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Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:01 am

The healing power of chicken soup

 

Spring has sprung! Brightly colored bulb flowers are beginning to bloom and the cheeky chatter of songbirds fills the air. Winter is officially behind us. Unfortunately, the flu season has not completely melted away like the snow and ice. Everywhere I turn it seems another friend has been struck down with the virus. Indeed the flu season seems to run on its own timetable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu season peaks in the United States between December and March, and we are still feeling it.

Chicken noodle soup had long been touted as the ultimate home remedy for colds and flu. It turns out that there may be more to it than just loving advice from our grandmas. In a study conducted by Dr. Stephen Rennard of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, consumption of chicken soup was shown to have anti-inflammatory effects and to help to ease flu symptoms. Dr. Rennard’s research team found that the movement of white blood cells that help to defend the body against infection, known as neutrophils, was reduced in the participants who consumed chicken soup, thereby alleviating the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections. The main recipe tested included chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper. Other soup preparations were tested, including prepared commercial soups, and all were found to have an anti-inflammatory effect to varying degrees. The researchers were not able to pinpoint an exact ingredient that made chicken soup so effective, but they theorize that the combination of ingredients in the soup work in tandem to deliver beneficial effects. The results of this study were published in 2000 in CHEST, the cardiopulmonary and critical care journal.

It seems that the benefits of chicken soup are the result of a combination of feel-good factors. Obviously there’s the psychological effect of warm, savory soup and the comfort it can bring when you feel simply rotten. Warm broth with a touch of fat can soothe an aching throat. Dehydration can be a major complication relating to the flu virus and, at 93 percent water content, a nourishing bowl of soup chicken noodle soup is an excellent way to keep hydrated.

The key to delicious soup is to start with good quality chicken and lots of alliums (plants from the onion family that are big on flavor and medicinal benefits). Usually I make chicken soup with leftover roast chicken, but lately soup has been in such high demand that I’ve been roasting a whole chicken with the sole intent of making soup. Making this soup from start to finish is a two-day process, but luckily most of that time is hands off and will yield enough soup to stash a couple of meals in the freezer.

Ideally you want to start with a whole, free-range, organic chicken, but legs and thighs will work too. It is important to use skin on, bone-in chicken. During the long slow simmer, the connective tissue and cartilage breaks down and creates gelatin and nutrients are released, resulting in a richly flavored, nutritious broth. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and pepper and, if you choose, you can rub a mixture of minced garlic, herbs and mustard all over the chicken and under the skin. This step is entirely optional, but adds layers of flavor to the finished dish. Roast at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and roast until a thermometer inserted into the deepest part of the chicken registers 165 degrees. Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest until it is cool enough to handle. Shred the chicken, reserving all bones, skin and gristle. Mix the shredded chicken with any accumulated pan juices, and transfer it to a sealed container and refrigerate.

 

Add the reserved chicken bones to a large stock pot or slow cooker along with two quartered onions, a whole head of garlic sliced in half lengthwise, 2-3 carrots, 2-3 stalks of celery, a couple of bay leaves, some whole peppercorns and a leek if you have it. I stash vegetable scraps for broth in a zip-lock gallon bag in my freezer: carrot peels, celery and leaves, parsley stems and the green tops of leeks. When the time comes to make broth, I simply add this with the chicken scraps and I’m good to go. Bring to a boil then cook on low for up to 24 hours.

After the broth has cooked, strain it through a fine-meshed sieve. At this point you can package it to freeze or use it straightaway in soup. I like to use square plastic quart containers that stack easily in the freezer.

To continue making soup, put the empty stock pot back onto the stove and heat a tablespoon of olive oil or butter over medium high heat. Add chopped onion, garlic, celery, carrots, parsnips and one teaspoon of salt and sauté briefly until just beginning to soften. Add four quarts of the broth, reserved chicken and pan juices along with juice of half a lemon, season with salt and pepper, raise the heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Check again, for seasoning, and it’s ready. I love to serve this with lots of chopped parsley and crusty bread.

The noodles can be added along with the shredded chicken and cooked until tender. If planning to freeze the soup I recommend freezing without the noodles, then cooking the noodles when the soup is reheated, as they will lose texture after freezing.

This soup is wonderful anytime. But when you’re sick and life continues to spin around you at its usual tempo, there’s a certain magic to opening the freezer and pulling out a quart of homemade comfort. Chicken soup is truly the perfect storm of medicine and love, served up with a spoon.

Contact Ashley Meyer at ashley@realcuisine.net.

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