Monday, May 12, 2008

Pat Muldoon's (Mom's) Chicken Noodle Soup

This post is about the healing powers of food. While my usual posts are about other people's recipes that can be linked to on the web, this post is about my "mother-in-law's" recipe for chicken soup (in quotes because even though my partner and I have been together 16 years on May 18 this year, we've never had a ceremony; referring to his family as in-laws just simplifies things really). Much has been written, both anecdotally and scholarly, about the curative powers of chicken soup. This past weekend I witnessed the phenomenon first hand as a soup that I prepared for my partner not only nourished his ailing body, but lifted his spirits as well.

First a little background: My partner was riding his bike to a meeting last Tuesday and was hit broadside by a car, an SUV actually. The accident knocked his right hip bone out of the socket and broke the socket bone that is one half of the ball and socket that comprises the hip joint. Once his hip bone was put back in place, he had to lie in bed on his back for three days until he could be operated on to fix his broken hip. The recuperation back to walking without crutches will take up to eight weeks. I'm confident he will be running by Labor Day as he was in excellent shape before the accident and is eager to get back to his level of activity as soon as possible. I'm fond of quoting to him one of my favorite lines from Spider-man 2, Aunt May to Peter Parker: "You're not Superman, you know." Of course, Brian just won't accept that he isn't actually Superman, which is why he usually pushes himself so hard physically and why I know his sheer determination will lead to a much faster than normal recuperation.

His surgery was on Friday, three days after his accident. I'd been spending so much time at the hospital that over the course of five days ending Saturday, I'd had seven of ten meals in the hospital cafeteria. Tired of the cafeteria food and missing being in my own kitchen, on Saturday morning I was determined to do two things, head out to my local farmers market that was starting that day for the year, and to make some homemade chicken soup a la Pat Muldoon, Brian's mother whom we lost in 2001. Going to the farmers market with my father-in-law and seeing the farmers that I've missed all winter, was medicine for my spirit. Everything looked so fresh and everyone was so happy to be back in business. The first strawberries of the season cried out to just be eaten raw. Asparagus will be grilled and also made into a risotto. Rhubarb was combined with tomato to make a favorite chutney. Rest assured strawberry ice cream and strawberry rhubarb shortcakes are coming soon.

The chicken soup is really more method than recipe, but observing my mother-in-law prepare this soup one winter day over Christmas week, I was shocked at its simplicity. My mother never made chicken soup from scratch. She used to make a mean chicken and dumplings, but plain old chicken noodle soup was usually Campbell's. Pat decided that chicken soup was just what we needed on a cold winter day. I watched her like a hawk and was so surprised at her secret ingredient, nutmeg. Brian has always loved his mom's soup and since she's no longer with us and Mother's Day was this past Sunday, I wanted to bring her strength and spirit into the room where Brian was recuperating. It worked like a charm because he always loves when I make this soup and even if I vary his mother's recipe, he's pleased to know that I made the effort to learn to make one of his favorites from childhood. So the soup was working on many levels that Saturday.

But on Monday, the day after Mother's Day Brian was uncomfortably waiting around for some radiological tests and had a bit of an emotional breakdown. Thinking about his mother, and the soup, and the love I was trying to share, he was overcome. He started crying thinking about all that he'd been through and how lucky he was to have survived. But the trigger was thinking about the soup, this dish so familiar from his childhood that is just ridiculously simple to make:

Brian's Mom's Chicken Soup for the Soul

In a six quart stock pot, place
2-3 bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves (about 2 1/2 pounds)
and cover with cold water by an inch.
Place on medium heat and bring to a slow boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 40 minutes, skimming off any foam that accumulates. If you'd like to make a more flavorful stock, you can add roughly chopped vegetables such as
1 small onion (optional)
1 medium carrot (optional)
1 stalk celery (optional)

but I think you can just add these veggies to the soup itself rather than at this stage where they are only used for the stock and then discarded.
When the chicken breasts are cooked remove from the stock pot to a bowl and cover with stock. Let sit at room temperature until cool enough to handle. Allowing the chicken to cool in the liquid will keep the breast moist.
Meanwhile, add to the stock pot
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 large stalk celery, diced

and bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes.
Bring 2 quarts of salted water to boil and cook
8 ounces of noodles/pasta (such as egg noodles, orrechiete, orzo, tubettini, etc.)
to al dente.
Once cool, remove the skin from the chicken and the meat from the bones and cut into a medium dice. Add the chicken and the reserved liquid back to the soup pot. Add
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper
to the soup and taste to addjust the seasonings accordingly.
2 to 4 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs (such as parsley, thyme, or cilantro)
to the soup, reserving a small amount for garnish. Brian LOVES dill so that's what I used.
Drain the pasta and add to the soup. Serve immediately with additional herb garnish if desired.