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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: A chicken soup bold enough to stand up to the unending winter.
A couple of weeks ago, when I decided we all needed some more chicken soup for this unending winter, a small part of me thought, Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. Surely, by the time the column runs, everyone will have forgotten about that time when they moved the northern half of the United States to the Arctic Circle by mistake, and people will be wearing light cotton fabrics in pastel shades, and the children will no longer be eating mud-topped snow cones but just straight-up mud cones. (Better terroir that way, too.)
And my editors will be like, Don’t you want to skip that chicken soup column and write about something fresh and spring-y like asparagus with ramp sauce instead?
Or in the words of Lorrie Moore: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha…
This morning it was 15 degrees.
Is there some sort of Jewish Mothers of the World cookbook that has nothing but recipes for chicken noodle soup? Because that, as Hal David and Burt Bacharach meant to tell us, is what this world needs now. And because I care more for the future happiness of humanity than mere profit, I give this priceless idea to you, with the proviso that you publish it before December, when we will enter suspended animation once more.
Never mind -- it exists already. Carry on with your lives.
This chicken soup comes from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, which can never be praised too much. Its only flaw is that it has so many obviously exciting recipes that the quieter ones -- like chicken soup -- get passed over. And this recipe is especially likely to be skipped, for a few reasons:
Reason #1: It calls for a enormous quantity of alliums, which it makes it sound like the soup will be sharp and aggressive. It is not. It is the opposite. Simmered in the broth, the onions, shallots and garlic become docile and sweetly charming, the perfect houseguests, if you like to slow-cook your houseguests and noisily slurp them.
Reason #2: It calls for five whole cilantro plants, roots and all. As it turns out, before children arrived I spent way too much time searching for cilantro plants with the roots still attached and I can tell you that the only reliable way to obtain whole cilantro plants is to grow them yourself. So I opt out: I toss in some cilantro, not even five plants worth, and I forgo the roots. I live with myself.
Reason #3: It calls for a whole chicken -- and it is wonderful when made with a whole chicken, just as it must be wonderful when made with a pot full of cilantro roots. But most of the time I make this as a slap-dash, duct-taped dinner: I use a pile of assorted frozen chicken parts for stock and pick meat off the bones afterward. It works.
And as if I haven’t mauled the poor recipe enough, I add noodles too. In this time of unending winter, we need to bulk up.
Adapted freely from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet (Artisan, 2000)
Serves 4 with soup left over
1 small chicken or whatever chicken you have frozen for stock (if you use assorted parts, you will want a couple of pounds worth)
3 scallions, trimmed
1 bunch cilantro, stalks and roots included (optional: do not scour the city for cilantro with the roots still on; feel free to make without any cilantro)
2 carrots, halved
8 whole black peppercorns
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 small shallots, or 4 large shallots, peeled and halved
1 head of garlic, peeled and halved
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound egg noodles (straight wheat noodles are fine, though)
Cilantro, chopped (optional)
Photos by James Ransom