Last Friday, I rushed into the fish store. I was feeling behind and in a hurry to finish my errands. I needed some Caponi gluten-free pasta for an event I was cooking the next day. The fish store is the only place that carries Caponi.
A large crowd was gathered around the counter ordering pounds to salmon salad and filets of grouper from Florida. I scooted past them, grabbed my bag of pasta and made my way to the register.
“Can I just buy this pasta?” I asked the owner, who stood behind the register. He smiled broadly and waved me forward. His demeanor is always reliably jovial and upbeat, like a youthful grandpa.
“You sure can just buy that pasta. Come on up.” I handed him my credit card as my mind flew through the outstanding items on my to-do list: Make the granita base. Trim the hanger steaks. Hunt down some of that beautiful purple daikon for the salad. Write out tomorrow’s prep list.
I glanced over my shoulder as he handed back my credit card and noticed a small line formed behind me. The man standing at the head of the line lifted his eyebrows slightly and rocked back and forth on his toes, as if he’d been waiting in that exact spot all morning.
“You weren’t waiting, were you?” I asked despite already knowing the answer.
“Yeah. I was.” The guy looked at me with a mixture of disgust and pity. My checks flushed red. I felt the shame course through me, like the adrenaline that floods the antelope’s system and powers his attempted escape from his predator.
“I am so sorry. I can’t believe I did that.”
“It’s OK. I think everyone’s in a weird state right now.”
“Can I buy your lunch?” Unbeknownst to me, he had ordered $40 worth of tuna poke.
The owner interjected. “No, don’t be silly. We’ve got it. Have a nice day.”
I slinked away from the register, my pasta under my arm, my face still red-hot with embarrassment. Even now as I reflect back on it, I’m taken aback by my capacity to singly focus on getting my own needs met without any regard for those around me. Indeed, is that not one of the scarier aspects of all of this?
Two days later, all the bars and restaurants in Chicago shut down. A day after that, Trump closed the Canadian border to all non-essential traffic, and The Chicago Tribune reported Illinois’ first CoVID 19-related fatality.
I’m wrestling with this paradox: On the one hand, isolation is all but legally mandated. Shelter in place, we’re told. Practice social distancing. Going for a run feels like a vaguely transgressive act. Simultaneously, our nervous systems are hard-wired for connection, and that need only intensifies when things start to go sideways – just ask the Italians. I don’t know whether I should be afraid or nonplussed, but I do know that I can’t recall another time where I’ve felt a deeper longing to be cared for, to be held, to be soothed.
In times of intense emotional need, I think of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher quote: “… I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
Cooking, and communing over cooking, is one answer. It’s my answer, a small response to an overwhelming, complicated and seemingly unending problem. Cooking won’t solve everything, but it’s something. Even if we can’t sit across from someone and share a glass of red wine and a slice of flourless chocolate cake, it’s still something.
What to cook right now? The answer is Anything. Just open your cupboard and go from there. You have a pound of spaghetti and a head of garlic? Make aglio, olio e peperoncino. If you’ve got sliced bread and any kind of cheese, you could make my partner’s favorite comfort food — just be sure to lather both sides with mayonnaise to get that beautiful brown crust.
A pot (or a can) of beans can be repurposed in any number of ways after you eat them as is the first night with a slick of really good olive oil and a wedge of fresh bread. My friend Maddie said she likes pasta with her beans. She also shared this ridiculously easy coconut chocolate mousse that’s got six ingredients and comes together in a snap.
Me? I go straight to soup because, in the words of Auguste Escoffier, “soup puts the heart at ease, calms down the violence of hunger, eliminates the tension of the day, and awakens and refines the appetite.” I can’t find the attribution for this quote, but I would guess it comes from the Le Guide Culinaire, his 900+ page tome on French cooking.
Soups, like people, are always best after a day’s rest, giving them time to settle into themselves and bloom into their fullest expression. The Calabrians have a saying about soup:
Sette cose fa la zuppa: Cura fame e sete attuta, empie il ventre, netta il dente, fa dormire, fa smaltire, e la guancia colorire …
Soup does seven things: it appeases your hunger, slakes your thirst, fills your stomach, cleans your teeth, makes you sleep, helps you digest, and puts color in your cheeks.
In other words; it checks all the boxes.
Incidentally, this broth could be repurposed in a number of ways. Use it to make risotto, or sip it as is and fold the picked chicken with some diced celery, mayonnaise and some minced tarragon for a quick chicken salad.
Aromatic Chicken Soup
- Servings: 3 quarts
- Difficulty: easy
- 1 organic whole chicken, rinsed
- 2 stalks celery, thick slices
- 1 onion, thick slices, w/ the skins
- 1 carrot, thick slices
- 2” piece of ginger, thick slices
- 1t black peppercorns
- 1T dark soy sauce (omit if you don’t have on hand)
- 2 bay leaves
- 3T kosher salt
- Filtered water to cover
Veggies for soup:
- 2 leek, white part only small dice
- 3 celery ribs, small dice
- ½ fennel, small dice
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1” knob ginger, minced or grated on Microplane
- 4T extra virgin olive oil, divided
- ¼ C white rice
- 1 lemon, juiced
For the broth: rinse the chicken well, taking care to remove any bits of organ meat hidden underneath the rib cage area. Split the chicken in half using a kitchen shears. This makes it easier to fit the chicken snugly in the pot. Place the chicken in a large soup pot. Add the rest of the ingredients along with 1 cup of ice. Cover with cold water. Bring the liquid up to a strong simmer, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Skim off the scum that rises to the top with a ladle and cook for about an hour.
Once the meat starts to pull away from the bone of the drumsticks, remove the chicken with a tongs and set on a sheet tray to cool slightly. Once it’s cool enough to handle, pick the chicken meat, keeping the breast and thigh meat separate. Strain the broth into a large bowl or another large pot using a fine-mesh strainer. Set aside.
For the vegetables: Wash the pot you used to cook the broth. Add 2T extra virgin olive oil and sweat the leek, celery and fennel to soften, about 10 minutes, adding a large pinch of salt after 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sweat for another 2-3 minutes. Add 1T olive oil and the rice toast in the oil, stirring periodically until the pot smells toasty, 3-5 minutes. Add half the broth back into the pot and cook the rice, about 10 minutes.
To finish the soup, fold the dark meat into the soup. I prefer to save the white meat for another preparation (see quick chicken salad in the recipe intro). This is personal preference; add whatever mixture of meat you like. Add enough broth to keep the soup loose and broth-y. Depending on how much water you started with in the broth, you may end up adding all the broth. Save whatever’s leftover; it freezes beautifully.
Season the soup with lemon juice and more kosher salt. Since the broth is mostly unseasoned, you’ll need to add at least a couple more large pinches of salt. Once it’s tasty, chill the soup. There will be some residual fat that rises to the top of the container and congeals. Scrap that off once the soup is fully chilled and save for another use – such as frying an egg, folding in to fried rice, or finishing a pasta.