“Mom!” The voice on my cellphone belonged to my younger son, and he sounded almost frantic.
No matter how old they are – and this one was 28 at the time – you imagine the worst when they sound that way. “Hi, sweetie, what’s up?” I said as I held my breath.
“Listen, Rachel is sick, and I want to take her some chicken soup. So, I’m in the grocery store, what do I buy?”
My heart gave a small, reflexive squish at the image of him cooking for his girlfriend, and choosing my chicken soup that he thought would save the day. What sounded like panic was only the sound of him walking through the market.
The dish he was referring to didn’t start out as my chicken soup. It was one of the few specialties of my mother’s kitchen that I periodically found myself missing after college.
When I left San Antonio, where I grew up, for a job and apartment in New York City, my Aunt Marcy gave me a binder with a starter handful of family recipes. Mostly, they were Marcy’s recipes, with a couple from my grandmother, who only cooked things with lots of sugar in them. My mother’s recipes were largely absent, probably because I don’t remember ever actually seeing her use a recipe.
My mother was an artist, and in a less culturally restrictive time, I doubt she’d have cooked much at all. But women in those days weren’t supposed to be painting or building collages or working with mosaic tiles, so I suspect she was more than a little grateful for the advances in packaged food – frozen TV dinners, Kraft macaroni and cheese, instant mashed potatoes – that gave her time for her art. When she decided to cook, she relied mostly on instinct; and her instincts, while not fancy, were good.
As with her art, my mother’s cooking was eclectic, and often involved mixing things up in a skillet until they tasted good. If she had shrimp, it became gumbo, served over rice. Turkey morphed into tetrazzini, with mushrooms, cream sauce and pasta; chicken or pork evolved into chop suey over those crunchy Chun King noodles.
So with her chicken soup, there was no point in asking how she made it. She stood in the kitchen and seemed to magically make this soup, so I decided to follow her around the kitchen and write down what she did. Start with chicken in water, add a bay leaf, an onion, maybe two tablespoons of parsley. I took my notes home and made what I thought she’d made. It wasn’t the same. Not inedible, just not the same.
So I fiddled with it, tasted it, fiddled some more, tasted some more. And as I learned more about cooking, I fiddled with it yet again. So much so that I guess I can honestly say now that it’s my chicken soup now.
It’s the soup I made for my boys when they were sick. It’s the soup I yearn to make and send 2,000 miles to them when they’re sick now, though, having done that once, I know the cost is completely ridiculous. It’s the soup I’ve made for sick friends, and for my prince when he’s under the weather. It’s the soup I made by the batch for my son and daughter-in-law after each of their babies was born.
Sometimes when I make it, images of my mom appear in the steam, and I recall the trays of chicken soup, crackers and ginger ale over ice she used to carry upstairs to my room when I was under the weather. All these years, later, I still crave it when I’m myself am sick, so you’ll find a stash of it in my freezer at the start of the allergy/flu season.
After all these years of bringing comfort to myself and others, I don’t wonder why this soup has such powerful mojo for me. It’s just love.
Chicken Vegetable Soup
Noodles or not? White meat or dark meat? It hardly seems to matter, and frankly, my chicken soup isn’t the same from one batch to another. It depends on what’s in the fridge at the time. In general, I don’t include noodles, and I use chicken thighs because they’re cheaper and give better flavor. I always start with mirepoix — chopped onion, carrots and celery — but after that, you can start making changes. If you don’t have or like green beans, substitute a package of frozen spinach. Try parsnips or lima beans or yellow summer squash (no beets, please) — as long as there’s variety and a medley of colors, it’ll be fine. Just don’t consider doing without the cheese rind. Trust me.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup carrot, cut in 1/4-inch dice, plus 1/2 cup sliced in disks 1/8-inch thick, divided
1/2 cup celery, cut in 1/4-inch dice, plus 1/2 cup sliced in half-moons 1/8-inch thick, divided
7 cups good-quality chicken broth
2 1/2 pounds skinless chicken thighs (boneless or bone-in), trimmed of fat
1 1/2 teaspoons dried dill, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme, divided
1 large bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
1 (2-inch) piece Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
1 medium turnip, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 medium zucchini, sliced 1/8-inch thick
3 to 4 ounces green beans (fresh or frozen), cut in 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 cup corn (fresh or frozen)
Additional salt/freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
In a large soup pot (such as a 5 1/2-quart Le Creuset French oven), heat the oil at a medium setting and saute the onion for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute another 1 minute, stirring continuously to keep the garlic from browning. Add the diced carrot and the diced celery and saute another 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the broth, the chicken, 1 teaspoon each of the dill and thyme, the bay leaf and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring the mix to a gentle simmer. Simmer, partly covered, for 20 minutes, occasionally skimming whatever scum develops on the surface and adjusting the heat to keep the soup from boiling. (If the soup boils, the meat will toughen and that scum will be incorporated into the liquid, clouding the soup. Also, higher temperatures will cause aroma and flavor compounds to be lost, giving you a flatter-tasting soup.) After 20 minutes, remove the chicken and shred it to your liking.
Add the sliced carrots, sliced celery, Parmesan rind and fresh veggies to the pot and bring to a simmer. Add back the shredded chicken plus any accumulated juices. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, then stir in any frozen veggies. Bring the soup back to a simmer and cook an additional 5 to 8 minutes. The soup should be ready when the carrots are tender (they’re the densest of the veggies, so they will take longest to cook).
Stir in the extra 1/2 teaspoon of dill and thyme and cook for 1 minute. Add salt/pepper to taste. Remove the bay leaf and the Parmesan rind, then stir in the parsley. Ladle into warm bowls and serve hot with crackers or crusty bread. Serves 4 to 6.
— Lee Stokes Hilton
HEADING BACK INTO MOM’S KITCHEN TO REVISIT HER FAVORITES
My mom’s brother passed away last year in India. Ceremoniously, as part of our family’s Hindu tradition, a dinner is hosted a few days after a death and the family members cook all the favorites of the deceased. In Houston, where I grew up, my mom and aunt hosted this dinner and cooked his favorite dishes from Gujarat, the region where my parents are from.
After some time passed, my mother was visiting us in Austin. While we were in the kitchen and I was making a light lunch for us, a simple potato leek soup and an avocado and heart of palm salad, my mother turned to me and asked me to visit her.
She specifically wanted me to come to apprentice to learn how to cook. Totally caught off guard, I said to her, “Um, Mom! I already learned everything I know about cooking from you when I was 10!” She said to me, “You learned your favorite comfort foods, not mine.”
That gave me pause. As the primary cook in my family’s life, I’ve chosen to not cook or serve some of those foods that I ate growing up for various reasons, mostly because I want improved nutritional value. The Indian foods she taught me turned into recipes I wrote for my initial cooking classes, but when it comes to her comfort foods, I likely am not an expert. My mom loves my cooking, which is a variety of global foods and learned American food, but she wants to make sure I’ve learned her comfort foods, too.
When I’m sick, I might prefer a brothy, briny soup, or a ghee-laden khichari, or a bowl of resplendent pasta oozing with cream and butter, all comforting either because of the warmth and fattiness of the food, or because of the nostalgia the food brings me in times of illness.
Comfort to one generation is not necessarily comfort to another, so, as part of an ode to Mother’s Day, I’m going to intern with her this year and learn her favorites: starchy Gujarati favorites like dhokla, dal dhokli and khichi (not to be confused with khitchari), but also Tex-Mex dishes such as nachos and tostadas, and baked potatoes done her way, twice-baked and smothered in hot butter and cold cottage cheese. I won’t adapt these recipes to my taste. I’ll write them as she likes them, so I can recreate them in her time of need.
— Shefaly Ravula