The cool weather has me ecstatically breaking out all my winter recipes. This week we had roast chicken, and then, three days later, the obligatory follow-up: chicken soup.
So many folks these days are deterred by the idea of cooking a whole chicken that I feel I should note here how very easy it is. You have to think about an hour and a half ahead, but a roast chicken is in fact one of the easiest meals, prep-wise, that you could imagine. (I say this on the assumption you’re cooking a store-bought chicken. Starting with a live chicken will be a little more work….) You simply unwrap the chicken, pull out the bag of innards, plop the chicken in a pan with sides at least an inch and a half high, rub it with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. I cover the whole thing with aluminum foil to keep my oven clean, but you can leave off the foil if the prospect of crispier skin makes you willing to clean up the mess. Bake at 425°F for anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how big it is. You’ll know it’s done when a fork stuck in the thickest part of the thigh produces clear juices, with no blood. (The breast will then be slightly overcooked. If you’d like to have the moistest white meat possible, you can remove the breasts when they’re just cooked through and continue baking the thighs a little more.)
To keep things as simple as possible, I carve the chicken right in the roasting pan, where it’s sitting in its delicious juices. I take just as much as we’re going to eat at the time and, when the rest has sufficiently cooled, put the foil back over it and stick it in the fridge. Depending on how much we’ve already eaten, we may get another meal or two out of it over the next couple of days. After two or three days, when all the easy-picking meat is gone, it’s time to make soup.
The first thing I do is use my fingers to pick the remaining meat from the bones. (Don’t forget the two delicious pockets of meat on the chicken’s back. These are the most tender muscles on the chicken. Actually, in my kitchen they rarely make it into the soup–they’re too delectable not to eat as I’m working!) I put the meat I’ve picked in a separate container to store in the fridge and add to the soup later. I don’t use it to make the stock, because the long boiling process will severely overcook it. I still want it to be nice and tender in the soup.
Now, the carcass (including all bones, skin, and fat) and all the juices that are still in the roasting pan (you may have removed some for making gravy, which is perfectly acceptable) can go into a stockpot or Dutch oven. Barely cover with cold water. Throw in a few handfuls of fresh herbs, if you have them. I use sage, oregano, and thyme. There’s no need to chop them or strip the leaves from the branches, which makes the prep that much easier. You can use dried herbs instead, but the flavors will not be quite as good. Now heat to boiling. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer, and keep simmering–uncovered–for three hours or so, until the liquid is reduced by at least a third. You want the broth to be nice and concentrated.
Now, place a colander or strainer over another soup pot that’s large enough to receive all the broth. Pour your broth into the colander or strainer. The broth will go through, and the bones, herbs, and other bits will stay out.
Your strained broth can now go back on the stove in its new pot. At this point, I bring it back to a boil. Then I add some pasta. When the pasta is al dente, I add as much reserved chicken meat as seems appropriate, as well as a pint of home-canned green beans (with some, but not all, of their canning juice). I add a generous amount of salt (about 2 teaspoons?), some black pepper, and a couple of dashes of cayenne. Taste to determine how much you should add to satisfy your own preferences.
That’s it! When everything returns to a simmer, it’s ready to eat. I’m really not sure how you could be disappointed. (Though a little cornbread on the side certainly wouldn’t hurt.)