Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Chicken Neck Soup

Trying to shake a lingering chest cold earlier this month, I craved chicken soup, homemade not take-out, but felt far too tired to make it. Till passing the poultry section of the local Whole Foods, I noticed some packages of chicken necks. What if I just bought some of those and cooked them in a lot of water for a few hours? It might not produce much of a soup--would likely be about as minimalist as Stone Soup--but it would be warming and surely at least a little therapeutic.

And the idea of having a bunch of chicken necks all to myself felt oddly luxurious. Roast chicken is one of my favorite dishes, and the neck one of my favorite parts, but growing up, I was one of four siblings and two parents contending for that neck. Usually two or three of us shared the neck, for which we relinquished our interests in heart, liver, and gizzard. Had I ever in my life actually eaten two chicken necks at one meal?

The bunch of necks turned out to be five once I opened the package, which weighed less than a pound. I filled a pot of water, threw them in, and started cooking. After maybe an hour, I took out the necks, let them cool a bit, broke them in halves or thirds, and threw them back. Then added a large onion cut in eighths, carrot, celery, and bay leaf, and ground in some pepper.

After another half-hour or so, too hungry to wait longer, I scooped out two pieces of neck and a cup of liquid. Expecting little more than minimally flavored hot water, I savored instead fresh, delicate essence of chicken that set my tongue dancing.

I added another carrot and a quarter cup of French lentils to the simmering broth, and an hour later called it done. The flavor was more intense now, but still delicate--not your typical chicken soup. I ate more that night, more the next, and froze the rest.

Two weeks later when Jim was next in town, we polished it off. "Eating soup with your fingers--that's different," Jim said between bites of neck. We used toothpicks to extract the soft shreds that clung to the bones.

Chicken Neck Soup (5 or more servings)

Five or more chicken necks
10 or more cups of water
One large onion, cut into eights
Two or more carrots, cut into pieces
One stalk of celery
One bay leaf
Fresh-ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup lentils, preferably French, or rice

Optional stuff I might try next time: parsley, other herbs, green onions, radish, turnip, jicama, lemon juice (though the charm of this soup is its simplicity).

1. Add chicken necks to water and cook to the boiling point over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer. Skim off the foam once or twice (there won't be much).

2. After 45 minutes or so, remove necks, cool briefly, break into two or three pieces each, and return to pot. Add onion, celery, half of the carrots, bay leaf and pepper, and simmer another hour or so.

3. Add lentils or rice and the remaining carrot pieces, and cook until done (at least half an hour for lentils).