My Mother-in-Law’s Chicken Soup is a Tie that Heals and Binds
Note: It's starting to get chilly and what better way to warm up and ward off colds and flu than a steaming bowl of chicken soup? A different version of this blog with the same recipe appeared recently on the website Eat, Darling, Eat--Mothers and Daughters, Stories and Recipes (eatdarlingeat.net).
It’s a Monday morning, and my elder son calls. He’s coughing and complains of a sore throat. He’s about to get on an airplane for a business trip. “I think I’m getting a cold,” he says, as he coughs again. He has done the required COVID-19 testing to make sure he does not have the dreaded virus.
“Remember, you have allergies. They could be acting up,” I say in my nurturing, motherly tone. “In the meantime, you should drink, drink, drink. Flush out your system. Hot water, maybe add some lemon and honey, hot tea, orange juice. Take whatever over the counter stuff you think might tamp down the cold symptoms,” I add.
He hesitates but has another idea. “Do you think you could bring me some of your homemade chicken soup? That always seems to do the trick.”
This is not his first request for the soup. I’m shy about complimenting a lot of my repertoire, but know I make fantastic chicken soup, a recipe handed down to me by my late mother-in-law, Molly.
Any time her son, my late husband, our kids or I was sick, she’d be at our doorstep, soup in hand in a big container and a cheerful smile. There was some scientific proof to her recipe. (I read that chicken soup contains an amino acid that thins mucus in the lungs which reduces inflammation and reduces congestion.)
Since my mother approached cooking as cautiously as one might approach an electric fence, my three siblings and I never learned how to cook from her. However, she taught me how us how to set a perfect table, proper manners, to appreciate and love the arts especially theater, classical music, opera and ballet and how to be a whiz at board games such as scrabble and Monopoly.
When I got married, my mother didn’t impart how to cook. She didn’t give me cookbooks or cookware, most of which I received as shower and wedding presents, but one important message that resonated was how to handle money. She was adamant, “Keep your finances separate from your husband’s funds,” she implored. It was a lesson she learned as a suburban housewife whose husband was the sole breadwinner. She had to ask my father for money or get his permission to buy anything she wanted, whether clothing, artwork, jewelry or some tchotchke.
I followed her advice which was fine with my late husband, who made much more than I did and handed the family finances and investments. I had my salary on the side which came in handy toward a down payment when we bought our first home.
Although my mother and Molly were competitive and often engaged in verbal jousting about the grandkids or their health, both were attractive and had style. However, the one area where my mother deferred to Molly, was cooking. My mother had so little interest in it that she never cared to learn any of Molly’s cooking techniques. This was the one arena where Molly could outshine my mother who was fine with that.
We all did for we craved Molly’s soup, along with other dishes, flavors and ingredients. She loved cooking because her mother did so. It was a way to show her eight children love. Molly, as one of five girls, was expected to help prepare meals. Once she married and had children, it was simply part of her essence as a mother and housewife to feed her family… as well as her large circle of friends. She also believed that food was medicine and lived by that credo until she died at age 98, still in fairly good health, until she fell and broke her arm. Maybe, it was all that chicken soup that kept her well.
Molly never used a recipe. If I asked her how much of this and that to use, she couldn’t tell me. I learned by watching and doing so in her large but sparse eat-in kitchen, which is how we got to know each other well. In fact, watching her cook was the tie that connected us. We’d discuss how brushing butter and kitchen bouquet or soy sauce on a turkey while it roasts gives it a nice brown crust. Stuffing the cavity with lemon, onions, oranges and various spices such as rosemary or thyme masks the “gamey” flavor. She taught me the benefit of adding ketchup and tons of dill to chicken soup. “The ketchup gives it a rich yellow color—and does not affect the taste,” she would instruct. “The dill enhances the taste of the chicken broth.”
From time to time, Molly threw in a marrow bone for color and a richer flavor. “See what I’m doing?” she’d ask to make sure I was paying attention.
Then one day, I made her soup. It was a hit with my three children and husband. And when I took some to Molly for approval, she gave a thumbs up. Even the matzah balls were perfect, light and fluffy, the way our family likes them. Soon, I became the anointed family chicken soup maker (with matzoh balls and rice) for all the Jewish holidays and special family events. At that point, Molly almost totally stopped cooking. Her husband died, she had sold her home and moved into a tiny apartment and finally senior housing, all with ill-equipped kitchens.
I took up the mantel making her versions of brisket, roast turkey, one pan chicken with veggies and spices, vegetable soups and more, all recipes she also shared by telling me rather than doing at her advanced age. She never baked, however, because that would mean following a recipe, something she was unwilling to do because it wasn’t creative or fun for her.
Fast forward…my soup has become popular, especially after my son posted a photo on Facebook a few years ago that he was sick, and his mother showed up with chicken soup. It was a cure, he touted.
Soon, requests came pouring in. When my son’s boss didn’t feel well, he sheepishly called and asked, “Mom, do you mind making D. some of your fabulous chicken soup? She likes matzoh balls and rice in it, too.” I’ve had subsequent requests from his boss and even received a thank-you note saying, “This is the best chicken soup I’ve ever had in New York City,” she wrote. Quite a compliment.
Chicken soup is soothing, easy to make but can be a mess with so many ingredients. So, although it is 90 degrees and terribly humid outside, I stand in a hot kitchen to make some for my son before he leaves town. I get out the soup pot that weighs almost as much as I do. Fresh Direct has delivered the ingredients.
I drop all into the soup pot, let it simmer, make the matzoh balls (that’s what my son likes best). It simmers for three hours. I put the soup in a couple of plastic containers and schlep it down the street to his apartment.
The day before my son is ready to leave town, he calls to say he’s feeling better. I like to think my soup did the trick. It always was magic in its healing properties, not only in terms of bonding with my mother-in-law but also with family members and friends with whom I share my recipe.
I will soon put up a simmering pot before Rosh Hashanah when the members of my family living in New York City will sit down together to celebrate the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown on September 6. We will all toast Molly.
Molly’s Chicken Soup
Whole 3 ½ to 4-pound chicken (cut up (use a kosher hen if it’s available for the richest flavor)
Rinse chicken parts in a colander and thoroughly cover with salt and pepper
Put in a soup pot and add enough water to cover the chicken
Bring it to a boil
Then, put in the rest of the ingredients:
Half a bag of baby carrots
2 or 3 stalks of celery
1 stalk of fennel and a handful of some of the fuzzy greenery at the top
1 white or yellow onion cut in quarters
2 garlic cloves cut in half
4 chicken bouillon cubes
About 3/4ths of a cup of fresh dill
3 or 4 squeezes of ketchup for color
Let the soup simmer for at least two to three hours uncovered and skim the fat off the top periodically
When it’s ready, take out the chicken…..strain the vegetables and remove the carrots to put in the broth
Put the mushy cooked veggies from the bottom of the pot in a blender and add no more than a cup to the broth for a heartier and more flavorful stock (Full disclosure, this is a trick I learned from a St. Louis friend.)
Cut the white meat chicken into cubes and add to the broth Refrigerate the dark meat—thighs and legs to eat later with horseradish.
Make the fluffy matzah balls. I use a mix so follow the instructions on the box. For oil, I use olive oil. It’s so easy, or make rice or noodles, which some prefer.
And voila! Soup’s on.