A couple Saturdays ago, I found myself on the couch, curled up with my cat, Loulou, reading cookbooks. The sky had been sheathed in grey for days and I was fending off a beast of a headcold. Beau had packed himself off to the movies.
While paging through the stellar My Portugal by George Mendes, we happened upon a recipe for chicken soup. Juicy shreds of chicken floating in a beautiful golden broth, enriched with orzo and flecked with parsley, mint, dill and chives. Inspired by that gorgeous bowl of soup, I decided it was a chicken soup sort of day and that Loulou and I would be devoting our afternoon to cooking a pot of that time-tested cure-all.
Too sluggish to head into uncharted territory, I closed My Portugal and gathered the ingredients for my own chicken soup.
This simple soup changes with the seasons, agreeably accepting whatever’s fresh at the market. Asparagus and English peas in the spring. Snap beans and herb pesto in the summer. Hearty greens in the fall and winter months.
I am horribly (superstitiously, irrationally) averse to any sort of soggy starch in my soup, which means I often stick to hearty grains like farro and barley. If a starch is prone to mushiness, I cook it separately and stir it into bowls of steaming soup just before serving.
While rooting around in the pantry for a sturdy starch to add along with the beet tops I found in the fridge, I remembered that my great grandma Phoebe made chicken soup with fat, homemade egg noodles that were impervious to bloat and sog. And that I had inherited her dog-eared kitchen handbook, The American Woman’s Cookbook, published in 1946, and a thick bundle of her handwritten recipes.
Unlike Milly, Phoebe was neither sweet nor grandmotherly. She had an eagle eye for dirty fingernails and improperly tamed curls, and never failed to call these (and other) oversights to one’s attention. She started her family in 1930s Chicago, the young wife of an irascible and alcoholic mechanic. I always felt that this experience, living through the crucible of the Depression, shaped her into the guarded, frugal, God-fearing woman I knew as a child. I think because she couldn’t express her love very easily with words, she loved us through food. She was a fine cook and whenever I visited, she proferred iced oatmeal cookies, quivering bowls of ambrosia salad, dense slices of walnut-studded banana bread, and rich meatloaves bound with saltines and capped with a thick glaze of Heinz ketchup.
And sometimes, at family luncheons, there was her chicken soup. Carrot. Onion. Celery. Stock. Chicken. And thick, homemade noodles. Nothing more.
I don’t think I appreciated how good that soup was until I got older and discovered the many bland and marshy permutations of chicken noodle soup. Canned versions wanting for chunks of tender chicken and substituting salt for true flavor. Cafeteria versions with limp noodles floating sadly in a mysteriously gelatinous broth. Dehydrated instant versions, thin as tap water. Grandma Phoebe’s soup was none of these, thanks largely to the toothsome, hand-rolled noodles she made for it.
So I dug out her cookbook and recipes and sorted through the yellowing scraps of paper filled with her precise cursive. Applesauce Upside-Down Cake. Baked Ham. Bible verses. Tea Biscuits. Her famous Banana Nut Bread. A calendar page from 1959 indicating her work schedule at the Bloomingdale’s glove counter. Two different recipes for something called Paradise Salad, fashioned with both mayonnaise and Cool Whip. And two slips of paper with “Noodles” penned simply across the top.
As I sifted through the recipes, deciphering her notes to herself (“This cake is VERY good!”, “Aunt Eva’s fudge”, “Cheri loves this one...”), I realized how precious these slips of paper housed in an old ziploc bag are to me. How they are a sort of culinary family tree, with notes on who liked what and which recipe had been handed down by whom. They allow me to make Aunt Eileen’s Peanut Butter Crunch or my Grandma Milly’s pie crust or Phoebe’s black walnut cake. And through the mixing and the folding and the baking, know them a tiny bit more.
As I stirred and kneaded and rolled Phoebe’s noodles, I thought of her and her life. And the ways I did and did not know her. I added those golden noodles to my own chicken soup and as I sat down to eat a bowl, I felt myself quietly on the mend.
Old-Fashioned Egg Noodles
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading and rolling
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons melted and slightly cooled chicken fat, lard or butter (or neutral-tasting cooking oil)
1/2 cup whole milk
*NOTE: I like to roll these noodles out by hand like my great grandma did, but you can use a pasta machine if you like. Just don’t get them too thin; the goal is to have a toothsome, sturdy noodle when you’re done.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. You can continue to mix the dough in the bowl or transfer the flour mixture to the center of a large work surface. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and crack the eggs into the well. Pour the liquid fat into the eggs.
Using a fork, beat the eggs and fat together. Incorporate the flour mixture by gradually grabbing it from the inner rim of the well. When the flour is incorporated, use a bench scraper to gather the dough into a ball. Transfer it to a clean, well-floured work surface. Knead the dough, incorporating more flour as necessary until it is no longer sticky. Continue to knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. The kneading should take about 10 minutes total. Generously flour the ball of dough, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and set it aside to rest for at least 30 minutes.
When you’re ready to roll out the noodles, divide the dough into six pieces. Work with only one piece at a time and keep the others tightly covered so they don’t dry out. Lightly flour your work surface and stretch the dough into a roughly 6x4 inch rectangle with the short side closest to you. Fold it in thirds like an envelope and roll it out to a rectangle again. This helps strengthen the dough so it doesn’t rip when you roll it out. You can rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat this process if it still feels tacky.
Roll the dough into a large rectangle about ⅛-inch thick. Use a knife or pizza cutter to slice the dough into noodles about ⅓-inch wide. You can cook the noodles immediately or hang them to dry (I use a repurposed laundry rack). When dried completely, they will store indefinitely in an air-tight container (I use a mason jar).
Even though the noodles will remain sturdy when added to soup, I cook them separately in salted water so the excess flour that sticks to them won’t make my soup cloudy.
Makes about 1 lb dried noodles
Chicken Noodle Soup
- 1 recipe old-fashioned egg noodles (see above)
- 2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
- 2 medium leeks, halved lengthwise and sliced into thin half-moons
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
- 2 stalks celery, sliced into thin half-moons
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- Kosher or sea salt
- 8 cups best quality chicken stock (preferably homemade)
- 1 lb chicken breast or thighs
- 1 bunch hearty greens such as kale, Swiss chard or beet tops, stems removed and torn into large pieces
- About 4 cups cooked egg noodles
Heat the fat in a heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, carrot, celery, thyme and bay. Season with a pinch of salt and cook until the vegetables have softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes.
Add the stock, bring the soup to a simmer, then add the chicken. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is just cooked through, 15-20 minutes. You can check to see if the chicken is done by removing it and cutting into it with a paring knife. If using breast meat, take extra care not to overcook it as it gets dry and stringy. You want it to be completely opaque, without any traces of pink but still juicy. When it is cooked through, remove the chicken from the pot and set it aside to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut it into ½-inch cubes. Use your fingers to shred the cubed chicken if you like.
Add the greens to the soup and cook until tender. Add the noodles and the chicken and simmer until heated through and the flavors have come together, a few minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaves and serve.
Makes 6-8 servings