At this time of year warm, comforting chicken soup often lives up to its reputation as a folk remedy. It nourishes aching, flu-ridden bodies and reawakens appetites numbed by head colds.
Chicken soup is easy to prepare from scratch. But those whose households have nobody willing to tend a soup pot or who feel too ghastly to contemplate real cooking can pull an instant, condensed or canned variety off the pantry shelf. Delis deliver. And in a medical emergency, any of those versions will do.
It seems to be the hot broth, not the love with which it has been prepared, that accounts for the supposed curative powers of chicken soup.
Home cooks who make their own chicken soup, willingly steaming up the kitchen and basking in the satisfaction of its golden richness, do well to pay attention to their ingredients, starting with the chicken.
Like many women of her generation, my mother was a fanatic about chicken soup. I can remember her insisting on buying an older, more flavorful chicken -- a fowl -- for soups, and wheedling extra chicken feet from the butcher to enrich them.
Her approach is given latter-day endorsement by Andre Soltner, the chef and owner of Lutece in Manhattan, whose soup would make any mother or grandmother look to her laurels. "You need a big old chicken because it takes longer to cook and you can extract more flavor," he said.
At one time about the only chicken generally available in supermarkets was the 3 1/2 -pound broiler-fryer. Now there is more variety, including 5- to 6-pound stewing hens, once found only in butcher shops.
Beyond the chicken, it is important to use a couple of big onions and several hefty carrots. My mother sauteed some onion and chicken fat until it was browned, adding it to the soup to deepen the color. There was no place on her table for pallid soup.
Instead of adding sauteed onion, I simply leave the onions unpeeled, letting the skins add the color.
That technique is recommended in "The Jewish American Kitchen," by Raymond Sokolov, with recipes by Susan Friedland (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989).
Some cooks add celery. I like to use leeks in addition to onion and throw a clove or two of garlic in as well. Mr. Soltner also includes a white turnip and a tomato and he studs his onion with whole cloves, all of which must contribute to the excellent, almost winy, complexity of his soups.
Parsley or a bouquet garni, perhaps a sprig of dill and whole peppercorns are some other essentials. And salt. Salt-free chicken soup usually tastes flat.
The soup should be started with cold water, enough to cover the chicken. The vegetables go into the pot after the chicken has cooked at a steady clip for about 20 minutes or so, allowing
unsightly particles to accumulate on the surface and be skimmed off. More skimming is necessary after the vegetables are added; then the heat is lowered so the liquid simmers very slowly.
To my mother, homemade chicken soup deserved to be judged by some criteria used to evaluate diamonds: color and clarity.
I recall her assiduous skimming of the soups. She would use a large spoon to chase down every last particle with fanatic zeal, and the resulting soup was cleaner than the floor it could have been eaten off of. Just to be sure, she would strain the finished soup through a linen napkin.
Along with a good supply of linen napkins, I inherited the skimming complex. Clean, perfectly clear soup is a must. Whenever I pass through the kitchen as the soup simmers slowly in its tall pot, I take a swipe at the surface, ridding it of a stray spot of scum.
Clear soup should not be allowed to come to a boil again or it will turn cloudy. The finished soup can be cooked down to reduce it and concentrate the flavor, but this should be done below the boiling point.
Another way to intensify the flavor is to remove the meat from the chicken after the soup has cooked for about two hours and return the bones to the broth, along with some fresh vegetables, to cook for another hour.
If the soup is chilled overnight, any fat that rises to the surface can be lifted off.
Making chicken soup from scratch means having quarts of it on hand for about the price of canned soup. There is enough to freeze for later use. As Mr. Soltner said, "You don't need the flu to eat a good chicken soup."