I love comfort food. Dishes that remind me of my childhood, famiglia and favorite holidays spent together. I am homesick for upstate NY as we enter into fall… the signs of winter to come are clearly found in the changing brilliantly colored leaves, the smell of fresh apples in their just-picked bushels and the makings of the first fall seasonal foods that I love.
I love our famiglia’s soups. They are warm and inviting, made with deeply flavorful stocks mixed with a myriad of vegetables and proteins, sometimes even with the addition of a pasta or rice to finish the dish. As when making perfect sugo (tomato sauce), the crafting of traditional flavorful chicken soup requires time and great ingredients; an investment that is more than worth it.
My recipe for chicken soup has changed as I learned and read on making stock and soups from many of my favorite chefs and food masters. The key is to start with the freshest most natural chicken and chicken parts. Mammina Loreta would run to her local store in NY, Sahrs Poultry Farm, Inc. and ask for a soup chicken for her soup recipe (zuppa or brodo). This place was like a farm right in the middle of suburbia, complete with a somewhat scary butcher wearing a large plastic apron covered in who knows what!
I despised this place due to the smell of the live chickens kept in back, possibly waiting to be slaughtered, mixed with the overwhelming aroma of chicken manure that made my stomach turn. I would seek excuses every time a stop at Sahrs was on Mammina Loreta’s shopping list.
Funny thing is I would kill for a local place like Sahrs; it was the closest thing to being right on the farm and purchasing the freshest chicken for our family meals. We went often and I grew accustomed to the aromas.
I even began going there on my own (with my bike) and really enjoyed the process and the freshness they offered all their faithful customers (they also sold fresh eggs, which I just loved.) I believe this local farm is still in operation, I may have to stop in on my next visit and see if they are still as amazing as I remember.
In today’s market, finding a soup chicken is more than challenging in the midst of chemically enhanced, bland modified chickens you find wrapped in foam and cellophane at the local grocery store. I try to look for organic or farm-raised chickens who tend to be larger (older is better) and I always ask the butcher as he or she is the expert. I prefer to use the dark and meaty chicken parts and bones, including the feet if I can find them.
Make this recipe on a weekend when you have time, you will love the aroma that permeates your home as it simmers and no matter what the weather is doing outside, a great bowl of soup is truly good for the stomach and, of course, the soul.
zuppa di escarole e pollo di mammina loreta
1 whole fresh organic or farm-raised chicken (additional chicken parts like wings, feet and neck)
available extra chicken parts like wings, feet and neck and backbone (skin and cartilage adds tons of flavor)
3-4 oxtail meat bones
2-3 peeled garlic cloves
1 large white onion (chopped in chunks)
3-4 ribs of celery and leaves (medium to large segments)
3-4 carrots (peeled and sliced in half)
1-2 large very ripe beefsteak tomatoes (skin removed)
bunch of fresh parsley
1 large bunch fresh escarole
1-2 tsp sea or kosher salt
grated parmigiano cheese (if desired)
Wash your whole chicken thoroughly and let drain. Cut the chicken into pieces separating the leg and thigh, the wings and the breast from the backbone. Save or freeze the breasts for cooking another dish as these add very little flavor when it comes to soup.
Using a very large and deep soup stockpot, add in the cut up chicken parts (and any additional parts as noted above) along with the oxtail meat bones and fill with cold water to just below the top of the pot. Set on stove to medium-high heat and bring to a boil. When the water begins to foam at the top, let this continue to simmer for about 10-15 minutes and remove from stove.
Discard the water and remove the meat and chicken pieces and place in a large bowl. Wash the stock pot and refill with clean, fresh water to begin the soup cooking process (this first step is crucial as it removes all the blood and foam from the chicken and meat which would discolor and change the flavor of your finished soup stock.)
Place the pot back on the stove and bring back to a medium-high heat to began to boil. At this point add in the garlic, onion, celery, carrots, parsley and tomatoes. Allow the water to come to a soft rolling boil (you can place the cover on the pot (semi-covered to allow the steam to escape a bit.)
Add your salt at this point; careful not to over-season as the water evaporates and the soup condenses, the salt becomes more concentrated as well.
Clean and wash your escarole and break into bite size pieces; this ingredient will be needed later in the cooking process.
Allow the soup to simmer at a slow boil for about 2 to 3 hours or so (add a bit water if needed as it cooks.) About half way through this process, check for seasoning/taste and add a bit if needed.
One the soup has cooked for the full amount of time, you can remove the meat bones and chicken segments and place in a large bowl. Keep the soup at a slow simmer; add in the prepared escarole and cook for about 15-20 minutes.
NOTE: I do not add the cooked meat to the finished soup as I freeze part of this soup and do not like the texture/flavor the meat takes on when frozen. Instead I use the meat that day in my soup and if I want meat or protein in my soup later, I prepare fresh additions to keep the flavors at their best.
Remove the soup pot from the heat and set aside covered to rest. Reheat the soup when ready to eat; freeze the remaining soup in sealed containers for later use.
If you want, you can also cook some pastina or other small pasta shape (acini di pepe or mini farfalle) for the soup.
To serve the soup, pour the hot broth into each bowl and add some cooked pastina or pasta, the reserved meat if you wish and sprinkle with some grated parmigiano cheese and enjoy!
Another favorite variation for chicken soup is the traditional Italian soup called stracciatella (translated means “little rags”.)
This simple meatless version uses the soup broth and vegetables heated to slow simmer and you take an egg or two beaten well with some grated parmigiano cheese and you slowly swirl the egg mixture into the simmering soup using a fork to form the strips or “little rags” and the heat of the broth cooks the egg mixture in seconds.
Pull off the heat and enjoy this light version with a nice salty kick from the grated cheese and a bit of protein as a great late-night dinner or midday snack.
Note: Photography provided by Annette L. Venditti