Friday, 26 July 2013

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream

I can't think of a recipe that stirs more emotion among cooks than home-made chicken soup. I reckon that's because it's one of the world's favourite comfort foods, and a jealously guarded childhood memory for anyone with the slightest sense of nostalgia.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
A silken chicken soup with nutmeg, cream, thyme and parsley.

How you like your chicken soup is likely to have everything to do with the dish tenderly handed to you by your mother in your most miserable, tired and sick moments as a youngster.

If you're Jewish, for example, you might fall to the floor in a dead faint at the thought of an intensely flavoured broth with bobbing little kneidlach. Restorative clear broths with noodles, lime, lemon grass and fish sauce may be your idea of heaven if you were raised in many places in Asia, while lemon and rice are essential ingredients for Greeks (and other children of the eastern Mediterranean) who grew up inhaling their mothers' avgolemono-style soups.  Or you might have a passion for creamy Mexican-style soups with sweetcorn and abundant toppings of avocado, grated cheese, chilli, lime and coriander.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
A little cornflour gives this chicken soup a silky texture.

I've made countless pots of chicken soup for my family over the past two decades, and this recipe is the result. It's is a homely, creamy soup, crammed with vegetables. It's thick and silken, but not at all gloopy, and it has a lovely intense chickeny taste, which can only be achieved by patiently making a good stock from the bones of the bird.

I admit this is a long recipe, that it has a lot of ingredients, and that it takes time to make, but I promise you won't be disappointed by the result. (If you just don't have time to faff around, you might like to try my Quick, Thick Chicken Soup, Using the Remains of the Roast.)

Potatoes and other veggies are the thickening agents in my chicken soup, but I always add a little slaked cornflour towards the end because I find that this - quite magically - gives the soup an agreeable silken texture.  Nutmeg is an essential ingredient, and so is fresh cream.

Like most soups and stews, this tastes better the next day, after its flavours have had a chance to mingle and deepen. I'd recommend, if you're making this for a special occasion, that you prepare it a day ahead, but please refrigerate it overnight during the summer months.  Chicken soup left out in the heat can turn in a flash into a vile witch's cauldron.

You can make this with a whole chicken, or use the remains of your roast (see my Cook's Notes, below, about freezing chicken carcasses).  If you are using a fresh chicken, you need not add the poached chicken breasts, because you will use the meat you've stripped away from the whole bird.

The stock below appears in the 'Basic Recipes' section of my cookbook Scrumptious Food for Family and Friends, and is reproduced here courtesy of Random House Struik.

I always add a packet of chicken wings to my stock pot, as they help to create a good rich stock (and by that I mean one that jellies overnight in the fridge).

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream

For the stock:
a large free-range chicken, trimmed of excess fat, OR the remains of your roasts (see Cook's Notes, below)
8 chicken wings
3 litres water, or enough to cover the chicken to a depth of 7 cm
1 cup (250 ml) white wine
1½ tsp (7.5 ml) sea salt
1 large onion, skin on, quartered
2 leeks, trimmed, rinsed and sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, thickly sliced
6 stalks flat-leaf parsley
3 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 ml) black peppercorns

For the soup:
2 Tbsp (30 ml) butter
1 Tbsp (15 ml) olive oil
3 onions, peeled and sliced
3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced
3 large carrots, peeled and sliced
2 sticks celery, sliced
a large sprig of thyme
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
salt and milled black pepper
6 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
1½ cups (375 ml) milk
5 skinless chicken breasts (omit these if you've used a whole fresh chicken for your stock; see recipe)
1 Tbsp (15 ml) cornflour, or more, if necessary (see recipe)
1 cup (250 ml) cream
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
a little lemon juice
freshly chopped curly-leaf parsley, to serve

Begin with the stock. Place the whole chicken (or carcasses) and the wings into a large stock pot and add the water, wine and salt. Bring gently to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Skim off all the grey foam as it rises.

Now add all the remaining stock ingredients and bring back up to the boil. Cover with a tilted lid, turn down the heat and simmer gently – the water should remain at a calm burble – for two hours, topping up with more water if necessary.

NB: If you've used a whole fresh chicken to make your stock, fish it out of the pot after about 45 minutes and cut away the chicken breasts, using a sharp knife. Set these to one side. Return the chicken to the pot, wait 20 minutes or so, then take it out again and cut off the thighs and drumsticks. Let these cool, strip off all the cooked flesh and set aside. Put the leg bones and skin, and what's left of the chicken, back into the pot and carry on simmering the stock. These steps prevent the chicken flesh from cooking to a mush.

Let the stock cool a little, then strain it into a large clean bowl through a sieve lined with a fine cloth (a laundered napkin or a brand-new kitchen cloth is ideal). Discard the solids. Skim the fat off the top of the stock, or refrigerate it overnight and then lift off the fat.

My Epic Chicken Soup with Nutmeg, Thyme & Cream
In the meantime, get started on the vegetables. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large pot (I use my wok, because it is so good for frying veggies) and add the onions, leeks, carrots, celery and thyme sprig. Cook over a medium heat until just softened (about 6-7 minutes), then add the garlic and cook for another minute, without letting the garlic brown. Add the potatoes, milk and a few ladles of hot stock - it doesn't matter if the stock hasn't finished boiling. The liquid should just cover the vegetables.

NB: If you used chicken carcasses and not a whole chicken to make your stock, push the deboned chicken breasts into the bed of vegetables (after you've added the liquid) so they can poach gently. Once they're just cooked through, remove them and set them aside, covered, on a plate.

Season with a little salt and pepper, and turn the heat down to a gentle bubble. Cook gently for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes and carrots are just soft.

Transfer the vegetables and liquid to your rinsed-out stock pot and top up with more hot stock. How much you add depends on the volume of vegetables, but as a rule of thumb, the amount of liquid in the pot should be about double the volume of vegetables. Simmer the soup for a further 10 minutes, or until the potato cubes are on the point of collapse.

Remove the sprig of thyme and, using a stick blender or liquidiser, whizz the soup until it's beautifully smooth and fine. Patiently skim any foam off the top, then add the cream. Now mix the cornflour to a thinnish paste with a little water, and gently whisk this into the soup. Cook, stirring constantly, over a medium heat, for a few minutes. If the soup seems too thick, thin it down with more stock or milk. If it is too thin for your liking, mix up another batch of cornflour paste and dribble it into the pot until the soup if of the consistency you desire.

Shred the chicken meat you've set aside and add it to the soup pot. (Don't be tempted to liquidise any of the chicken bits, as this will ruin the soup's texture). Season generously with salt and plenty of milled pepper.

Simmer the soup for a few more minutes, or until the shredded chicken has heated through. Now, using the fine teeth of a grater, rasp the nutmeg into the soup. I usually use about a third of a whole nutmeg, but this is up to you.  If you're using powdered nutmeg, add it just a pinch at a time, or until you're happy with the taste.

Immediately before you serve the soup, add a spritz or two of fresh lemon juice, to taste. This puts a little spring in its step!

Pour into warmed bowls, scatter with parsley and serve with bread or rolls.

Makes about 3 litres of soup.

Cook’s Notes, and stock tips:
  • If you often roast chickens, or buy ready-roasted ones, save their carcasses for an epic chicken soup by freezing them in a large plastic bag. I often make a stock with four carcasses I've 'saved' over a fortnight. There's no need to defrost them before you put them into the stock. 
  • Another way to create a really deep-flavoured stock (and tender poached chicken to use in another dish) is to simmer a carcass and wings for two hours, as described in the recipe, then add a whole, new chicken, and let that simmer for another hour, or until cooked through.
  • For an extra-rich stock, you can lightly fry all the vegetables, herbs, spices and carcass bones in a mixture of hot olive oil and butter before you add the water and whole chicken. For warm colour, add a few roughly chopped tomatoes.
  • A good way to clarify and de-fat a stock is to use chef Heston Blumenthal’s method: freeze the stock in a round bowl, then place it in a big sieve or colander lined with several layers of kitchen paper. Set the sieve over a large bowl. As the stock thaws and drips into the bowl, the fat and impurities stay behind on the paper.
  • If you’d like a really intense-tasting stock, put the pot back on the stove and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid has reduced by half. Store, covered, in the fridge for up to 3 days, or freeze in lidded plastic containers or clingfilm-covered ice trays for up to 3 months.
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Jamie Claire said...

Looks so comforting! Nothing like good chicken soup!

Melanie Heyns said...

Oh yum! Definitely want to try this one.