I’m sure that it’s having to wake up at 6 am that has given me this cold.
I’m a reluctant, early-morning riser. Always, my entire life, I’ve wanted to stay up late and wake up later. During the long, indolent months of summer, I could let my body tell me when to rise from bed. But now, when school is in session, I’m plunged into waking life by the blat of the alarm clock. In a few weeks from now, my body will have adjusted. But for now, I’m sort of miserable in the morning.
That first cup of dark coffee tastes especially good at 6:15. The light starts to creep into my living room as I read the paper. I contemplate what to have for breakfast, and I’m enlivened. The bus ride to school feels interminable, but by the time I’m teaching my first class, I’m awake. But a full day of teaching exhausts like nothing else. All of my colleagues were grumbling about it in the faculty room this morning. And having to switch from slow-roasted mornings to bam-bam-bam-out-the-door has done in my body.
I’m sniffling as I write this. No, I’m not crying about the end of summer, even though there is a touch of ineffable sadness at the end of the prodigious growing season, the long days of light, the endless possibilities of it all. Instead, I have a cold. An achy-in-the-body, indolence-in-the-limbs, heavy-eyelids cold. It’s not that bad. I can still taste. Sort of.
When I came home from school yesterday, I knew what I had to do. Time for chicken soup.
Studies have shown that echinacea does nothing. And we know that there is no cure for the common cold. But according to You: The Owner’s Manual, an engaging book about the body, written by two highly respected doctors, only three things help with the cold: zinc lozenges, orange juice, and chicken noodle soup.
Well, I was out of zinc and orange juice. And I didn’t feel like going out for more.
Of course, for the gluten-free girl, there is no more simple opening of a can of chicken noodle soup. The noodles would make me sicker than the cold makes me feel. And most commercial canned soups, even the ones without the noodles, have modified food starch, and are thus forbidden for this celiac woman.
And once again, I say, oh darn.
There’s nothing like homemade soup. And really, it’s so easy to make. The only tricky part is having homemade chicken stock on hand. Luckily, every Sunday for the past few weeks, I have been making chicken stock from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. (I know I keep referencing this book, but you’re just going to have to trust me and buy it yourself. I will too, once this copy is due back at the library. And if you need more proof, read Melissa’s delicious post on the Zuni chicken and figs recipe.) Elaborate in the reading, it’s actually quite easy in the making. I’m sure most of us have chicken stock recipes, and I’m sure they’re all good. But be honest: most of us still grab a can of broth or even a box of organic stock instead of making our own. Big mistake. Homemade stock enriches everything. The other day, I made some polenta in the crock pot, with three cups of homemade chicken stock, and I could have jumped up and down with the rich, layered taste. I’m convinced. I’m never using commercially made stock again. Each Sunday, when I’m home, I’ll spend several hours letting a pot of stock simmer on the back burner for hours, whether it’s chicken stock or vegetable. Maybe I’ll alternate. But I always want it on hand.
So yesterday afternoon, when I stepped off the bus and walked inside my door, I started chopping carrots and celery immediately. And unlike the custard episode, I wasn’t doing any of this to impress anyone. It came from a place of urgency instead, where all startling creative acts begin. I flung together a soup, using my common sense, and it turned out darned well.
I started by sauteeing shallots in the rich, green olive oil I’ve been working with lately. For some reason, I overlooked shallots for years, and now I always have them in my house. A gentle combination of onions and garlic, shallots make a marvelous vinaigrette with red wine vinegar and olive oil. Francoise taught me that. Yesterday, I had dozens of them left over and no onions. So I chopped up ten shallots or so, plus a fistful of garlic. (Garlic is so good for you in so many ways that I can’t imagine I have to ennumerate them here. Just eat some.) Life is simple, really: the evocative scent of garlic and shallots, softening in good oil, makes me lose all sense of time and complaint.
Two sliced carrots. Two celery stalks, chopped. A handful of fresh thyme. Eight cups of homemade chicken stock. And lots of bits of shredded chicken. Don’t grow too fancy about this. Let the pieces be rough-hewn and imperfect. (I read this quote from chef Colin Alveras from The Tasting Room in the New York Times this morning and nearly cheered out loud: “‘Feel your food,” he urged, snapping off fibrous bits from a ruffle of chicken of the woods mushrooms. Rather than slice them, he broke off bite-size pieces along the mushroom’s fault lines. ‘I don’t have anything against cubes,” he said. “But it sort of implies that anything that’s not cubed isn’t good.’”) This week, I saved out the chicken that had sat in the stockpot with the water, slowly forming this golden pool of goodness. It’s certainly not juicy chicken, or picture-worthy, but shredded in chicken soup, it floats on the tastebuds. I let it simmer for half an hour, while I lay on the couch and read. The sky outside an endless grey, nothing changing there. This is when Seattle is its most still, the days when the clouds have no shape, just a solid mass of flatness. It’s best to give into it, and simply rest. So I put on a pair of wool socks, threw the maroon blanket around me, and drank a cup of hot Theraflu.
(Of course, I had to call the toll-free hotline first, to make sure that it’s gluten-free. That’s the part of this life that most of you probably never realize: I have to investigate every bite before I put it in my mouth. And even when I’m snuffly, and feeling like doing nothing but watching Sex and the City videos, I still have to look into the maltodextrin listed on my cold medicine.)
And then the soup was ready. At the last moment, as a touch of decadence, I threw in spoonfuls of ripe avocado, the way one might with tortilla soup. The rich green softness cut the salty soup perfectly. And I sat on the couch, giving in to the television, the flat grey, the snuffle in my nose, and sighed into my soup.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN STOCK, adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, p. 59
I have to admit that I’m just too squeamish to make this stock entirely the way the book calls for, since Judy Rodgers insists on a whole chicken, with the head and feet. This former vegetarian just can’t seem to do it. Instead, I start with an almost-whole chicken, cut up by the butcher, skin still on.
One 5 1/2 pound chicken (preferably with head and feet, but I use parts)
About 4 quarts of cold water (to cover)
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into two-inch chunks
1 stalk celery, leaves trimmed off and cut into two-inch chunks
1 large yellow onion, root end trimmed flat, peeled, and quartered
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt (a little more if using sea salt)
Rinse the chicken. Remove the breast meat for another use. (Although, this week, I threw it in there, and that made the meat for the soup.) Slash the thigh and leg muscles to encourage the greatest relase of flavor during cooking.
Place the chicken in a deep, 8-to-10 quart stockpot that holds the chicken snugly. Add the cold water. If 4 quarts of water doesn’t cover the chicken, it is likely your pot is a little too wide. Don’t add more water. Instead, arrange all the parts of the chicken so they fit low enough to be submerged.
Bring to a simmer over high heat and skim the foam. Stir the chicken under once—just to allow the last of the foam to rise—reduce the heat, and skim the foam carefully, taking care to leave behind any bright yellow fat that may be starting to appear on the surface.
Add the vegetables and salt and stir them under. Bring back to a gentle simmer and adjust the heat to maintain it. If you taste the water now, you will barely be able to detect the salt. Don’t cover the pot.
Maintain that gentle simmer and taste the broth regularly. Don’t add more water, don’t stir, and don’t skim the fat, which will gradually form a “cap” on the broth.
Once the stock has a rich, bright, chickeny flavor, usually in about 4 hours, turn off the heat. Leave for a minute, to allow the simmer to stop, then pour through a wide strainer. Tipping the hot, heavy pot can be awkward—start by ladling some of the stock through the strainer, enough to make tipping manageable. Or you may choose to fish out the carcass and vegetables as they are gradually exposed. I usually strain the stock first through a medium strainer to filter out the obvious solids, then pour the stock through a fine mesh strainer. When we are serving our stock as clear soup, we ladle the strained stock through a clean cotton napkin moistened with water. This broth-soup rarely needs any doctoring.
Cool the stock to room temperature, then cover tightly and place in the refrigerator. Remove the cap of solidified fat only just before you use the stock—it will keep out some air until then. Because it is lightly salted, this stock will keep for about a week refrigerated, but it is practical to divide it into several smaller containers and freeze right away what you won’t need within that time.
For freezing, use odorless plastic containers with tight-fitting lids that allow room for expansion as ice crystals form. Remove all the fat from the stock first, and make sure the stock is cold when you fill the containers. Thaw frozen stock slowly in the refrigerator, or slide from the storage vessel into a pot and melt over low heat. For the best flavor, don’t freeze chicken stock for more than a few weeks.