November 17, 2018

Soup DNA: The Secret Behind the Best Chicken Soup

Soup is the culinary equivalent of love. I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I fiercely stand behind it.

I once read that Chinese families used to keep a pot of soup on the stove — for generations. They would top it off all day with vegetable and meat scraps, bones and herbs, and keep it on the stove simmering away ad infinitum. This means that every time they ate soup, they ate a part of their ancestry. Imagine always having your grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s soup DNA in there nourishing you.

As a half-Ashkenazi Jew, the concept of a perpetual pot of soup on the stove is very appealing. After all, have you ever met an Ashkenazi who didn’t begin his or her meal with soup? This hardy stock of folks historically has been raised on hardy stock — literally.  In the frigid winters of Eastern Europe, a nourishing and comforting bowl of soup was the difference between life and death.

One day, on a trip to visit family in Israel, I was invited to lunch by one of my mother’s Romanian cousins. I walked into the house and was almost struck speechless by an incredible smell. A nearly visceral image of my grandmother came to mind, and I rushed into the kitchen to see what was cooking.

“Leustean,” my cousin Beatrice said, laughing. “I put it in the chicken soup. Your grandmother used it — all Romanians do.”

And there it was, that special smell and flavor I had been chasing for my entire life summed up in a word I’d never heard.

“Leustean?” I asked, sticking a spoon in the pot to taste.

“Leustean is Romanian for lovage,” my smarty pants uncle chimed in.

I called my mother to tell her that I had finally found a clue to safta’s soup. We ordered a pound of dry lovage and added it to our chicken soup. Suddenly, my mother’s face lit up.

“Leustean,” she said. “I’ve been chasing this taste for years.”

Since the day my grandmother reached down through the great divide to remind me about lovage, I’ve never made chicken soup without it. Lovage, an herb from the dill family, is what is used to flavor bouillon cubes. Surprisingly, even though it’s one of the most ubiquitous taste profiles, most of us don’t have a name for it, and I’ve yet to find a customer who can identify it.

So now that you know the secret to great chicken soup, here is my “recipe” for chicken stock. This is the quintessential Jewish mother’s remedy to everything that ails you — from a cold to heartbreak.

If there is one thing you learn to do in the kitchen, learn to make stock. It will fill your home with the aroma of your ancestors, it’s a bowl of vitamins in disguise, and it will earn you a lifetime of accolades from admirers who can’t quite figure out why your chicken soup tastes so special. And if you have kids, this just doubles the incentive because there is never a time when I make chicken soup that I don’t hold my mother and my grandmother in my heart and mind the entire time.

If that’s not love in a bowl, I don’t know what is.

Bones of at least 3 chickens or 1 whole chicken
1 head garlic, unpeeled
3 carrots, washed, peeled and cut into chunks
8 ribs of celery, washed and roughly chopped
2 parsnips, washed, peeled and cut into chunks
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 whole celery root
2 large yellow onions, unpeeled, washed
and cut into quarters
1 small green pepper, washed, deseeded
and cut into quarters
Handful parsley stems
Handful cilantro stems
Handful dill stems
Handful lovage stems (or 2 tablespoons
dry lovage)
6 whole black peppercorns
1 inch fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 hot green pepper left whole (optional)

Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Sugar to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped leaves of parsley
and dill, for garnish

Put all ingredients into a large pot. Cover all with cold water and turn the heat to high. Skim the scum that rises to the top of the pot as it heats and discard.

At the first boil, lower the heat to a slow simmer and partially cover pot for a minimum of 2 hours — 4 is better. If you used a whole chicken, feel free to remove the meat after a few hours and leave the bones in the pot to continue simmering; that’s where the flavor comes from, anyway.

And there it was, that special smell and flavor I had been chasing for my entire life summed up in a word I’d never heard.

When your stock is done, turn off the heat and let the liquid cool until you can handle it. Take a large sieve and put it over another pot and strain out all the solids. At this point, you should have a dark, yellow, fragrant stock and a heap of mushy vegetables and bones in the strainer. If you didn’t remove your chicken and you enjoy stringy boiled chicken — I sometimes do — then pull the chicken out and keep it in the refrigerator to add back into the stock later. If not, feed this resulting mush to your pets; they will enjoy it much more than you will. (Warning: Dogs should not eat onions or garlic, and never give a dog poultry bones.)

Strain the stock one more time. (The French strain 7 times, but I don’t. The clearer you want your stock, the more you strain.)

Leave your stock in the fridge to jell overnight. The stock will separate and the fat will rise to the top in a hard yellow layer. This is the gelatin and collagen from the bones and marrow of the chicken, and it’s great for your hair, nails and skin, and part of the reason that chicken soup is a wonder drug for the flu. Keep this golden schmaltz and use it to cook rice or vegetables or to fry latkes or sweet potato fritters.

You can put some stock in the freezer in jars or continue on and make any type of soup you fancy: lentil, split pea, black bean or tomato. Do you want to make chicken soup? Add back some chopped raw carrots, chicken breast and some snips of fresh herbs — and maybe even some matzo balls or noodles. Important to note, this is unseasoned stock.

When you are ready to serve, be sure to season your stock with salt, black pepper and a touch of sugar to taste.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

Broth of a nation

When you're tired, sick, and grumpy, coughing, sneezing, with a stuffy head and scratchy throat, there's nothing more comforting than a hot, steaming bowl of homemade chicken soup. 

There must be something to it because chicken soup is common fare worldwide. The poor, who can't often afford more expensive cuts of meat, can usually afford chicken. In agrarian societies, chickens take little space – not like cows or other larger animals. 

In the West, chicken soup is often associated with Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. In the poor Jewish shtetls of Eastern Europe as well as among poor Ukrainian and Russian peasants, chicken was the only affordable meat. Every part of the chicken was used in a host of creative dishes. Soup was made by boiling chicken parts or bones with water with vegetables and flavorings, often adding noodles to the finished dish. Parts of the chicken cooked for soup could be re-used in other traditional dishes, such as knishes. The soup dish even made it to traditional holiday feasts, like chicken soup with matzoh balls for Passover. 

Throughout the world, chicken soup is believed to help overcome the general malaise of colds and flu. This “Jewish penicillin” is also “Belgian penicillin.” In Greece, avgolemono, a soup with chicken broth, rice, eggs, and lemon juice is served at the first sign of the sniffles. Chicken soup is a common cold remedy in Portugal, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the United States, China, and Korea, where it is made with ginseng, garlic, and ginger it is believed to prevent illness, not just cure it. 

Soup provides warmth to a feverish, chilled body; offers easily absorbed nutrients, and hydrates too. Steam from the hot liquid relieves sinus pressure, acting as a natural decongestant, and warm soup creates mucus that soothes the throat. While there is no conclusive proof that chicken soup helps when you're sick, sitting on the couch wrapped up in a soft, warm blankets and sipping salty chicken broth does make you feel better. 

Historical records show that chicken soup has been used by cold and flu sufferers for millennia. In the 10th century, the Persian physician Avicenna described its curative powers. Two centuries later, the Jewish scholar Maimonides recommended it for convalescents and wrote that it “has virtue in rectifying corrupted humours”.

Our grandmothers knew the benefits of chicken soup as good medicine, and today, modern medical research is validating these claims. Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, Florida confirmed that soup does, indeed, relieve nasal congestion better than plain hot water. Other scientists believe that the curative power of chicken soup comes from cysteine, an amino acid in chicken skin.

Probably the most conclusive study to date, however, comes from Nebraska, where Dr. Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary specialist at the University of Nebraska's Medical Centre, tested chicken soup and found that it significantly reduced inflammation in the throat and nose due to colds or flu. Titled 'Chicken Soup Inhibits Neutrophil Chemotaxis In Vitro,' his research was published in the Oct. 17 2000 issue of Chest, the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians. 

Although they're not yet completely understood, we know that colds and flu result from viral infection that causes inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. 'Chicken soup might have an anti-inflammatory activity, namely the inhibition of neutrophil migration,' says Rennard. Neutrophils are the white blood cells which defend the body against infection. 

While the specific ingredients that make soup an effective cold remedy have not been identified, scientists believe a combination of ingredients is responsible for soup's curative powers. 'All vegetables and the soup had activity I think it's the concoction,' says Dr. Rennard 

Nutritious, easy to digest, simple to prepare, and relatively inexpensive, chicken soup can be a simple broth or a hearty meal. Accompanied by wholegrain bread and salad, chicken soup has enough substance and protein to make a healthy supper meal. There are a myriad of variations: chicken noodle, chicken rice, or chicken vegetable, each seasoned with an assortment of herbs and spices. The French serve consomm seasoned with bay leaves, garlic, fresh thyme and dry white wine. Ginger, garlic, scallions, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil make a Chinese soup; dill, parsley and root vegetables bring Eastern European flavors; cumin, laurel and rice make Portuguese canja; Colombian ajiaco includes corn, avocado, capers, potatoes and the herb guascas, and is served with a dollop of sour cream.

Some recipes are quick and easy to prepare; others demand longer cooking and are suitable for crock pots. It is best to bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook a little while. Longer cooking times allow more calcium and other minerals to leach out of the bones, but vegetables cooked too long can become tasteless and soggy. This is why I find it best to cook the meat and seasonings for a while, then add vegetables shortly before serving. Fresh herbs should also be added at the end for maximum flavor. For a lower fat version, chill the soup and skim the layer of congealed fat from the top. This also results in a clearer broth. 

Chicken Soup 


1 quart water or broth

1 – 2 pounds chicken pieces (wings, necks, backs, thighs)

1 teaspoon salt 

3-4 whole grains allspice

3-4 peppercorns

2 bay leaves 

2 potatoes

2 carrots 

2 stalks celery

1 wedge cabbage

1 turnip

2 onions

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon sage

1 teaspoon rosemary

1/4 cup fresh minced parsley


Bring water with chicken pieces and seasonings (salt, allspice, peppercorns, bay leaves) to a boil; lower heat to simmer. Cook about one hour or longer, until meat is falling off the bones. 

While broth is cooking, prepare vegetables and cut into desired lengths. Remove chicken. Add vegetables and cook until tender; do not overcook. 

Remove bones, cut up the chicken meat and return to the soup.

Season with herbs and adjust seasonings, adding salt and pepper to your taste. 

Serve with a dollop of sour cream or some grated cheese on top, if you wish, or with croutons sprinkled in, or just “as is” with wholegrain bread and a salad.

Option: omit potatoes and add cooked pasta or rice at the end. 

Oriental Chicken Soup 


1 quart chicken broth or stock (preferably home-made) 

1/2 cup rice wine or cooking sherry

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 cup rice

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 teaspoons cooking oil 

4 ounces shitake mushrooms

1 bunch scallions (white and light green parts) – 6 or 7

1 small head Napa cabbage (about 3/4 pound), coarsely shredded

1/3 pound Chinese pod peas, trimmed and sliced diagonally into thirds

1 cup trimmed bean sprouts

2 – 3 Tablespoons soy sauce

1 – 2 teaspoons sesame oil

Lime wedges and freshly sliced red chili, to serve


In a large pot, combine chicken broth, wine, ginger, garlic and red pepper; bring to a boil over high heat. Add rice and chicken; return to the boil, lower heat to simmer, cook about 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked through, turn off the heat. Remove the chicken breasts and set aside to cool slightly. 

While broth and soup is cooking, prepare the vegetables. Remove root ends from scallions and slice thin. Wash and shred the cabbage. Trim and slice the snap peas and trim the bean sprouts. 

Heat oil in skillet until hot; reduce heat to medium, add mushrooms; cook 3-4 minutes until tender. Add shredded cabbage half the scallions, cook and stir for about a minute more. Add to soup, along with the snap peas, bean sprouts, sesame oil and soy sauce. Simmer just half a minute more and remove from heat. Shred or dice cooked chicken and return to soup pot. Adjust seasonings; you may wish to add a bit more hot pepper, powdered ginger or garlic powder. Sprinkle with remaining sliced scallions and serve immediately. Serve with fresh lime and chili on the side.

How to make perfect matzah balls [VIDEO]

The tips in the video can be used with any recipe. However, if you’d like to include a Matzo Ball recipe, I’ve included one below:


6 Eggs
1 cup Oil
1 cup Water
½ tsp Baking Powder
1 pinch Salt and Pepper
18 oz (or 500 gram) fine Matzo Meal


1. Mix all the ingredients with a fork. Adding the matzo meal gradually until the mixture is thick but not too hard. Add more matzo meal if too soft.
2. Let harden in fridge for an hour.
3. With wet hands form into about 60 balls and drop into boiling water or boiling soup. Boil for 15 min.

Visit for more kosher recipes.  Rate and review the matzah ball recipe here.

RECIPE: Judy’s Passover Chicken Soup

Judy’s Passover Chicken Soup
(Click here for the full article)

3 5-pound chickens or 2 3-pound chickens, trussed

2 pounds chicken necks and gizzards, tied in cheesecloth

4 large onions, diced

1 medium leek, sliced into 1-inch pieces

2 to 3 cups thinly sliced carrots (16 small carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces)

2 to 3 cups thinly sliced celery with tops (5 stalks celery with tops, cut into 1-inch pieces)

3 medium parsnips, thinly sliced

12 sprigs fresh parsley

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

(The Fluffiest Matzah Balls recipe follows)

In a large, heavy Dutch oven or pot, place trussed chickens, necks and gizzards, onions, leek, carrots, celery, parsnips and enough water to cover. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Using a large spoon, skim off the scum that rises to the top. Cover, leaving the lid ajar, reduce heat to low and simmer for one hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Uncover and simmer 30 minutes longer.

With two large (slotted) spoons, carefully remove the chickens from the soup and transfer to a large platter. Let soup cool to room temperature, then chill. Skim off fat that hardens on the surface and discard.

Makes 12 servings.

Project Chicken Soup brings comfort by the bowl

The food is superb! You can taste the love and care.

I want to thank you for providing me with a beacon for my faith in good people.

I do so love the joy, peace and happiness your organization brings to my life. Thank you.

The notes are short, direct and never signed. They come from all over Los Angeles, from the South Los Angeles tenements to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Their authors differ in age, ethnicity and religion, but have at least one thing in common: They all live with HIV/AIDS.

Their gratitude is directed at Project Chicken Soup, an L.A.-based nonprofit whose volunteers gather twice a month to cook nutritious, kosher meals and deliver them, free of charge, to the doors of clients across the city. The organization’s goal is to provide nechama, or comfort, to those in need.

“When you are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, you often withdraw within yourself, and sometimes your family and friends might have a negative reaction to you,” said Paul Chitlik, president of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup. “What we do is we show that they are still part of the Jewish community by delivering kosher food that might remind them of their families in a better time. What Jew doesn’t feel comfort when having a bowl of chicken soup?”

For those whose families live too far away to care for them, he added, the group’s door-to-door service also offers a welcome chance for human contact.

As several clients testify, the nourishment volunteers deliver is more than stomach-deep: Your services feed my soul with love as well as keep me from hunger.

The experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers themselves, many said, some of whom have returned faithfully every other Sunday, year after year.

Among the 40 to 45 volunteers who typically show up each session are retired grandparents, high school students from places like Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall and college students from UCLA, which once sent their entire women’s volleyball team to lend a hand in the kitchen. Synagogue groups and b’nai mitzvah boys and girls work side by side with charity-minded locals of all races and creeds, who just want to help.

“Cooking food for people is the most direct form of community service you can do,” Chitlik said. “You cook, that day it gets to the house — still warm — and people eat it. You provide something that people need and that they will use right away. It’s very satisfying.”

That’s how Century City resident Eve Lasensky feels, who, at 89, has been cooking with Project Chicken Soup twice a month for the past 15 years.

Lasensky doesn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, but she wanted to contribute to the cause in a more hands-on way than by simply donating money.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “It’s all wholesome food, and it’s all done with such love. Everybody there does it because they really want to be there. It makes my day.”

Clients have noticed the enthusiasm of people like Lasensky:

I’m so glad that there are wonderful volunteers like you. You are a Godsend!

The idea for Project Chicken Soup first began to simmer in 1989, when a group of volunteers calling themselves Nechama started to prepare and distribute baskets of kosher food to people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Chitlik, who has been with the nonprofit in different capacities for the last decade, said the group formed to fill a need in the community — organizations like Project Angel Food and Meals on Wheels weren’t delivering kosher fare.

“We saw that there was a gap there, because there was a significant number of Jewish people with HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We saw a hole in services, and we were the only ones who filled that.”

Still the only regional provider of kosher meals to the HIV/AIDS community, Project Chicken Soup now gathers at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue and cooks for about 120 clients per session, with a waiting list to boot. Last year, the group involved more than 1,200 volunteers who spent over 10,500 hours preparing and delivering nearly 8,000 meals.

Recipients don’t have to be Jewish to qualify for meal deliveries, which usually include three complete entrées, two 32-ounce containers of soup (one always being the requisite chicken soup), two vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a breakfast package and a week’s supply of nutritional supplements.

Special holiday menus also feature seasonal treats. On Purim, volunteers bake hamantaschen. For Passover, they kosher the kitchen and deliver gefilte fish.

The group’s pervasive emphasis on comfort — both physical and spiritual — has seemingly struck a chord. Some clients write in to voice their appreciation for a service they can’t do for themselves: I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated receiving my first delivery last Sunday. The food was really great and since I have little energy and failing health, it was a real treat.

Others write to share personal victories: I am in a much better position now both with health and finances and I’ve decided to leave the program. I cannot thank you enough for your warmth and dedication.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Jews in Los Angeles live with HIV/AIDS, Chitlik said, since the county doesn’t keep track of religious information. But he noted that the Jewish community in recent years has taken steps to be more inclusive to this population.

“I think the community has opened its arms to help people come back,” he said. “At first, 20 or 30 years ago when the epidemic started, there were a lot of taboos around it. But now, almost everybody in the community has been touched by it — you know somebody who died, something like that. It’s been personalized.”

Project Chicken Soup has been recognized for its role in promoting “food as medicine” for people living with a life-threatening illness. Last summer, the group was chosen from 45 organizations nominated by members of Congress to receive the national 2007 Victory Against Hunger Award. Project Chicken Soup was nominated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

Mix it Once, Mix it Twice

Ask anyone who cooks chicken soup what makes it taste so delicious, and the answer will likely be: “A pinch of this, a dash of that.” But no more. Now, amateur cooks 18 and older from around the country will have to spell out their exact ingredients if they hope to have their creation chosen as Best Chicken Soup in America and win a trip for two to Israel.

Chicken Soup Challenge, sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), in conjunction with the eighth annual Shabbat Across America, will be judged by chef Jeff Nathan, owner of Abigael’s kosher restaurant in New York. The five finalists will be flown to New York Feb. 24 –Soup-er Tuesday — to prepare their entrees in the restaurant’s kosher kitchen.

“I have my crew make the ones that sound interesting,” said Nathan, who also hosts the TV program, “New Jewish Cuisine.” “We’re looking for ease and eye appeal. Flavor is a big part, and I want it to be semi-simplistic.”

Nathan said he would even consider holding a parent-child cooking contest in the future to promote the meaning of Shabbat.

“A big part is spending time with family,” Nathan noted. “It’s not just about davening, but about doing things together.”

Creators of the cook-off chose chicken soup, because, as they said, food links Jews of all backgrounds.

The cook-off complements the March 12 Shabbat Across America, where more than 700 synagogues open their doors to tens of thousands of unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews.

“Food is an integral part of Jewish life,” noted Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, who founded NJOP in 1987 and serves as its director. “Through [this contest] we hope to reinforce the notion that Jewish life can be fun — and delicious.”

And as any cook — including Nathan — will tell you, the most important ingredient is lots of TLC.

For rules and submission guidelines, visit