Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Comfort Food - Chicken Soup with Dill

I'm shaking off the winter blues (or trying to) with the knowledge that yes, it is February, yes it's a bleak month (though it contains my birthday). However! It also means that spring is just that much closer and I will only be confined to the apartment for a little longer. Soon I will be able to walk to the Sound comfortably and sit on the beach with my reading/knitting/camera and enjoy the sunshine.

Last week, instead of wallowing, I did what I should have done yesterday. I made comfort food. Not just any comfort food, winter comfort food.

Growing up, one of my favorite things my mom made was chicken soup. Whenever I was home from college, my mom's chicken soup was always on the list of meals that had to be prepared before I returned. That's how good it is. Surprisingly, though, I've never ventured to make it myself.  But my love of my dutch oven and an intense craving for soup made me realize that it was about time I ventured into the world of chicken soup.

So why have I shied away from chicken soup for so long? Because whole chickens are scary. Aren't they terrifying? Look at this:

They're slimy and weird looking. It's a real reminder that that right there, is an animal. But whatever, right? I'm not squeamish, I don't need to wear gloves to handle it or anything... but putting my hand into the cavity (butt) and pulling out the little baggy of innards (DO NOT forget to take that out, or you will be sad) was kind of gross. But prepping for chicken soup is easy, it doesn't take that long, and you only have to handle this thing for a few minutes.

Pat each side with paper towels to remove excess moisture and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder (optional). Then brown the top and bottom in a little bit of oil in a dutch oven (or big soup pot, if you don't have a dutch oven). It makes the chicken look so much less scary and even appetizing:


Be careful with chicken bits because they burn  quickly. Make sure to have all of your vegetables prepped in advance so you can slide them right into the leftover drippings in the pan without them burning. Mine burned a little bit, but it was OK and didn't affect the flavor of the soup. I decided on carrots, onions, and leeks. Leeks are fabulous, I just started cooking with them recently. The smell and flavor they release as they blend with the onions and carrots are fantastic and are a delicious addition to this kind of soup. Wash them well. The ones I buy at my crappy supermarket are always covered in dirt. I only used the white and light green parts for this dish.

I didn't get fussy with my chopping either. I just cut my onions in half and sliced them thin. I sliced my carrots into about 1/4" chunks. And I just left my leeks as a bundle, sliced them into thin circles, and rinsed them well in my colander (much easier, for this particular recipe, rather than washing each individual leaf).

Then I sauteed them in the leftover oil, drippings, and browned bits from the chicken until they were nice and soft and getting brown. I also added three cloves of garlic pushed through my garlic press right at the end, sauteing it until the garlic became fragrant, which happens in less than a minute. Then you just plop your chicken and any juices that dripped out right on top of this delicious bed and pour chicken broth (I use organic because I think it does taste better than the canned stuff) until the liquid reaches about half way up the chicken. Let that come to a boil on the stove top, then put the lid on and put it in a 350 degree F oven for a couple of hours, rotating the chicken every so often.

About an hour in, I realized that I had forgotten to throw my sprigs of fresh dill in (dill was a great choice for this soup). There would have been fresh parsley as well, but somebody's supermarket only had one bunch of sad looking, yellow and mushy parsley on display in the produce aisle. Dill and chicken are a great combination, however, and fresh dill is much more subtle than the dried stuff. So throw two sprigs in there at this stage of the game:

I had mine in the oven for about two and half hours and by the time I took it out everything was literally fall-off-the-bone tender. Including the legs and wings. Be really careful taking it out - I used a really technical method of two two-pronged serving forks and a lot of prayer. Really good tongs and a fork would have made this a lot easier. But it took no work to separate the legs and wings (I definitely ate a thigh hot out of the batch with a little bit of salt because it was that delicious) and the breast meat shredded free of the bones just as easily.

At this point you can turn the oven off and have the soup just sitting on the stove top waiting for the next step. Remember that the dutch oven retains heat and stays very hot, so even on the stove top remember to use a kitchen towel or your oven mitts when handling it.

The skin separated from the meat really easily (and not much grosses me out more than non-crispy chicken skin) and I just discarded that. I shredded the remaining dark meat and put it in a container. Dan's not a dark meat fan, so I figured I would keep the soup just white meat. This (and the leeks) is where I vary from my mom's method of chicken soup. She likes to keep the chicken soup just broth (maybe some orzos thrown in as well) and serve the boiled chicken on the side. I decided that I wanted a hearty, meaty soup, so I shredded up the chicken breast - using an especially technical method of shredding that involved the use of my same two-pronged forks - so I could put it back in the soup for finishing.

Don't forget to save the wishbone!

Finishing this soup, which was made in an admittedly small dutch oven, is a little different than just letting a big soup pot simmer on the stove top the whole time. Because of the displacement of the liquid when the whole chicken was in the pot, I needed to add more chicken broth - until the pot was a little more than 3/4 of the way full. I also added 1/4 cup of dry white wine because, let's face it, everything is better with some wine. (Including the cook):


Before I took the chicken out I had sliced up my turnips (which are so pretty and purple!) into matchsticks. I liked the technique of adding potatoes later in the game to pot roast - which was what Test Kitchen said to do in their recipe - that I thought it would also be smart to do with my turnips that way they were nice and present in the soup and didn't just dissolve into it while cooking. Turnips have such a unique flavor, and I really don't think a chicken soup is a chicken soup until it has turnips in it. I tasted the broth before I added them, and it was delicious, but it was missing that rooty, sweet flavor that only turnips can give. When I took the chicken out I also took the dill sprigs out and threw in two fresh ones after I put the turnips in.

I also spent the time skimming the top of the soup before I added the rest of my ingredients. It's time consuming and it's annoying, but it's worth it to skim any obviously fatty patches off the soup.

Then I just added the shredded white meat and let the soup simmer on low until Dan came home (and it will be a hard and fast simmer because the pot is still hot from being in the oven, so definitely keep it on low even though it feels like it should be on medium-low).

When he did, he got to walk into a kitchen that smelled like warm, homey comfort and a bowl full of hearty soup. What I made, I think, could comfortably serve at least six. We each had a bowl that night, then we had leftovers the next day, and I froze what was left for future consumption. Definitely a hit!
Top with some more fresh dill and some freshly grated pecorino romano.

Now, what I won't tell you about is how I made pasta.... chunks to go with the soup. I thought it would be really cool to mix in some grated cheese with the dough for soft, cheesy bits of pasta floating in the soup. Right? That would work... overcooking fresh pasta dough generally means a soft mess, which I thought would be lovely in the soup. Unfortunately, the cheese I used just made the dough tough and chewy instead of soft and wonderful (it was better after it had been sitting in the fridge absorbing liquid for the second round of eating). But I'll work on this and I'll get back to you.

This soup is so hearty it doesn't necessarily need an accompaniment.. but if you want you can mix in some pasta (elbows or orzos work best) or some rice.

When you reheat the soup in a pan, add some liquid - either water or chicken broth. It helps loosen everything up. This is especially necessary if you've added pasta or rice which sucks up the liquid as it sits in the fridge.

Serves 6

1 small chicken
salt, pepper, and garlic powder (optional) to taste
2 Tbs olive oil
1 onion - sliced thin
3 carrots - peeled and cut into 1/4" slices
1 bunch leeks - white and green parts only, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic - chopped very fine or pushed through a garlic press (I recommend the latter)
32 fl oz chicken broth
3-4 small turnips - peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup dry white wine
4 sprigs fresh dill (or parsley or 2 each of both) plus a little more for garnish
freshly grated pecorino romano or parmigiana (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with a rack positioned in the middle of the oven.
Pat dry chicken with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder (optional).
Heat oil in your dutch oven/soup pan. Brown chicken on both sides - about five minutes per side.
Remove from pan and immediately add the leeks, onions, and carrots. Saute these until they are translucent and starting to brown.
Add your garlic, sauteing for about 30 seconds; when you can smell the garlic its time to move on to the next step.
Add the chicken and any accumulated juices back to the pan. Add chicken broth until it reaches about half way up the chicken. Add two sprigs of herbs. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in oven.

Cook for about 2 and a half hours, rotating the chicken 2-3 times.

Remove from oven.
Remove chicken and herbs from dutch oven. Remove skin and separate wings and thighs from the breast meat. Discard skin and soggy herb sprigs.
Shred the white meat with two forks.
Add the rest of the chicken broth, white wine, turnips, chicken, salt and pepper to taste, and two fresh sprigs of herbs.
Simmer on low for at least 30 minutes or until ready to serve.
If you're adding rice or pasta add them already cooked to the soup for the last 5-10 minutes.

Garnish with a few leaves of fresh herbs and (optional) grated cheese.


  1. Liz, I feel warm already just reading about this soup! My mom (never afraid of whole chickens, unlike myself) used to make chicken soup, but I have not tried my hand at it, as I have never found a very inspiring recipe. This looks like just the ticket - dill! leeks! turnips! Wine! Sounds perfect.

  2. This looks so good! I usually buy whole chickens and roast them in a dutch oven, mostly because I'm hugely lazy and it makes a tasty chicken..I just dry the sucker thoroughly, salt/pepper it inside and out, tie the legs together, and stick it in the oven at 450 for an hour. But I'm seriously going to try this, I need some variety in my life. Lauren

  3. This is really just as easy if you're used to cooking chicken in a dutch oven. Just a couple more steps.