chicken soup

Sometimes, only chicken soup will do.

I’m sick.

I’m not a good sick person, either. There are people who bear their affliction with grace, fortitude and a staunch cheerfulness whilst delicately withering away, kind of like Beth in Little Women. I’m not one of them. When I have a cold, there’s wailing, whingeing, spluttering and coughing, the cursing of trans-seasonal weather, piles of tissues and a good deal of feeling sorry for myself. It’s unfortunate, but there it is.

Strange things happen to my appetite when I’m sick, and it’s probably the only time I’ll ever say ‘no thanks, I’m not hungry’. My culinary planet becomes sadly Pluto-nic, reduced to a dwarfish set of dry crackers and some hot tea. Eventually if that doesn’t help, I’m forced to pull out the big guns, the cure-all, the substance known throughout the world as Jewish penicillin – chicken soup.

Chicken soup is a lengthy two-stage process, but fortunately it’s so simple that even a sick person can probably cope with it. The stock itself involves almost no work, and if you’re beat after that then you can simplify the soup down to a handful of barley and a cup of frozen vegetables. The key is to serve up large, steaming bowls, wrap yourself in a furry blanket and let the love envelope you.

Chicken soup
The stock
4 chicken Marylands (you can use 8 chicken drumsticks if you prefer)
2 carrots
2 sticks of celery
Half a leek
4 cloves of garlic
6 black peppercorns

The soup
2 carrots, chopped
Half a cup of barley
Half a leek, sliced
Salt and pepper

Place all the ingredients for the stock in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a low simmer and leave it for an hour. Skim off the scum that floats to the top.

Once the hour is up, remove the chicken and strip the bones, returning the bones to the pan and keeping the meat separate. Allow the bones to boil very gently for another 45 minutes.

Remove the bones and vegetables and discard. The best way to do this is obviously to strain it, but if you don’t have a strainer then a slotted spoon is fine. You should be left with a lovely stock.

If you’re conscious about fat, the best thing to do here is to refrigerate the soup overnight and skim off the layer of fat in the morning. The amount of fat can be quite substantial because of the chicken skin, and removing the solid form is easier. But if the thought of doing this makes you feel old and weary and defeated, crack on with the soup.

Return the chicken meat to the pot and add the barley, chopped carrot and sliced leek. Season with salt and pepper, then boil for half an hour and serve.

There are two reasons I remove and discard the original vegetables and then add new ones: firstly, because once they’ve been boiling for two hours their flavour and nutrients are already in the pot, and secondly I like to be able to control the texture of the final soup veg. Plenty of people have their own preferences as to what goes into the final chicken soup, adding potato, swede, peas, pasta or bread dumplings; I’m not going to interfere. If you’re sick, it’s time to be a little self-indulgent. Do whatever feels right for you.

A note about chicken stock: honestly, I don’t really care if my stock is cloudy, but some people prefer the clear consommé-style stocks. Really. There are entire discussions on various blogs about how why a stock goes cloudy and the best way to clarify it.

From what I understand, a stock will go cloudy if it is brought to a rolling boil, which breaks down the collagen in the bones and allows it to leach into the soup, making it thicker and sticky like tonkotsu ramen. Some people say it’s the fat, not the collagen, which emulsifies through the soup, giving it a cloudy appearance.

Whatever the reason, most cooks agree that if you want a clear soup, you need to bring the pot to just below boiling point and simmer for longer – a full cooking time of two and a half hours. As long as you don’t boil it, you’ll have a light, clear stock. And then you need to strain it through cheesecloth to get rid of the bits.


no-bake cottage pie

When the temperature begins to drop and the first frost is felt in the air, warm, comforting food becomes almost irresistible; rich, meaty stews brimming with wine and herbs, a fat roast chicken with crispy potatoes, simmering pots of thick, spicy soup, lasagne served in steaming, heaped mountains of starchy goodness. Oh, my.

Who am I to resist the call of winter goodies, even if it is only September? Without an oven it can be difficult to embrace winter food in all of its glory, but it’s not impossible. You just need to be a little open-minded and relax some of those stringent aesthetic standards you have. Take courage. Have faith. Trust me, the finished product might look a little strange, but it’s going to taste just wonderful.

The no-bake cottage pie
500g extra lean beef mince
1 onion, finely sliced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup vegetables (optional)
1 beef stock cube
A few sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
Mashed potato, to serve

Brown the mince in a pan with the onion and garlic. If you’ve bought extra lean beef mince, you won’t need to worry about draining it, but if you’re concerned about fat content or if you’ve bought a mince with a fat percentage of 12% or higher, you can drain it and return it to the pan.

Add the thyme and bay leaves to the pan and crumble in the stock cube.

Cube the vegetables and add to the pan. Cover with a lid and allow to cook for ten minutes. Make sure you have a little taste before you turn off the heat. It should be full of meaty flavour, rounded off by herbs and vegetables.

This would ordinarily be the point at which you would scoop it into a baking dish, cover with mashed potato and drag a fork across the top to create beautiful designs. Instead, the no-bake cottage pie is assembled as follows: scoop it onto a plate, freeform, and top with piping hot mashed potato. If you’re worried about how it looks, try using small individual dishes and cover the meat with the potato. If you’re game, try topping it with cauliflower mash instead.

I know, I know, I know that it doesn’t really look like your traditional cottage pie. But at the end of a long day and a freezing trudge home in the rain, this is simply a plateful of warm, loving goodness that reassures you that everything will be all right.

It might not win any beauty contests, but to me this pie is just gorgeous.

A note about vegetables: One of the nicest things about cottage pie is that it’s very forgiving in terms of ingredients. Traditionally, it was made with leftover roasted meat and sometimes appeared with no vegetables at all. These days you often see it with cubed carrot and potato, which you can absolutely use if you prefer, but for me it generally depends on what I have left in the fridge at the end of a week. Be adventurous! Mince can take almost anything you throw at it!