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A Superior Chicken Soup

Chicken soup is one of the most painless and pleasing things to make in a home kitchen. But do modern cooks know that? During America’s inexorable march toward processed food, chicken soup became something to buy, not something to make — Campbell’s alone produces more than 50 varieties — and many cooks simply don’t know how satisfying a project it is. “So what comes first, the chicken or the soup?” Ashley Aguilar, a radiology technician in San Jose, Calif., asked after spotting an online photo of my homemade chicken soup. It is a very deep question, beyond the scope of this column. But I can confidently state that chicken soup will carry even the laziest cook through a long, cold season. “It’s literally the easiest thing in the world to cook,” said Leah Koenig, the author of “Modern Jewish Cooking.” “You just put stuff in a pot and walk away.” Not quite. There is a method to producing a fragrant, golden, savory soup you want to eat all winter long. The chicken soup with root vegetables (carrot, onion, leeks, celery) that we recognize as the American classic was first a staple across Northern Europe. Egg noodles, the perfect filling addition, ranged from the thinnest of white threads to fat yellow twists. The formulas were carried to the United States by cooks from Scotland (cock-a-leekie), from Poland (rosol) and from all the places in between where Mennonites, Amish and Jews lived. Jewish families in villages across the region raised chickens instead of the more usual pigs, which may explain why Ashkenazi Jews are so connected to chicken soup here. In Yiddish, chicken broth is called goldene yoich, golden broth — much as America was called the goldene medina, the golden land — with all the same connotations of richness, sunshine and good fortune. The first thing to do — apologies in advance — is to ignore the ancestral recipes. There’s much kitchen wisdom to be found on old index cards and in vintage cookbooks, but chickens (and chicken recipes) have changed. Not so long ago, cooks had the knowledge to choose between pullets and capons, broilers and fryers, spring chickens and stewing roosters — each one best suited to a particular treatment in the kitchen. Our most recent basic chicken soup recipe in The Times, from 1995, calls for “a big, old hen,” 5 to 6 pounds, including the neck and giblets. Today, even if I were to become deeply familiar with the life cycle and gender transitions of the modern chicken, I couldn’t easily provision any of those. Many old recipes also assume that soup is a dish of last resort, designed to wring the final...

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