Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Chicken Noodle Soup: From Scratch and with a Twist

I will no longer be held hostage by my tiny apartment kitchen.

I may not have room to store a 12-quart pot, but if I want to make chicken stock, I will make chicken stock. If I have to use a small 3-quart pot, I will use a 3-quart pot. If I have to save random bones over a period of weeks because I don't have the means to roast a couple whole chickens at a time (no room for roasting pans, either), then I will save random bones for weeks.

And that’s what I did.

The hardest part about making chicken stock (for the first time ever!) with random bones is finding a recipe to work from. I worked with Ina's recipe. Like hers, many recipes call for using several chicken carcasses at once, and there's no clear guidance on how to adapt a recipe to work with four split-breast bones and seven thigh bones, which is what I had. I got the random-bone-chicken-stock idea from Nigella's book, How To Eat. In it, she says that she saves all her leftover bones until she has enough to make a pot of stock, and she even talks about how, when she's dining with friends, she'll ask to take home their leftover unwanted chicken bones. For some reason, this inspired me. I thought, If Nigella can make stock from bones she's gathered from friends' houses, then I can make chicken stock from a few bones tossed into my meager excuse for a stock pot.

I've read that certain parts of a chicken carcass, such as the back, are great for stock. I didn’t have those parts, so I knew my raw material was lacking a bit. I didn't let that stop me. I cut Ina's recipe down to a third of the original and used that as a guide, but it as a very rough guide. I let the bones I'd frozen thaw, and then I piled them into my pot with an onion, two carrots, one celery stalk, six garlic cloves, eight sprigs of thyme, seven sprigs each of dill and parsley, half a tablespoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of peppercorns. I was able to fit about ten cups of water into the pot after that. I brought it to a boil then let it simmer away for four hours.

Ina's recipe instructs you to leave the pot uncovered, but I noticed that my liquid was rapidly being lost to the air. Since I was already making a fairly small batch of stock, I greedily determined to not lose another drop. I added about a cup of extra liquid back into the pot and clamped on the lid. This stifled the glorious homemade-stock aroma that had been wafting through my apartment, but I thought it was worth it.

When the four hours were up, it was time to strain the stock. Using a slotted spoon, I removed the bones and vegetables. Then I set a wire strainer over a large glass bowl, lined the strainer with a couple coffee filters (cheesecloth would be great, but I don't have that), and set to work. It was a slow process, as you might imagine. Per Ina's recipe, I let the stock chill in the fridge overnight so that I could skim the fat off in the morning. There wasn't much, but I was able to remove a small amount of fat the next day. When I was done, I had about 8 cups of stock. I don't know how I lost so much of my original liquid when I'd had the lid on the pot; all I know is that, in the end, I was able to fill four two-cup plastic containers. I stored them in the freezer, where'd they'd sit until I figured out how I wanted to use them.

They didn't sit long. I decided pretty much right away that I knew how they'd be used. It's already March, and we've had a couple 65-degree days here in Maryland. I can't prepare myself for Spring without first making my ultimate winter comfort food: chicken noodle soup with mashed potatoes. I'm dying to know: Has anyone else ever had this or even heard of it? Whenever I mention it to someone they look at me like I'm crazy. And Adam, who cannot eat a pea if it migrates beyond its designated place on his plate and touches his meat, refuses to try it. But he’s missing out, because it's delicious.

As the story goes, my mom used to make me chicken noodle soup with mashed potatoes when I was little, because I was very thin and didn't eat much, and this was a way she devised to sneak some potatoes into me, which I didn't used to like. I find it very difficult to imagine a time when I didn't used to like potatoes; furthermore, every time I tell this story I find myself longing for the alleged time when I didn't eat much and had problems gaining weight. But, so the story goes.

The method is, obviously, very simple: just dollop some mashed potatoes into a bowl of chicken noodle soup. You can stir the potatoes into the broth right away if you want, but I prefer to let them seep in on their own, slowly imbuing the broth with their rich potatoey goodness. To aid in this, I make the mashed potatoes a bit stiffer than I normally would, just so they don’t ooze apart the second they hit the broth. You can flavor the potatoes if you like (add a few garlic cloves to the cooking water or mash them with buttermilk), but I think it's best to just use a small amount of butter and a bit of milk or cream. You don't want any competing flavors to mask the taste of the stock you’ve made, which, by the way, will turn out delicious. There's much more nuance in the taste of homemade stock. You get hints of all the herbs and seasonings, and there's a depth and sophistication of flavor that just doesn't come in a box. It's fabulous. And, in case you're wondering, my four split-breast bones and seven thigh bones made a wonderful stock, even if it wasn't just like it would be if I'd used an entire carcass or two. The lesson I've learned here is that stock-making doesn't have to be an exact science: work with what you have, learn from what you've done, and enjoy your own homemade deliciousness.

For the soup, I used this recipe as a guide. It calls for precooked chicken, so, if you're making the stock and the soup close to the same time, it would probably work well to add a chicken breast to your pot and let it poach as your stock simmers. Then you can shred the meat and save it until you're ready to make the soup. But, just as with stock, the making of chicken noodle soup is a very forgiving process, and you can pretty much do what you like. Change the seasonings, add a bay leaf, use linguine instead of egg noodles. It all works, and it's all delicious. Just don't forget the mashed potatoes.


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Trop said...

I love chicken noodle soup over mashed potatoes. It's a family comfort food.

lunettes said...

As someone who used to eat chicken and mashed potato sandwiches, your recipe makes me all warm and happy inside. Must try this sometime! :-)

Terry B said...

Chicken soup over mashed potatoes? Sheer genius! Wow. There's an easier way to make chicken stock than hoarding old bones, by the way. Just put uncooked chicken parts [legs, thighs, whatever's on sale] into a pot with carrots, onions, parsnips and peppercorns, add water and cook until the chicken is falling apart. Strain, etcetera and done!

Vicarious Foodie said...

trop: Thanks for letting me know I'm not the only one. I knew I wasn't crazy!

lunettes: That sandwich sounds awesome! It's like chicken, potatoes, and stuffing all in one.

terry b: I'll have to try using whole chicken pieces some time. Maybe right before I make chicken pot pie, and that'll give me a good way to use the cooked chicken!

Kevin said...

I just made chicken stock for the first time as well. I used 1 carcass and let the liquid evaporate so I only ended up with 2 cups worth. It was a really good 2 cups though! :) Next time I will have to save a few carcasses in the freezer so that I can get more stock from them.

Adding mashed potatoes to chicken noodle soup sounds like a good idea. I will have to try it.

Anonymous said...

I introduced my fiance to mashed potatoes with chicken noodle soup. From your pictures, it looks like you put the mashed potatoes on top, but the tradition in my family is to put them in the bottom of the bowl first and pour the soup over. The mashed potatoes dissolve more quickly that way because they are swathed in the hot broth.

I've not been granted permission to save random chicken bones in my tiny apartment kitchen, but perhaps I can convince my fiance that it's a good idea....

Vicarious Foodie said...

anonymous: I put the mashed potatoes on top mostly so they'd be visible in the pictures. But of course putting them at the bottom is delicious too. As far as kitchen space goes, my fiance has been informed that the kitchen is my turf and he has no say in anything that goes on in there. ;-) Good luck!

Deborah Dowd said...

There is something special about making soup from stock you made yourself! YOur soups looks great and your pictures are so nice!

Patsyk said...

I've never had mashed potatoes in my chicken noodle soup, but your pictures make me think of dumplings... same kind of idea, but they go in uncooked and poach in the soup for a bit, and become nice and fluffy. Total comfort food! Looks like you made a fantastic stock and soup!

Psychgrad said...

I must be out of the loop because I've never heard of or tried chicken soup with mashed potatoes. Interesting combination.