Chicken Not-Soup for the Soul

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The kitchen smelled delicious today because I made soup. I found the recipe for pumpkin soup with Devon cream, crouton, and toasted pumpkin seed garnish on the BBC Good Food website and I decided to try it. Until today I hadn’t made soup since the first year we were married.

It seemed like a good time to try again. After all, in the quarter century we have been married I have learned to make seven or eight different kinds of jam from fruit grown in my own garden; I can bake moist and tasty muffins bursting with luscious fruit; and my cakes are so light and delicious that they rival Balthazar’s. Obviously, I am not completely culinarily hopeless.

So I decided to try soup again. And I had much better results today than I had twenty-seven years ago in the little ecru kitchen with the blue Laura Ashley wallpaper.

When we were first married, I was naïve enough to think that I could learn to cook and it would be fun. Even if some meals turned out . . . not so well . . . we would eat them together cheerfully. Then, as I learned, it would get easier and the food would get better. I have no clue why I thought that would happen but I did; I always had the idea in the back of my mind that I would somehow magically know how to cook, probably because, growing up, both my mother and father consistently cooked gourmet meals, even on school nights.

When the bus-stop conversation turned to last night’s dinner, I was the only third-grader standing there who had eaten escargot and garlic toast points.   Peanut butter and jelly never visited my lunch box; it was filled daily with sliced, homemade date-and-nut bread spread thinly with cream cheese or homemade chicken salad.

My father cooked, too. I recall coming downstairs one Christmas morning to the aroma of Chinese food cooking; he had awakened early and decided to make egg foo yung – from scratch – for brunch.

Holidays were an especially foodie time for my mother. She baked every weekend in December, but not just peanut butter blossoms like other kids’ moms; she made at least seven kinds of cookies – sugary wedding cookies, dark chocolate stained glass windows, sticky molasses balls, buttery pecan sandies, vanilla cookies topped with brightly colored sanding sugar, rum balls, mini pecan pies, and completely decorated gingerbread people to populate her gingerbread houses – plus her favorite Christmas cake, a seven-layer almond flour Viennese torte with dark chocolate ganache tucked in between each wafer-thin layer. At Easter she built three-dimensional lamb cakes and once for my cousin Susan’s birthday, she crafted a freestanding beehive decorated with tiny sugar bees. My mom did all this while working full-time.

Somehow, though, this great love of and skill for cooking seemed to have skipped me.  From childhood onward I displayed no epicurean ability beyond licking the beaters completely clean. When I was in college I lived on fried eggs on toast and Spaghetti-Os; by the time I had my own apartment on 58th Street I had moved only slightly on the gourmet scale to the point where now I ate Cap’n Crunch for dinner.

When I got married, however, learning to cook seemed like the adult thing to do. I decided to start with chicken noodle soup. Everyone loved my grandmother’s soup. Between them, my mother and my grandmother had made it dozens – hundreds – of times, so I expected that I could do it, too. One President’s Day, when I was not at work, I called my mom and asked her how to make chicken soup.

“Open the can.”

“No, I want to make it from scratch.”

I could hear the skepticism in her voice. “You know that you have to touch raw chicken?” she asked.

I shuddered and swallowed. “Yes, I know. I have latex gloves.”

I could hear her trying to stifle a snort of laughter. “Okay. First you have to quarter the chicken.”

“Quarter?”

“Cut it into pieces. Split it down the center then cut each joint separately – thighs, wings, breasts, and drumsticks. Leave the skin on. Put it in a stockpot and cover it with water. Throw in some salt, pepper, celery seed, and celery leaves then cook it.”

“Cover with water,” I mumbled as I wrote her directions on my scratch pad. “Cook . . . on what temperature?”

She sighed. “Put it on high until it boils, then turn it to low and let it simmer until the chicken is cooked, probably about forty-five minutes for an average sized bird.”

“Simmer forty-five minutes . . . “

“Then take the chicken out of the liquid and put it in a bowl until it is cool.”

“In a bowl . . . cool.“

It went on like this until I had transcribed my grandmother’s entire recipe including my mother’s final words, “Then just throw in your noodles.”

I followed the instructions precisely, slicing, chopping, boiling, simmering, shredding, and straining until I realized why Campbell’s was such a big company that it employed all of Camden, New Jersey. Finally, I dumped an entire bag of Light ‘n’ Fluffy egg noodles into the pot, and dropped on the lid. I turned the flame to low and wandered into the living room to read my novel. The aroma was captivating. I couldn’t wait until Jamie arrived home and we could eat.

About an hour later he opened the door and tossed his topcoat into the sofa.

“Mmmmmmm, something smells really good. Someone in the building is making chicken.”

“Yeah, me.”

“You?”

“Yes, me.”

“You cooked chicken?” I nodded but he asked again anyway.  “You cooked?”

I was growing testy. “Yes. I cooked. I cooked one of my grandmother’s recipes. Do you want to taste it?”

“I sure do. It smells terrific.” Jamie pulled off his tie, tossed it on top of his coat and turned to enter the kitchen.

I remained on the sofa. I could hear him clinking plates and utensils, then I heard the metallic tang of the pot lid opening. Expecting him to rave, I was unable to wait another second. “Did you taste it?” I called. “Do you know what it is?”

He exited the kitchen with a soup bowl and a fork. “Yeah, I tasted it,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

I was puzzled at the sight of the fork. “Well, do you like it? Do you know what it is?”

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“But do you know what it is? It’s my grandmother’s chicken noodle soup.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s your grandmother’s chicken noodles.” He forked another serving into his mouth. “There’s no soup.”

“What do you mean?” I jumped from the sofa and looked into his bowl.He was right; it contained noodles but no soup. I ran into the kitchen, lifted the pot lid, and peered inside. It was stuffed with enormously swollen noodles. While it smelled like chicken, it looked like a giant squid had fallen asleep in the bottom of the pot and now lay crumpled like soiled laundry. I was crushed. “What happened?” I cried.

Jamie looked over my shoulder into the pot. “Did you cook the noodles before you put them in the soup?” he asked.

“Of course not. Then they’d be all soft and soggy like Campbell’s are.”

“You don’t cook them that long; but you do cook them. Otherwise you get,” he lifted his bowl as illustration, “chicken noodles. That’s what Campbell’s does,” he added helpfully.

I was crushed. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Shit.”

Jamie put his arm around me and pulled me into his chest. “It tastes good. It tastes great.”

My voice was muffled. “ But I spent all damned day on this. And now it’s ruined.”

“It’s not. It’s good; it’s just not soup.”

“Not soup. Great. I made chicken not-soup.”

My disappointment lingered for months. I stopped cooking completely, which wasn’t a problem since Jamie loves to cook and is excellent at it. But I felt like a failure. So when I saw pumpkin soup on a restaurant menu I decided to find a recipe and try to make it. It turned out to be fun – I even got to use my little red stick blender as the last step.

But best of all, it tasted great. So now I can make jam, muffins, cakes, and fresh creamy pumpkin soup. It makes a nice alternative for when Jamie is out of town and I don’t want to eat Cap’n Crunch.

BBC Good Food Pumpkin Soup

4 T olive oil

2 finely chopped medium onions

2.5 pounds peeled, deseeded, and chunked pumpkin

25 oz vegetable or chicken stock

I cup Devon (or heavy) cream

Handful of raw pumpkin seeds

Heat 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan; then gently cook the onions for 5 minutes, until soft. Add pumpkin to the pan, cooking for 10 – 20 minutes stirring occasionally until it starts to soften and turn golden. (It may take longer if your chunks are large.)

Pour stock into the pan, then season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 10 minutes until the pumpkin is very soft. Pour the cream into the pan, bring back to the boil, then purée with a hand blender. For an extra-velvety consistency you can now push the soup through a fine sieve into another pan. The soup can now be frozen for up to 2 months.

While the soup is cooking, heat the remaining2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan. Add the handful of pumpkin seeds to the pan, then cook for a few minutes more until they are toasted.  Season with salt and pepper if desired.

Serve soup with a dollop of Devon cream (or a drizzle of heavy cream) and a scattering of croutons and pumpkin seeds on top.

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