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Wednesday, March 4, 2009 03:27 am

Chicken soup comforts body and soul


What is it that makes chicken soup the most comforting of comfort foods? Does it really have any disease-fighting qualities that aren’t psychological?

My husband, Peter, is a dentist. For years I’ve made chicken soup that he gives to his patients undergoing oral surgery. The soup is as basic as can be: just flavorful chicken broth with a little well-cooked rice. Peter began giving it to his patients as a response to questions about what they could and should eat when restricted to a liquid diet. But he soon realized the soup does more than that. Patients’ mouths may be swollen and they may be experiencing a degree of discomfort, but that quart canning jar filled with homemade chicken soup makes them feel good — good that their dentist understands what they’re going through and cares about them.

Even some animals can appreciate chicken soup. Last October, the Associated Press reported that Chinese zookeepers were feeding two three-year-old panda cubs — “Hope” and “Greatness” — chicken soup to reduce their stress. The pandas, which had been relocated after the Sichuan province earthquake, were exhausted after thousands of tourists had clamored for their attention during a weeklong holiday. “They had been getting less sleep,” an official told the AP, “and they had to run around more. We felt it would be good to give them the soup because they were fatigued and had a bit of shock.” Reportedly the panda cubs “loved” the chicken soup and perked up.

Chicken soup has been considered a curative since earliest recorded history. Ancient Egyptians used it as a remedy for the common cold. In the 10th century, the Babylonian Avicenna, known as “the Prince of Physicians,” recommended it. In the 12th century, the Jewish physician Maimonides wrote that

chicken soup “is of benefit against chronic fevers…and also aids the cough,” recommending its “virtue in rectifying corrupted humors.” Maimonides seems to have regarded chicken soup as something of a cure-all, not only prescribing it for convalescents, but also for hemorrrhoid sufferers (we can only speculate how it was used) and as treatment for the early stages of leprosy.

Interestingly, modern scientific research has found some basis for chicken soup’s curative reputation — although not, at least as far I could discover, for hemorrhoids or leprosy. Physician Irwin Ziment, pulmonary specialist and UCLA medical school professor, has reported that chicken soup contains drug-like components similar to ingredients in modern cold medicines. One is an amino acid released from chicken during cooking that chemically resembles a drug prescribed for bronchitis and other respiratory disorders, acetylcyseine.

Dr. Stephan Rennard, professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at University of Nebraska’s Medical Center and his colleagues researched the effect of chicken soup on inflammatory white blood cells, known as neutrophils. Cold symptoms such as congestion and coughing are often caused by the inflammation produced when neutrophils migrate to and accumulate in bronchial tubes. Rennard demonstrated that neutrophils showed less tendency to congregate — even while retaining all their capabilities of fighting germs — after he added samples of chicken soup to them. Even when the soup was diluted up to 200 times, it still had that effect. Rennard postulates that’s because of chicken soup’s combination of vitamins and nutrients.

Of course, sipping any hot liquid can be beneficial to those suffering from colds and flu. The steam ventilating into the nasal passages acts as a natural decongestant. Also, cold and flu viruses are capable of surviving only within a narrow temperature range, and hot liquids can raise the ambient temperature above those thresholds.

There really is something special about chicken soup, though — especially if it’s homemade. For his initial experiments, Rennard used chicken soup made from a recipe of his wife’s Lithuanian grandmother. Later he tested commercial varieties with wildly varying results. Chicken soup that someone makes for you when you’re sick not only gives you physical warmth and comfort — it also gives you the warmth and comfort of knowing you’re cared for.

From “Jewish penicillin” with matzo balls, a German version with spaetzle, Greek with lemon and egg, Chinese with wontons, Vietnamese with lemongrass, Peruvian with potatoes, to an Italian version with pasta, chicken soups are found in cuisines worldwide.

Tortilla soup is one of the world’s greatest soups, chicken or otherwise, and a personal favorite. It’s a chicken soup with warm, unctuous cubes of cheese and avocado that make luxurious textural contrasts to the crisp tortilla strips or chips. There’s no better antidote to a cold or the flu — or even a cold grey day, for that matter.


2 T. unhydrogenated lard* or vegetable oil, divided
1c. coarsely chopped white onion
2-4 cloves chopped garlic
2/3 c. drained canned tomatoes or peeled, seeded and chopped fresh tomatoes
6 c. chicken stock, preferably homemade*. If using commercial stock, be sure it’s low sodium
Salt to taste
4 to 6 stale corn tortillas, preferably white corn, or substitute white corn tortilla chips, brushed to remove as much salt as possible
½ c. corn or vegetable oil, plus additional if necessary
4-6 pasilla chiles
1 ½ c. cubed queso fresco or farmer’s cheese
1 ½ c. cubed ripe Haas avocado (1-2 avocados)
1-2 c. cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
lime wedges for garnish

In a medium skillet, preferably non-stick, heat 1 T. of the lard or oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and stir to coat the vegetables. Cover the skillet and let the vegetables sweat until they have softened, about 5 minutes. Uncover the skillet, lower the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and garlic have caramelized to a dark golden color, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and put in the container of an electric blender or food processor. Add the tomato and process until smooth.

Return the skillet to the stove. Add the remaining tablespoon of lard or oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the onion/tomato mixture and stir-fry until the mixture has thickened and is much darker, about 5 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a large pot.
Add the chicken stock to the pot and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat so that it is barely simmering, cover, and cook for at least 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

If the tortillas are not stale, spread in a single layer and let them dry out for 10-15 minutes. Cut the tortillas in half, then cut the halves into half-inch strips. Heat the ½ c. oil in a large skillet (a wok works especially well) and add the tortilla strips. Fry the tortilla strips, tossing constantly, until crisp and golden. Drain on paper towels.

Add more oil to the pan if necessary so that one of the pasilla chiles can fry in it. Heat the oil, then fry the pasillas one at a time, just until they are puffed and crisp, turning as necessary. This should only take a few seconds. Drain on paper towels.

Add the chicken to the simmering broth and let the chicken heat through. Divide the cheese and avocado cubes among 4-6 warmed soup plates. Ladle the broth into the bowls and top with the tortilla strips. Serve with a toasted pasilla chile alongside each dish, so that each diner can crumble in as much of the chile as he or she desires. Pass the lime wedges. The lime juice heightens the flavors in the soup.

Serves 4-6

* Past RealCuisine columns about unhydrogenated lard and where to buy it (Food’s Four-Letter Word, 10/23/08), and making chicken stock (Taking Stock, 1/4/07) can be found on the Illinois Times Web site, www.illinoistimes.com.

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