Food can comfort and heal us in times of grief and despair
"Enjoy every sandwich." — Warren Zevon
As is true for so many people, 9/11 is on my mind this week. I’m thinking of the people who perished on that day in the towers: those I knew from college and high school, friends, coworkers, and of course all the strangers whose families’ lives are forever altered.
I’ll always remember the breathtaking beauty of that day — an impossibly blue sky — and how all my calls to editors in NYC suddenly stopped going through. “All the circuits to New York are busy.” It was only when a friend called late in the morning that I learned about what had happened. It seemed as though everything around me was disappearing, as if I might disappear myself.
Once I had gotten through to friends and family in New York, I turned on the TV. The footage of the towers coming down over and over again made me numb, but two things caught my eye.
The first was how quickly people were able to print up and post signs asking after the fate of their loved ones. They must have been carrying pictures in their wallets.
The other was how many of the pictures were of family celebrations around food.
Here’s why it meant so much to me: I live in a city where writers, artists, and musicians abound. When I meet other writers (which is daily) and they hear that I am a food writer, many of them say, “Oh, that’s what you do for money, but what do you really write?” I reply, “Food writing is important to me. Cooking and eating are the basis of family life and even of culture itself.” (I try really hard not to sound pompous, obnoxious, or defensive as I deliver my little manifesto.)
And here was the proof, everywhere and in abundance, of the role food plays in peoples’ lives. I never felt what I did was trivial, and I never questioned why I had devoted so much of my time and energy to food writing, but I had also never seen, so immediately and so vividly, how very much it might mean to people.
At every holiday now I think of the empty chair at the table, and the nagging sadness in families’ hearts as they assemble.
Fortunately, food has the power to soothe, comfort, and heal. And so, here is a recipe for my version of good old NYC-style “Jewish Penicillin” Chicken Soup. May you enjoy it in good health. If you’re sad, sick, or grieving, I hope it brings you comfort and strength. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, defeated, or disheartened, I hope it gives you energy and perspective.
Soup can do that.
NYC-style Chicken Soup
Serves six happy people for one meal, or one sick or sad person for days on end
If you have a leftover chicken carcass, dump it in the stockpot with the other ingredients. If you have any roasted vegetables lying around, they will give the stock a rich, complex flavor. If you have none of those things, fear not. The following ingredients produce a flavorful soup on their own.
I make this soup in two steps. What I like to do is make the stock on Friday night (while I watch Washington Week in Review) and then turn the stock into soup on Saturday morning (while listening to Car Talk). I’m a creature of habit, what can I say.
2 tablespoons olive oil
one small to medium onion, roughly chopped (3/4 to 1 cup)
2 lbs. of chicken thighs and drumsticks, bone in and skin on
2 sticks of celery
8 cups of water (or more as needed)
2 bay leaves
pinch of dried tarragon
2 – 3 allspice berries
- Warm the olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat.
- When it is very warm but not “spitting” hot, add the chopped onion and let it become translucent. The onion does not need to brown.
- Add the rest of the ingredients.
- Add water as needed to cover everything in the pot. You only need to add a tiny pinch of salt now, as the stock will cook down and you don’t want the salt flavor to become too concentrated and end up tasting like the ocean.
- Bring the pot to a boil and then turn it down to a medium simmer. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes. The chicken meat should be cooked through. If it isn’t cooked through, cook until it is completely done, right through to the bone. You can cook it a little bit longer if you like, 45 minutes to an hour is fine, but you shouldn’t have to go over an hour.
- Now strain all the ingredients out of the soup and cool the stock off a bit in a bowl before you cover the bowl and store the stock in the fridge over night. (I often store it in the stockpot after I’ve washed the pot out.)
- Compost the spent veggies and cool the chicken pieces. When cool enough to handle, peel the skin off the pieces of chicken and pull the meat off the bones. Toss the skin (don’t compost it!) and store the meat in the fridge overnight.
When you take the stock out of the fridge the next morning, you can skim the fat off the top of the stock. I always take all but one teaspoon of fat out because even though fat carries flavor, too much fat can obscure flavor as well. If you’ve ever sipped a spoonful of soup that had fat completely covering the surface you will know what I mean. Blech!
OK, now it’s time to make the stock into soup.
All the stock from the night before
2 carrots diced finely or cut into “coins”
1 parsnip, diced (optional)
2 sticks of celery, cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 peeled cloves of garlic, left whole
pinch or two of dried tarragon, fines herbs, or a “poultry mix” of dried herbs
1 tablespoon finely minced flat leaf Italian parsley
chicken meat from the night before
salt and black pepper to taste
Starches: you can add cooked rice, cooked potatoes, or cooked pasta
Veggies: you can add chopped tomatoes, canned Roma tomatoes, or any cooked veggie you like (cooked mushrooms are good and some people like to add cooked corn)
Dairy: you can add cream or half and half
Liquor: you can add sherry or cognac (add by one tablespoon increments, tasting as you go …)
- Warm the stock until just below a boil and keep it at that temperature.
- Chop the carrots, the parsnip if you’re using it, and celery and toss into the pot.
- Peel the papery covering off two cloves of garlic. Leave them whole and throw them into the pot.
- If you like the flavor of tarragon or the French dried herb mix called Fines Herbs (pronounced “feen erb” and available at Penzeys.com) or a poultry mix of dried seasonings, add a pinch now.
- Cook until the carrots and celery have become soft and cooked through.
- About five minutes before serving, toss in as much of the chicken as you want to add (I often hold some back to make a curried chicken salad sandwich) and cook until the meat is warmed through.
- Next add the parsley and cook for a few minutes until it’s soft.
- At the very last moment, season with salt and black pepper to taste.
- After you take the soup off the flame, fish out the two cloves of garlic (unless you know for sure that someone wants them).
- If you want to add cooked pasta or vegetables, do so now. Fresh tomatoes are good too, and sherry or cognac can add a lot of depth to the soup.
- If you want to add cream or half and half, take the soup off the flame and add it after the soup has had a minute to cool off from its hottest point.
Enjoy. Heal. Revive.