Most every food culture takes pride in their version of chicken soup. It is as basic and fundamental a recipe as cooking gets. But, most folks haven’t a clue to how exceptionally delicious–no, heavenly–this dish can be. To learn the skill of making a rich, sublime soup of nothing more than chicken, vegetables, and water is a goal worth pursuing. But, it takes an obsessive adherence to a few time-tested methods. Now, if you are on board, it’s time to take stock. Let’s make Soulful Chicken Soup.
With all my writing about Cajun cooking, there is one question I never tire of hearing–“do you make your own chicken stock?” And my answer is always a question–“why wouldn’t I?” I love stock making because it is an introduction to the heart of Cajun cooking–a tutorial on everything that is pure, simple and oh-so-good about my passion for the highest-quality ingredients that go into every Cajun recipe.
Throw away those little jars of foil-wrapped chicken cubes you bought in 1987 and ditch the sodium-drenched carton of diluted chicken broth you bought for a whopping four bucks. These overpriced “convenience” products are the ruination of many so-so soups and watered down gumbos and flavorless stews and run-of-the-mill casseroles and, well, you get the message. Forgive me for preaching, but this one short lesson will take your dishes from mediocre to magical. And it’s low cost – the investment is in time, not money.
While the act of making a broth from chicken is simple, I never shortchange the art and beauty of this process. It cleanses my soul, perfumes my world, and in a sense, brings order to the chaos in everyday life, but enough philosophy. A fresh, full-flavored chicken stock can elevate every Cajun recipe you make with it. It is my secret weapon.
Let’s back up for a moment. As an amateur cook, I do not have access to a restaurant kitchen pantry so I need to plan for my stock making with careful strategic maneuvers. Every scallion end, woody asparagus stalk, carrot butt end or leftover onion husk is thrown into a freezer bag. Over the course of a month or two, these add up and the sole reason to buy that reach-in freezer for the garage. As well, every chicken carcass or turkey leftover is always preserved for the pot. When chicken wings, necks or bone-in thighs are on sale, I stock up. Chicken feet are best–rich in cartilage–so, find an Asian or Latin meat market.
Then the day arrives. My labor of love begins with a cup of morning café au lait as I lay out my frozen treasure trove. The chicken parts and pieces, bones, and skin, all go on a tray into the oven. Roast at 400ºF until just browned, not burnt.
A variety of vegetables–onions, carrots and celery are essential–join the chicken in the oven for roasting and then finally into a large stockpot filled with enough cold water to cover the ingredients. Always start with cold water to release the proteins in the collagen of the chicken bones that creates the gelatinous, full-bodied richness of a well-made stock. Turn up the heat and let it simmer gently–never boi–all afternoon and half the night. Do not stir. Skim the foam and scum from the top, but never stir. Cool, strain, and refrigerate overnight.
Now, let’s make Soulful Chicken Soup.
- 6 pounds chicken bones (backs, necks, wings, thighs, and legs are best) or leftover chicken carcasses you have stored up
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 large yellow onions, quartered
- 4 large carrots, coarsely chopped
- 6 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 cup firmly packed flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 4 bay leaves
- 3 pounds chicken feet, cleaned
- 1 ½ gallons (24 cups) cold water
- 12 cups dark chicken stock
- 6 chicken legs, skin removed
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 2 celery stalks, diced
- 2 large carrots, peeled and shaved into ribbons
- ½ cup tender green leafy vegetable, such as celery leaves or spinach
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
- ¼ cup chopped flat leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 2 pounds skinless boneless chicken breast meat, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thigh meat, cut into bite-sized chunks
- Kosher salt
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
- Using paper towels, pat all the chicken pieces dry. Place chicken on metal sheet trays and with 2 tablespoons of oil rub the pieces lightly. Place the trays in the oven and roast until browned (not burnt), approximately 90 minutes.
- On another sheet tray, place the onions, carrots and celery and rub with the remaining oil. Place in the oven and roast until browned (not burnt), approximately 30 to 40 minutes.
- In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, add the chicken bones and vegetables. Deglaze each of the pans with a little water and scrape the bits and pieces with a spatula. Add to the pot along with the thyme, garlic, parsley, peppercorns, bay leaves and all of the fresh chicken feet. Add the cold water. Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to low before it begins to boil. Continue to simmer the stock for 8 hours periodically skimming the surface of fat and scum. Turn off the heat and let the stock cool down.
- With a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth) over a large container, pour the stock making sure to strain off all bones and solids and discard them. Refrigerate the stock overnight.
- Remove the stock from the refrigerator and using a large metal spoon, remove the fat cap that forms on top and discard. The stock will be congealed and almost Jello-like in texture. This is a sign that the collagen has released from the chicken bones and feet. Spoon the stock back into a clean stockpot and return to a simmer on the stovetop. Continue cooking uncovered and reduce the stock to approximately 1 gallon (16 cups). Let the stock cool down.
- Over a large container with a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth), strain the stock a final time removing any scum or particles. Use the stock immediately or divide into containers with tight fitting lids (I use 1-quart Mason jars) and freeze until ready to use. Another option, if you think you will be storing the stock for many months, is to leave a layer of fat on top. Like paraffin in a jam jar, when frozen this layer of chicken fat will preserve the stock for safekeeping. Additionally, I like to freeze a portion of the stock in ice cube trays and once frozen pop them into freezer storage bags. Then you can take them out one at a time for sauce making or add to vegetables, etc.
- In a large pot over medium heat, add the dark chicken stock along with the chicken legs and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the vegetables and herbs along with the breast and thigh meat and simmer for 15 minutes longer until the chicken is fully cooked. Season to taste with salt. Serve in large bowls making sure that the chicken is evenly dispersed with a whole chicken leg in each bowl.
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