The ‘bad cold’ bug hit my family early this year.
It visits us every year, regrettably, with the precise regularity of a termite inspection. One of my daughters usually brings it home from the Petri dish we all know as school in January, mercifully after the holidays, and within a week and a half we all fall prey. It’s the one and only downside of having school-age children, whom I consider to be just cuter and more lovable versions of petri dishes.
As I write this, I am hearing my husband cough, my older daughter sneeze and my youngest sigh in tortured resignation as she attempts once again to blow her stuffy nose in vain. We are a pitiable lot.
It is a perfect time, as I blot my watery eyes to see the computer screen, to adhere to the wise words of late German playwright Frank Wedekind, who said ‘any fool can have bad luck; the art consists in knowing how to exploit it.’ I’ll say. When I find myself, and my entire family, giving Rudolph a run for his red nose money, I bring out the big guns and begin turbo-charged soup therapy. In doing so, I bypass thin-broth chicken soups altogether and go straight to the poster child of food-as-medicine elixirs: penicillin soup.
When I was young and foolish, I thought calling chicken broth ‘penicillin’ was just a savvy marketing ploy thought up by butchers, who could then sell us their stockpiles of soup bones and free up their refrigerators. I know better now. I’ve come to understand what sets penicillin apart; what makes it ‘liquid gold.’
It’s not because it is made with a loved one’s caring heart and soul – as many websites celebrating chicken soup suggest – but because its broth is prepared with an abundance of chicken bones. Soup bones too. Not as sentimental an ingredient as love, I’ll grant you, but absolutely foundational in making a strong, hearty and nourishing broth. Why? Because gently simmering bones for hours turns the collagen in their connective tissues into gelatin, and it is the gelatin that infuses broth with medicinal sustenance, density, and that satisfying depth of flavor I like to refer to as ‘the bass note.’
Best of all, collagen is predominantly found in ‘odd’ chicken parts and in tougher cuts of beef, which means it can be obtained inexpensively. Visualize chicken feet indecorously jutting out of a stockpot, in real witch’s brew fashion. That’s what I’m talking about. For those not interested in feeling like a character in a nursery rhyme, chicken necks and backs can be used instead and, in fact, are a lot easier to find in the meat departments of most supermarkets.
Things to remember when making penicillin broth to ensure it really pops:
- Do not boil your stock, but always simmer it gently. Boiling it causes the fat in the broth to emulsify into the liquid, giving it an unfortunate murky appearance.
- Skim off the foam that rises to the top of the pot once the broth begins to boil. It’s just cooked protein and won’t harm us, but it too will make the broth look murky. Yuck.
- Season every step of the way. Since each ingredient, whether it be a chicken thigh or a carrot, will lend flavor to your broth, you want to make sure it is adding its best. That can only happen if you add a little salt every time you add a batch of ingredients in the pot. Salt, like gelatin, is pretty magical.
Once cooked, penicillin broth becomes the quintessential building block of many great dishes, like soups of course, but also braises, chicken dumplings, and risottos. As Auguste Escoffier, the great chef and culinary writer responsible for simplifying French cooking methods, once said: ‘Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. . . without it nothing can be done.’
I don’t think he was thinking of curing colds when he uttered those words, but then again, he did use the word ‘nothing.’
So…before we begin, I will share that making this almost medicinal soup requires a two-step process of 1.) first creating the broth, and then 2.) making the soup. It therefore requires a good chunck of – mostly passive – time to prepare and cook. What it takes away in time, it gives back tenfold in deeply savory flavor, decadent rich color, and sustenance.
making penicillin soup with matza balls
Remove excess skin and fat from 5 lbs. of skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs (about 8 or 9), 12 chicken necks (or 4 chicken feet), and 4 chicken backs with kitchen scissors.
Here…look at these chicken thighs. They look pretty good, right?
Well, let’s look under the hood.
Uhhh…that’s just a little too much fat for me. I want the flavor of the meat of course…not excess fat…so let’s remove it. As it is, the chicken pieces are still going to have plenty of fat anyway, why give our soup more than that?
Also, a lot of fat lurks beneath excess skin, so let’s remove it and we don’t have to worry about it. See this little flap on the bottom?
Let’s cut it off.
Not to belabor the point, but see what I mean?
A little nip takes care of that.
And after our little ‘clean up’ job, this is what the chicken thighs look like.
And here’s under the hood.
Much better. Which means we are now ready to proceed.
Heat a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stock pot on medium heat for a few minutes and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. As the oil heats up, dry each piece of meat with paper towels. In order to brown them properly, they need to have as little surface moisture as possible. Once dried, salt and pepper each thigh. Once the oil begins to swirl but is not yet smoking, add them to the pan, skin-side down. Adjust the heat so that you hear a happy sizzle. Cook for 5 minutes without moving them.
Flip and cook the other side for another 5 minutes. Place thighs on a platter. Repeat the process with the remaining thighs.
Salt and pepper the chicken necks and add to the pot. They are not large and should all fit in the pan. Again, make sure you hear that happy sizzle. Cook for 5 minutes on one side, flip, and cook for an additional 5 minutes on the other side. Transfer to platter with the cooked chicken thighs. Repeat this same exact process with the chicken backs.
Add 3 stalks of celery, 2 carrots, 1 leek, 8 green onions or (1 Spanish onion) – all cut up in large pieces -along with 3 garlic cloves – smashed and with peel still on – to the pot. Cook for 12-15 minutes or so, until browned.
By the way, I make a slit in the leek before washing it to ensure that it has been liberated from any embedded kernels of dirt. I do so by cutting half-way through the leek, like this.
Which then allows the leek to literally fan out.
We can then hold it under water and rinse it thoroughly. It helps to hold it firmly on the opposite end so that the leek doesn’t fall apart as it is washed. Then chop it up, and we are good to go.
Once all the veggies have been prepped and added to the pot, cook them for 12-15 minutes or so, until browned. By the way, you will see brown bits, called fond, at the bottom of the pot from cooking the meat. Yummy stuff, as it adds concentrated savory flavor to the broth.
Once the veggies have browned, add a half cup of water to loosen the fond. Scrape the bottom of the pot well.
Add all the chicken pieces back into the pot and add 11 1/2 cups of water, along with a handful of fresh parsley (including stems!), 2 bay leaves, 3 tablespoons of tomato paste, and 10 black peppercorns.
Bring to a boil and then turn the heat down to a simmer. With a wide spoon, skim off the foam that comes up to the top. Doing so will help create a nice, clear stock. Cook for 2-4 hours, depending on how much time you have. The longer you cook it, the more flavorful the stock becomes.
Once cooled, strain the stock using a large fine sieve into another large stock pot.
Pick out the chicken thighs and remove their skin and bones to isolate the meat. Set the thigh meat aside to add back to the strained broth. Discard all the other meat. Makes enough broth for 8 servings of soup.
We now have super strong broth that’s ready to be turned into a heartening soup, so let’s bring this baby home.
If you are interested in eating matzah balls, and don’t want to make them from scratch and have to deal with melted chicken fat, you too can be an embarrassment to true matzah ball lovers everywhere and just use a box mix. Long gone are the days when I lived in New York City and could revel in the real deal at one of many fantastic and satisfying Jewish delis (most closed now, heartbreakingly). Now…I make do.
Which requires mixing 4 eggs and 1/2 cup of vegetable oil. Here’s my little one helping out.
Beat well. Add both pouches in a 4.5 oz. box of matzah ball mix. Mix well.
Allow to rest for at least 30 minutes. Then, with wet hands (to prevent the batter from sticking to your skin) shape into balls slightly smaller than golf balls.
Bring the pot of penicillin stock to a low boil. Add the matzah balls, meat of the chicken thigh pieces, 5 carrots and 4 celery stalks (chopped into large pieces)
and 1 tablespoon of Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base. No. I don’t get any money for recommending this brand. Sigh. I just like it.
Mix well. Cook for 20 minutes, until the carrots and celery are tender.
Taste for seasoning and adjust by adding salt and pepper as necessary. Place a ½ cup of warm rice or egg noodles – or 3 warm matzah balls – into each individual soup bowl. Ladle the broth into each bowl and top with fresh or dried dill to taste. Makes 4 servings, with plenty of broth and chicken thigh meat left over to have the soup again in a day or two. Just make more matzah balls.