with a pullet or "young hen" - "dressed" (that means sans feathers and organs, folks). Unfortunately, because the average consumer so seldom makes soup these days, pullets are virtually unknown in any mainstream market and even at the farmers markets, can be difficult to locate. The Blue Egg Farmer, Kathy Breychak, explained to me that pullets are hens that are, essentially, barely pre-menopause. Just as with human females, pullets still have female hormones and the ability to lay eggs, although they are slowing down. Their skin is still tight, and if fed right, a beautiful yellow that will infuse into a soup made with them. Stewing hens, by contrast, are "post-menopausal", and are tougher and longer cooking - and don't have that lovely skin anymore.

Last year, Kathy was able to supply me with two 5 pound pullets, which was perfect for 2 Seders worth of soup (plus). This year, she had none, though I was able to get a bag of lovely frozen chicken feet from her. I was unable to source true pullets, so I purchased my soup chicken from Mister Brisket, who gets nice, minimally processed chickens that are close to the pullets of my youth - but not quite. Therefore, I also order from Mister Brisket a "bag of bones" - which at holiday time is 10 pounds of freshly excised backs, necks and bones from "regular" chickens (it may be frozen at other times of the year - but is always top quality).

Mister Brisket's "Bag of Bones"

I start by rinsing the bones and placing at the bottom of my 20 quart pot.

Next, I clean and pedicure the chicken feet - note the brilliant yellow color!

Now, I rinse and add the soup chicken. Note the amazing color contrast between the feet and the soup chicken.

Add bottled water to cover (my tap water is nasty).

I turn on the flame, clamp on the lid, and attend to the vegetables.

Soup Greens: Celery, Carrots, Parsnips, Onions

As the pot warms, all of the blood and impurities in the meats extract from the flesh and into the water. It looks and smells pretty gross! Jo-Mel says that some Chinese cooks will bring a pot like this to a simmer, then empty the water, rinse the meat and start again! But have no fear - gentle heat will clear the stock - and I can't bear to throw any of the goodness away!

After about 45 minutes, the liquid clears and bubbles gently. I skim the scum and yucky looking stuff for about another 45 minutes. For a change, I didn't turn on the TV or play music - I was totally focused on the soup. It was an almost Zen-like experience! After some period of time, when it seemed that no yuckies were coming up to be skimmed, I began to add the vegetables to the pot. Onion first, then parsnip, then celery (using lots of celery leaves - my mother insists that's important for a good soup). Usually, I'd add the carrots now. But I decided to experiment with waiting longer to add them, in the hope they'd be in better shape to serve with the soup if I didn't cook the hell out of them. Once all the vegetables are in - I add some Diamond Crystal salt and whole Tellicherry peppercorns.

The last ingredient in my soup is parsley - again from mom - both curly and Italian flat. About a third of a bunch of each.

The pot is then allowed to cook at a very low simmer until the feet - which are the most dense item in the pot - have at least gotten very soft and loose. I put this pot on the stove at 5pm - and Bob came to bed at 5am, after waiting until about 3am for the feet, and then cooling and straining the soup. This is what it looked like after chilling for about 9 hours after this process:

We yielded about 2.5 gallons of soup - more than I will need for Passover, but it will freeze well. And that gelatin you see means lovely mouthfeel! What a wonderful way to play with your food!

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