Cream of chicken soup, real cream of chicken soup, doesn’t come from a red and white can, folks. Real cream of chicken soup is homemade, from scratch and lovingly tended as it simmers. Buttery, rich with the flavor of chicken, and irrepressibly smooth, it’s a nourishing dish with an old-fashioned, and almost timeless charm (skip straight to the recipe).
Growing up, the only creamed soups served up in our middle-income household came straight from Campbell’s and usually ended up in casseroles, mixed with polished rice, pasta or corn chips and a bag of frozen vegetables. They were gelatinous, semi-solid masses that retained the shape of the can as they plopped out into the saucepan. Those cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soups drew what meager flavor they could offer from refined salt, monosodium glutamate and yeast extracts. And to achieve their peculiar semi-solid state, the manufacturer included even more industrial additions: modified wheat starch, vegetable oil and partially-hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oils – a fearful slurry courtesy of modernized food processing. So, for years beyond my food transformation, I cringed at the thought of those cream-of-watchamacallit soups, and just couldn’t bring myself to develop a homemade version of cream of chicken or any other soup.
This past Saturday, the Paragon People’s Fair – an annual community flea market, of sorts – took place. Always a sucker for yard sales and thrift shops, I count the days leading up to the fair with breathy anticipation. There’s the Army / Navy surplus booth which also stocks used guitars and weather-worn toy trucks for little boys. There’s the KBUT CD swap, and theHCCA bake sale. There’s the raw honey booth and the soap makers. There’s homespun and hand-dyed yarns. I visit the booth with the vintage (and ridiculously overpriced) kitchen gadgets, whose proprietor nearly bares her teeth in a sneer every time you so much as glanceat at an old silver spoon or embroidered napkin. I have a sneaking suspicion that she doesn’t really want to part with any of it and that her husband has put her up to it all in effort to clear their basement for a foosball table. But my very favorite booth is the used book sale hosted by the Friends of the Library. I always find something good there, usually lurking in a musty old box beneath the table.
As my real food lovers on facebook already know, at this year’s book sale I was able to land a first edition copy of James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book, first published in 1949. So in some anachronistic turn of grace, it sits next to my iMac along with my other treasured vintage cookbooks like Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking and a 1960 copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal Cook Book. Unlike the others, the Fireside Cook Book is still in print. Sure, my copy is a little worse for the wear: its pages are stained with the successes and failures of cooks before me and its binding is nearly falling off, but I’d expect the same from any well-loved cookbook. I wouldn’t trust a clean cookbook, free from sticky pages and water stains; after all, it must not have got much use.
So as I was gingerly thumbing through the pages so as not to damage them further, I happened across Beard’s recipe for cream of chicken soup. It looked beautiful: full of butter, cream, fresh chicken and leeks. It wasn’t thickened with flour or starch, but egg yolks. All the recipes in the book are lovely and speak to a time when the American food system was changing – when mothers still insisted upon cod liver oil daily, liver once a week and fresh eggs for breakfast, and just about the time vegetable shortening, marshmallow fluff and parboiled rice would become the rage (though Beard doesn’t call for these ingredients in his book). In an instance, I decided I’d conquer my fear of the gelatinous, lumpy condensed cream soups of my childhood and try a real, honest-to-goodness homemade cream of chicken soup.
- 1 whole pasture-raised stewing chicken, (about 3 to 4 pounds)
- 1 leek
- 2 to 3 whole cloves
- 5 to 6 stalks of celery, (including leaves)
- 3 to 4 large carrots, (including tops)
- 1 medium yellow onion, (including top)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 6 egg pastured yolks, (beaten)
- 2 cups heavy cream, (preferably raw, not ultra-pasteurized)
- unrefined sea salt, (to taste)
- minced fresh chives or parsley, (to serve)
- Rinse the chicken thoroughly and pat it dry before placing it in your stock pot, covering it completely with fresh, clean and very cold water (about one and one-half gallons).
- Stud the leek with whole cloves, and place it in the stock pot along side the stewing chicken. Add the celery leaves, onion top and carrot tops to the water.
- Slowly simmer the clove-studded leek, celery leaves, onion top and carrot tops in the water, uncovered, until the chicken is completely cooked and tender to the bone, about two hours.
- Once the chicken is tender, remove it from the the stockpot and allow it to cool. Remove the bay leaves, celery leaves, onion top and carrot tops from the broth, straining it if necessary. Discard the vegetable matter, but continue simmering the broth, uncovered, while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
- As the chicken cools, prepare the vegetables by peeling and mincing the carrots and mincing the onion and celery stalks as well.
- Melt the butter in a cast iron skillet until it foams, and toss the minced vegetables into the pan. Fry the vegetables in butter until they become fragrant and tender, about five minutes. Remove them from the heat and allow them to cool.
- Once the chicken has cooled, remove its meat, saving the bones to roast for another round of stock.
- Place the chicken meat and cooled vegetables into a food processor and pulse until they’re finely ground. If you have no food processor, you can mince the chicken and vegetables finely.
- Stir the vegetables and chicken meat back into the simmering broth and turn off the stove.
- Temper the beaten eggs by stirring a spoonful of broth into the eggs, then pouring the mixture of eggs and broth into the simmering soup.
- Gently stir two cups of heavy cream into the broth and serve, dressed with minced fresh herbs and seasoned with unrefined sea salt.