A couple of years ago, late one winter morning, we were out running errands in the neighborhood, and we stopped into La Carta de Oaxaca, on Ballard Avenue, for an early lunch. June was still in a high chair and not yet fully proficient at chewing anything with crunch, so we ordered their sopa de pollo for her, a rich, brothy chicken soup served in a bowl big enough for mixing cake batter, with the meat still on the bone and big hunks of zucchini, carrot, and chayote. I shredded the meat onto a plate and chopped up the vegetables with the side of my spoon. She ate with her hands, the juices running fast down her forearms, which were then still as soft and plump as water balloons, and we drank the salty broth straight from the bowl, as though it were hot tea. Then we brought home the leftovers, because the serving size had been approximately one quart, and got to do it all over again the next day.
It feels like a strange leap of faith - leap of amnesia? Leap of denial, though denial doesn't seem like a leaping activity? - to write a blog post about food when there's a lot of cheerless stuff going on out in the world. It feels weird, even wrong, to sort of doop dee doo my way into a post on soup - here in the comfort of my heated home, where the fridge contains eight pounds of leftover mashed potatoes from Thanksgiving and my kid mumbles peaceably in her sleep - without acknowledging that we live in the midst of wildly sad events, and that many people are hurting. I don't know how to make sense of it, and in a way, I hope I never do. I will resort to chanting under my breath (creepily, if you watch from the wrong angle) my own personal, agnostic, pseudo-version of the Serenity Prayer. I will try various leaps of various things. I will make more soup.
I have known for a while how to make chicken soup. It's good. It's fine. I wrote about it somewhere around here, in late 2004 or maybe early 2005. But La Carta de Oaxaca makes a better chicken soup. And it happened that, the same winter that we first ate their version, we had a cook at Delancey who was related to the family behind La Carta, and he talked me through their method. Now it's "my," -ish, chicken soup, with the my accompanied always by a nod in the direction of a certain awning on Ballard Avenue.
I imagine there are as many Mexican sopas de pollo as there are American chicken soups. This one is, really, just a variation on any other version, but its details are important. For one, you use skin-on, bone-in chicken pieces, for the flavorful fat in the skin and the gelatin in the bones. Then, and here's the kicker, into the pot go fresh mint leaves and a large handful of fresh cilantro, stems and all. You add the herbs right in the beginning, so they cook along with the soup, going limp and slippery, yes, but also giving the broth brightness and a mellow depth that's hard to pinpoint. If you don't want to eat the cilantro stems in the finished soup, you can fish them out before serving. (To make it easy, bundle the cilantro with twine before you chuck it in, and then you can just pluck out the bundle.) But Brandon loves the flavor of the long-cooked herbs, cilantro especially, so try it first.
To serve the soup, I lift out the chicken pieces, pull the meat, and add it back to the pot. (The skin and bones are pretty much compost at this point.) What you have now is more stew than soup, really, more meat and vegetables than broth, and it wouldn't be out of place ladled over a slice of garlic toast. I think you'll find it infinitely - to borrow a term from Fergus Henderson - steadying.
P.S. BIG, LONG OVERDUE NEWS: I've been working with my homies at Neversink on a Wordpress migration and redesign of ole Orangette, complete with a proper recipe index (by course! by season! by ingredient!) and other good stuff. Hoping to launch next week! Stay tuned! Many exclamation points!
Sopa de pollo
Inspired by La Carta de Oaxaca, and with help from Pedro Perez-Zamudio
I've made this with homemade chicken broth, and it was great, but it's also great with a good not-homemade chicken broth, like Better Than Bouillon. No shame in that. (I use Better Than Bouillon's organic line.) Also, all quantities here are approximate. If you want more carrots or zucchini, go for it, and feel free to try other vegetables, too. Maybe fennel? Onion?
Roughly 3 pounds (1.4 kg) chicken parts
- 4 whole garlic cloves, smashed under the side of a knife
- 4 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1 chayote, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks (optional; I leave this out for convenience reasons)
- ½ bunch cilantro sprigs, bundled with twine if you want