$35 a week. That’s all the money I had to feed myself and, often, my sons while I waited for my divorce to be final. I was paying the bills on a house I’d never live in again, scraping by on what little was left. I hadn’t cooked in a long time — my soon-to-be-ex was a fabulous cook and did it all. But now I couldn’t afford to eat out, and meals like hot dogs and boxed macaroni and cheese got old fast. So I dusted off my rusty kitchen skills and searched for cheap, nourising meals.
I found a recipe online for quick chicken-noodle soup. Canned chicken broth, a bag of small shell pasta (which fit onto the spoon so nicely — noodles caused so much slurpy mess), a bag of frozen peas and carrots, sage and thyme, and — the most expensive ingredient by far — canned chicken chunks. Dump together, cook for an hour. Stupid simple. To cheap it up, I went light on the chicken and heavy on the noodles. I’d eaten better chicken-noodle soup, but this was tasty enough. A double batch stretched for days. We ate it a lot.
I liked it enough that I kept making it even after my finances improved post-divorce. But I knew it could be better, so I started experimenting with it. I learned how to roast a chicken (and was thrilled to discover it is brain-dead simple) and make broth from the carcass. When I wanted more meat, I made broth from a whole, raw bird. I cut my own fresh vegetables and tried some non-traditional ones, such as parsnips (yum) and cabbage (yuck). When I went gluten-free, I replaced the noodles with spinach. It is so much fun to discover and experience all of these cooking basics and get ever more delicious results!
My buddy Mike and I meet every month or two to sip bourbon. We catch up on each others’ lives and talk shop (we’re software developers). He was surprised and amused to learn one boozy evening that I like to cook. “What’s your signature dish?” he asked. I said I supposed it would have to be my chicken soup. “It’s from scratch all the way. The only way it could be more from scratch is if I killed and butchered my own bird.”
“Really?” he said. “Would you like to?” Mike is a hobbyist farmer, and he raises chickens. “I’ll be processing my current batch of chickens about mid-summer. You could come and do one.”
Although I’m a city boy, I’ve known since childhood how we get our meat. “Meat just doesn’t materialize at the grocery store wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane,” Mom told me. “An animal has to die so we can eat. I want you to see what that means.” So we watched a TV documentary about it. It was tough to see, and it caused me to reflect then on whether I could continue to eat meat in good conscience. I came down on the side that said yes, but I’ve always remembered the implications of my choice.
As I thought about Mike’s offer, I could see that as a meat-eater I wanted to do this so that I could directly experience and weigh the ethics of the death-and-life cycle that puts food on my table. So I agreed. Last July he invited me up to his farm so we could slaughter and butcher his last chicken.
Mike walked me through the process. After I caught the chicken in its pen, fluttering and fighting, he said, “Now turn it over on its back.” Instantly, the chicken calmed and lay still. I was struck, disquieted even; it was as if chickens were designed this way, as if they were made for this purpose. Or maybe this one knew what was up, but was resigned to her fate. I carried her upside-down by her feet to where she would die. Her life ended; there was blood. I’ll skip further details.
As I plucked the last pinfeathers from the body, I thought of the pioneer days, when having no animals to eat meant malnourishment and perhaps even starvation. Today, we have such a variety and abundance of food that a person really can live well without meat. As I carefully cut the body to remove the innards, I wondered how I’d get enough protein without meat. I’ve discovered some pesky food sensitivities lately; avoiding those foods eliminates most non-animal protein sources from my diet. And it’s not like I want to avoid meat; it’s delicious.
A meat eater I remain — but the moment that chicken died is locked into my memory. I felt a little sadness over ending her life, but much more a deep responsibility for an honorable and valuable use of her body. Of every animal body that provides my nourishment, even if I bought just a part of it at the supermarket.
I made soup out of that chicken, and gave half of it to Mike for his family. “The grocery-store chickens are bred to grow fast and large,” Mike said, “at the cost of flavor and texture. You’ll be astonished at how much more delicious this bird is.” He was right. It made the richest broth I’ve ever had, and the meat had a creaminess to it that I’ve never experienced before.
And so I’ll share with you my chicken-soup recipe. I make it entirely by feel now, and I adapt it to whatever ingredients I have on hand. But this recipe is typical of what I do.
I make this soup in two stages: stock, then soup.
You can make stock out of a whole chicken or from the carcass of one you’ve roasted (or bought roasted at the store). You get better, richer stock out of a whole chicken, plus a lot more meat. If you make stock from a roasted chicken, include everything you stuffed into the chicken’s cavity except lemons, which will sour the broth. I use an eight-quart pot.
- 1 chicken, legs and wings cut off (as it fits in the pot better)
Or the carcass of a roasted chicken, excess meat picked off and set aside
- 1 medium onion, chopped into chunks
(I can’t eat onion anymore, so I just skip it now, and it’s fine.)
- 4 carrots, cut into big chunks
- 4 celery stalks, cut into big chunks
- About a half head of garlic, peeled, chopped, and crushed a little
(I can’t eat garlic anymore either, and I haven’t found a good substitute yet.)
- Fresh herbs, to taste
(I especially like rosemary and thyme. I’ve also used fresh sage and fresh basil. I buy them in those plastic containers at the grocery store and dump in the entire contents. I’ve used fresh herbs from my mom’s garden when I can get them, too.)
- A couple dried bay leaves
- Enough whole peppercorns to fill the palm of your cupped hand
- Enough kosher salt, or equivalent of regular salt, to fill the palm of your cupped hand; twice if you like things saltier
Put all this in the stock pot. Cover with water, plus a little more. Bring to a full boil and then turn it down to just boiling. Enjoy how wonderful the house smells. Sometimes I step outside for a minute and then back in for that wonderful moment when the scent hits your nose.
After 90 minutes or so, check the chicken for doneness. Repeat every 30 minutes. I want my chicken to be just done. Some people say that you should boil the chicken until it’s falling off the bone, but my experience has been that it tends to dry out when you do that.
Let the chicken and broth cool at least enough that you can handle the chicken with bare hands. Remove the chicken and chop or shred the meat; set the meat aside. Strain the broth into another large (but smaller) pot. I throw away everything else. This makes my mom crazy; she wants to make the soup out of the boiled veggies. But they’re so mushy. I start with fresh veggies so they’re firmer in my soup.
It usually ends up that I make soup the day after I make stock, meaning I refrigerate the stock overnight in its pot. An advantage is that all the fat congeals on the top, making it easy to remove as much as you want –- all, some, or none.
To the stock in the pot, add:
- As much chicken meat as you want
- About 5 carrots, cut into coins
- About 5 celery stalks, sliced thinnish
- 1 pound fresh spinach
Or 1 pound prepared egg noodles or pasta
- 1 average yellow onion, diced
(which I now omit, thanks to onions tying my guts in knots)
- Other vegetables, as you like. Have fun with this. Here are some things I’ve done:
- 3-5 parsnips, cut into coins
- Green onions (the green parts, not the white parts), cut into rings
- Fresh or frozen peas and/or green beans
- Fresh parsley, chopped
Bring to a boil and then reduce to just below boiling. I taste the broth after 30 minutes and add whatever dried spices it needs. I almost always add sage and salt. I sometimes add ground pepper. Sometimes the flavor’s still not everything I want it to be. Garlic powder always brought it home, but those days appear to be over for me. I’m still figuring out a good garlic substitute in my soup.
Cook until the flavors come together, at least an hour. I’ve had good luck letting this simmer on low until I’m ready to serve it, but the longer you cook it, the softer the carrots get.
15 minutes before you’re ready to ladle out the soup, add the spinach or the prepared noodles/pasta. If you add the spinach, it will fill your pot — don’t worry, it cooks way down.