- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

When you’re sniffly, sneezy and otherwise sickly, the last thing you want is to spend two days making chicken soup.

Yet, somehow, canned soup never feels nearly as therapeutic as homemade.

Hoping to find a middle ground, I rounded up chicken soup experts — including a Jewish grandmother, a Food Network food science geek and the obsessive test cooks at Cook’s Illustrated magazine — to explain the essentials of an excellent batch.

The nearly unanimous opinion was that two days and a full chicken are critical. Unanimity is one thing. Ability is another. On my best days, I don’t have time to render stock from a chicken so I can turn it into soup the next day. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valuable lessons to be taken from this approach.

I started with Chris Kimball, publisher of Cook’s Illustrated. He had harsh words for shortcuts such as canned broth (“Not worth eating”). Ditto for the old-time method of tossing a bunch of meat and vegetables in a pot of water and simmering it.

The Cook’s method involves making stock by chopping a chicken into 2-inch bits, browning them, then simmering them in water. The solids are then strained and discarded and the resulting stock is used as the base for soup the next day.

This technique has two advantages. First, the browning creates fond (browned caramelized bits) in the pan, which intensely flavors the stock. Second, simmering the bones draws out their natural gelatins, which results in a thicker soup.

Although I was unlikely to do any bird hacking, I liked the browning bit.

So does Susie Middleton, executive editor of Fine Cooking magazine. She does not share Mr. Kimball’s purchased broth bias, but she does use a variant of his browning technique to intensify its flavor.

She favors browning boneless, skinless chicken thighs in butter and olive oil, then removing the meat from the pan, sauteing some garlic and onions, then deglazing the pan (releasing the fond) with purchased stock and building the soup from that.

This method solved my flavor problem, but not my viscosity issues. Without the gelatins from the bones, my soup would be watery. Inspiration for solving this came from Joseph Klug, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Although he was solidly in Mr. Kimball’s camp regarding making stock, he did suggest that faster versions could be thickened with a roux. This technique involves browning fat and flour, then adding liquid.

Rather than make a separate roux, I decided to instead dredge the chicken thighs (chosen for their flavorful dark meat) through flour before browning them.

This not only would create a better fond, it also would result in a roux almost as a byproduct.

With flavor and thickener settled, I turned to soup expert Barbara Kafka (she wrote the cookbook “Soup, A Way of Life”) for advice on vegetables and noodles. She urged keeping with the classics, such as carrots, onions and peas.

She advises against potatoes, as they can cloud the soup and absorb too much of the liquid. Above all, everything should be bite-size — from the chicken to the vegetables, and especially the noodles. Long, slurp-inducing noodles are fun for no one.

Miss Kafka also suggests staggering the addition of vegetables to the soup to account for their different cooking times. Carrots will cook more slowly than celery, and so should not be added together.

Pasta should not be cooked in the soup. Miss Kafka says starches that leach from the pasta will thicken the soup too much. Instead, cook the pasta in a separate pot until al dente, then add to the soup at the very end.

For seasonings and liquid-to-solid ratios, I sought out Lillian Gorof-Smith, an 89-year-old Jewish grandmother from Coconut Creek, Fla., who knows her way around a pot of chicken soup. She has been making it since she was 20.

“My chicken soup eats like a meal,” she told me. So hearty it would be. And she seasons it with basil and rosemary. To that I added a bit of thyme, but went easy on all three so as not to compete with the flavor of the chicken.

Miss Gorof-Smith also had an intriguing technique that in the end I didn’t include in my recipe, but would make a nice variation. Before serving, she ladles out half of the vegetables and purees them. She then mixes the puree back into the soup.

My final expert was Alton Brown, known for his Food Network program “Good Eats,” which explains the science behind food. He, too, favored making stock, but he does not oppose cooking the pasta in the soup.

He likes the starch from the noodles because it helps thicken the soup. This was a winner for me, partly for the ease of eliminating the step of cooking the pasta on its own, but also for the added thickening power.

Mr. Brown also keeps the seasonings simple, relying mostly on the addition of black pepper, fresh parsley and lemon juice just before serving. The lemon juice, he explained, heightens the flavors of the chicken, as well as just about everything else.

Hours of interviews and several batches of soup later, I had my winning recipe.

Granted, many of my experts might raise an eyebrow at my shortcuts, but thanks to their help, I used those timesaving tricks to turn out a seriously good soup that neither takes two days nor comes from a can.

Chicken soup

From start to finish, this recipe takes 50 minutes.

-ounce package dried crimini or portobello mushrooms

cup all-purpose flour

1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon thyme

1/4 teaspoon basil

teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 quart low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup water

3/4 cup frozen peas

2 carrots, cut into thin rounds

1 cup small pasta (such as elbows or shells)

2 celery stalks, chopped

cup chopped fresh parsley

Juice of lemon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the mushrooms in a medium bowl and fill with hot water to cover. Set aside to reconstitute.

Place the flour in a shallow bowl. Cut each chicken thigh in two. Dredge each piece of chicken through the flour to lightly coat on all sides. Set aside.

In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, combine the butter and olive oil.

When the fat begins to sizzle, add the chicken and cook, turning as needed, until lightly browned on all sides, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove the meat from the pot and set aside. Reduce heat to medium and add the onion, garlic, thyme, basil and rosemary. Saute until onions begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Increase heat to high and add broth and water. Bring the broth to a simmer.

Meanwhile, cut the meat into bite-size pieces.

Drain the mushrooms and squeeze any liquid from them.

When the broth is simmering, lower heat to medium-high and add the meat, mushrooms, peas and carrots. Return to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the pasta and celery and cook until just tender, about another 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley and lemon juice, then season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes 6 servings.

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