Eat Your Soup! If You Can...

This is a story about making chicken soup completely from scratch, with local, organic ingredients, and starting with the carcass of a roasted chicken. The soup was very, very good, and looked like this:


The chicken in question came from Pikeland Pastured Poultry. All the vegetables in the soup came from Landisdale Farm.

But the chicken had to do a little traveling before its bones came to rest in my soup pot.

I bought the chicken frozen at my local farmer's market. And then, on a trip home to see mom last fall, I took it with me for a dinner I had planned to cook for her and her cousin. Roasted chicken and gravy, mashed potatoes, roasted root vegetables, green beans, some of my cousin's canned beets - it was a lovely feast. My mother was in heaven. In the assisted living home, she doesn't get a lot of fresh stuff, and for some reason they almost never serve potatoes, which she loves. (Unless you count tater tots, which I don't, and neither does she.) The chicken she gets is usually a chicken leg that has previously been breaded and frozen. She often tells me that when she gets down to the bone, it is black. That seems wrong.

My bones, my chicken carcass bones, from our feast, I froze until I could take them back to my house on the return trip. I added them to another carcass I'd previously frozen and made stock one afternoon. It took time, but wasn't complicated, and the process of making stock was pleasing and meditative. The resulting stock was decidedly less yellowish and much, much less fatty than any chicken broth or stock I've ever bought (even high-end stuff from Whole Foods) or made myself from other chicken carcasses before. It didn't foam and didn't need skimmed at all. It was, in short, beautiful.

I can't remember now what all veggies I put in the soup. Celery, onions, carrots, potatoes. I think also, some parsnips, leeks, and turnips - small, fresh, tender ones. I sauteed stuff and then cooked it in the stock until it was tender and then we ate it with bread and butter and were happy.

The chicken carcasses yielded so much stock that I had enough to make soup to feed us for two meals and a lunch for me, with about six cups of stock left over to freeze for later use. The chickens themselves had been bountiful: one had given two meals to my husband and me, and a lunch to me, and the other had fed me, my mother and her cousin, with leftovers going to the cousin.

I think that's pretty good value - at least 10 individual meals out of one chicken. Pastured chicken isn't really pricey in dollars. It's pricey in time.

You have to get up on Saturday morning in August or September and go to the farmer's market, instead of sleeping in, or going somewhere else, and purchase the chicken, because it's available then, because you will want to roast chicken in the fall, and make soup a month after that. You have to take the time to roast the chicken. You have to take the time to make the stock, and then make the soup. You have to gather the veggies that will go with the roast chicken, and that you will need to make the stock, and that will go into the soup, and you have to prepare them and cook them. It all takes more time than ordering takeout, or getting fast food, or even picking up an already roasted chicken at your local grocery store (which, in theory, you could use to make chicken soup).

Maybe by the time you are done work you are so exhausted you cannot imagine roasting a chicken. Perhaps you don't feel well, and you can't afford to see a doctor. You'd like some chicken soup, but opening a can of it seems like the best route to it.

Maybe you aren't worn out by your job, and you'd really like to spend time roasting a chicken and making soup. But there aren't any farmer's markets where you live, and even finding a good regular grocery store is difficult.

On one of my trips home to see mom, I picked up a local publication that featured a story about the struggle to establish farmer's markets in Greene County, PA. The article quoted a representative from some state bureau who noted that Greene County had been officially designated as a "food desert", due to the difficulty of obtaining good fresh produce there. How do you make chicken soup from scratch in a food desert?

I have read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and a few of Michael Pollan's books - The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and I have tried to be more thoughtful about my food. I am mindful of Pollan's advice:
Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
I think it's good advice, for those of us who can take it. But I think it's not terribly helpful for the people living in food deserts, for the people worn out working two or three jobs just to get by, the people in institutional settings being served pre-cooked breaded chicken legs and tater tots because it's cheap and easy.

Pollan's advice is a solution for individuals, I think. That's a start. But not enough.

What keeps you from spending time to eat well?

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Good post, and delicious looking soup.
We sometimes get those roasted chickens from the grocery store, which I'm not fond of but my boyfriends loves. I do make soup out of the carcass about half the time we get them, which makes me feel a little better about it.

What I remember most from Kingsolver's book was that when all was said and done they saved some money by growing so much of their food, but it took about as much time as a full time job. That amounts to a low hourly wage, or conversely, pretty expensive food. Of course, she did make home-grown food sound wonderful and worth it.

The food desert thing is just so unfair. My city has large areas of food desert, yet from where I live I can walk to at least four different grocery stores and a farmers' market in summer. What a shame.

That soup looks lovely. It's amazing to me how cooking for each other is such a cross-cultural expression of love.

I'm very lucky now to live where there is abundant fresh, local food, but I can remember not eating dresh vegetables essentially until I was in college. It's amazing to me to think of how much of the population lacks access to these things.

I'm just making some chicken soup today, out of a chicken my husband cooked on the rotisserie last night (although the chicken was not organic or local, probably). It does take some time to make soup, which is why I do it on the weekend. It tastes way better, though, and you can put things you like in it and omit ingredients you don't like (e.g., celery).

I'm also making some bread bowls out of a sourdough starter I made the first of the year and have been using and feeding weekly, which also takes time -- I made the dough last night, let it rise overnight and am currently waiting on the second rise.

It's going to be a delicious dinner tonight but making it sure takes time, at the expense of other things. It's sad that a lot of people can't afford the time to make a good meal.

Nothing like a good chicken soup to take the winter chill off.
Looks good.

The soup looks great, and I'm glad you had a chance to prepare such a nice meal for your mom and her cousin. My grandmother was in an assisted living home for the last few years of her life (starting at age 92!), and fortunately, the chef and his staff there were quite good. Typically they had two homemade soups available each day for the residents, both with vegetables and excellent seasonings. Many people assume that elderly individuals only want bland food, but I don't think this is the case - after all, we lose taste buds as we age, and our sense of smell also declines (one hypothesis is that the axons of the olfactory receptor neurons are compressed and "choked" by the progressive ossification of the cribriform plate). Food should be easier to chew and digest perhaps, but shouldn't be bland or boring.

Apart from a relative paucity of farmers' markets and CSAs, the food availability in my suburban neighborhood is very good. There are a lot of local and organic foods available at the nearby grocery store, which also has good prices and specials. It is disgraceful that anyone in the US should have to live in a food desert, or that anyone should ever go hungry.

Unfortunately, many people in the US never learn how to cook from scratch, or how to maintain a balanced, nutritious diet. Kind of tough if no one ever showed you how to do this, and the schools don't teach about nutrition and food preparation. This is a favorite topic of discussion and puzzlement for me and a Brazilian friend; both of us like to cook with fresh ingredients, and prefer to avoid processed foods. And both of us are frequently questioned by other shoppers and checkers in the grocery store, about the items in our cart. I've been asked "What is that?" and/or "How do you cook that?" about the following purchases: parsnips, turnips, beets with tops, all kinds of dried beans, pearl barley, split peas, butternut and acorn squash, all kinds of fresh leafy greens (kale and chard in particular), portobello mushrooms, persimmons, starfruit, Asian pears, plantains, gingerroot, bok choi, quinoa, kasha, tahini, tofu, miso, rolled oats, and bulgur. My friend has been asked the same questions about the same things - it's not that either of us minds being questioned, but rather, we think it's sad that food experiences and knowledge are so limited for some people.

Barn Owl, I've gotten the "what is this/how do you cook it" question in the supermarket checkout lane.

I've also ASKED it at my farmer's market. I have learned a great deal from the kind people who sell me their lovely produce, and gained immensely from the one vendor who sells the Simply in Season cookbook. This past fall was the first time I really did much with squash and I was stunned to learn how easy it is to work with. I cannot believe I ever once bought a package of butternut squash chunks - peeled, cut up, packaged, ready to use. Convenient, to be sure, but butternut squash is maybe one of the easiest squashes of all to work with, and keeps for a long time - if not peeled and cut up.

I still have so much to learn about food. It is this loss of knowledge about food that Pollan and Kingsolver both talk about that I really related to, and mourn. I am sure my grandmother, who was born in Slovakia, and regularly made her own bread, first in an outdoor brick oven and then on a coal stove, forgot more about food than I'll ever learn in my lifetime.

Both of my grandmothers had extensive vegetable gardens and fruit trees, and knew more about canning and preserving food than I'll ever learn from even the excellent Putting Food By. My maternal grandmother had an acre of land in a small Wisconsin town, and much of it was devoted to vegetable garden; she had a root cellar in the basement of the house, and a wall of shelves for all the preserves. Too bad I didn't end up with an academic job in Wisconsin, or I could have bought the house and lived there, with a beautiful productive garden, quite happily.

"This is a story about making chicken soup completely from scratch"

From chicken scratch?!

What keeps me form cooking is a not having a kitchen, mind you I did have a kitchen for a while and I didn't cook much because of the time it takes.

What bugs me, is how food like this COULD be produced within the industrialized system, but instead there is this big gap (for healthy food) between Super expensive restaurant food, and cheap but too much work home cooking.

Why, exactly can't this soup be frozen and sold? Or better yet sold fresh daily at stores. Yeah, that would be catered food which presently costs a fortune, essentially in the restaurant class, though there are some inklings of something better in grocery stores - I love the roasted chickens. But there could be so much more.

By Wrlompstph (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

I forgot to say, too, That's just maybe 1500 Cal. of soup, maybe? This approach of measuring things in terms of meals makes it hard to get things in perspective.

Furthermore, you have to eat well more or less every day, not just for dinner once in a while, if you are to get significant health effects.

By Wrlompstph (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm frankly not sure what exactly this discussion is about - I think the difficulty of cooking for yourself in a processed food world. Please allow me to make a few points. First, the Harvard food pyramid has exercise as its base. The way I take this is that we must get our metabolism on an "aerobic" basis. As for the cookery here, I am writing a cookbook where I try to deal with some of the issues of our "Brave New World" of processed foods, lack of time, and good taste. I won't get into it, except I note the bowl of soup has a glare on its surface from the flash photography. I am definitely going to try an "underwater" shot where I get the camera looking into the soup below the surface. For this cookbook, I have a studio and $10,000 in camera equipment to photograph the food and process of making it. For anyone interested in the technical details, the glare is of course due to the "Fresnel reflection" from the refractive index mismatch. This is easily overcome, but then you have the job of making an interesting photo from the "inner world of soup." By the way, I should mention that there is a theory of chicken soup, that the soluble collagen it introduces into our GI tract "conditions" the immune cells there to be more tolerant of our own body's collagen. There is a reason 70% of our T-cells line the gut, and the thinking is they need reminding not to engage in "Palace revolts" such as we see in auto-immune diseases. Whether or not you think this theory has legs, it is worth noting that Frances Crick said that it was a big mystery how the body develops allergies to foods not even incorporated into the body, but just traveling in the gut. Then there's the fascinating issue of gut microflora, modern food, and antibiotics...

By john brookes (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Making your own definitely does take more time than getting fast food or other options, but there are ways of making it easier for people who are time stretched.

1. Join a CSA - in many cases your food is delivered to your door. Can't get faster than that. Many CSAs have meat, honey, wool, fruit, flower, and (near the coast) even fish shares - that is, along with your tomatoes and peppers you can get your chicken in the box. When our family ran a CSA, we including eggs, bread and flowers routinely, and people could buy poultry as well - they just had to provide a cooler to put it in.

A good CSA will also explain what's in your box and how to cook it, including recipe suggestions. This is not helpful for those too poor to purchase through a CSA, or in areas without one, but it is good for many people near major metropolitan areas.

For everyone with any margin at all in their budget, I would suggest the combination of a CSA and bulk purchasing, ideally through a coop or direct from farmers, but there are also buying clubs and other options. This allows people to not go grocery shopping. Visiting the farmer's market is a burden on Saturday if you also have to stop at three other stores. Visiting the farmer's market is a viable option if you are replacing your grocery store trip. This is particularly important for folks in food deserts (I live in a rural one) because it allows them to reduce not only trips, but often, the paid cab rides that go with grocery shoppping. One can build up a reserve quite gradually, and get to the point where you simply don't have to shop often.

It won't get you roast chicken, but the crockpot is the best friend of busy people. It is a comparatively reasonably energy user, and the magic of the crockpot is that a four hour stew takes 12 minutes of chopping to prepare and magically appears at the end of the day. Most of us can't pick up fast food that fast ;-).

Having "moved to the big city" after I left home, I spent way too many years living in such a food desert, and additionally not even being able to afford a car to get to farmers' markets and such. Even where there was public transport or offers from friends, it still wasn't so much an option because of, precisely as you say, time. I was working two jobs, not three, but my few free hours were devoted most purely to sheer exhaustion. So I have first-hand experience of being one of those sorts to have depended on cheap, nasty, mass-produced fast food. There is a point at which you don't care what you're eating, so long as it requires little money and little effort and fills you up -- and this is a point to which many people are forced by circumstances. (Yes, crockpots ARE good. But you need something decent to put in them, too.)

Home-made healthy food is often an unaffordable luxury to the working poor whose main concern is making the rent and paying at least one of the bills each month so that you don't get turned over to collection agencies.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Knowledge is one of the biggest things holding people back, as well as habit. You can make healthy food cheaply and without too much time if you know how and can plan ahead. But how many of us know? There's also the matter of an initial investment in cooking equipment.

In my area not only can you get a CSA share if you're wealthy enough, but you can buy a CSA share and have the farm automatically donate half of it to Second Harvest foodshelves. This is great -- my husband and I can't eat a whole share all by ourselves, and we get to provide fresh produce to someone who certainly would not be able to pay the CSA price. Look into this, folks, in your areas!

I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that the concept of a CSA share does not exist in Greene County. I know of one tiny farm market, but it might actually be located in neighboring Fayette County. Apparently now there is a farmers market in Waynesburg from May to October which I think is relatively new, but I don't know how extensive it is. It is good to see this.

I do make that kind of soup occasionally, so I'll go with laziness (a virtue!). I was so excited when we got a farmer's market in the parking lot of the local "Grocery Outlet" (did you know that potatoes can come in cans?), in my "transitional" neighborhood. But it was a pretty vacant FM until this summer (it's summer only,Friday afternoons) when they started accepting food stamps. More people=more farmers=even more people. And veal bones!

I think my city is OK in the food desert department, but that might be me seeing it from a car-based POV.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 25 Jan 2010 #permalink

Zuska, I don't know how proximate they are, but does list 11 CSA shares within proximity of Waynesburg, including a couple over the border in WV.

The bigger issue with CSAs of course is that they are very hard for low income households to afford, because you have to come up with the money in advance. In many cases the shares are actually quite reasonable, given the amount of food you get, but asking low income households to frontload their food budget for months is almost impossible for most people. When we ran our CSA, we offered 2 free and 3 low income shares, and most of the CSA farmers I know do this, but they can only do this by serving more affluent populations the rest of the time. At this point, food stamps can't be used for advance payment on CSAs, although there's an attempt to get this changed, and many farmers will take month to month - but it takes asking.

When my husband's grandparents were alive, Eric and I also did the shopping for a number of seniors in my region - they could afford (for the small quantities they wanted) to buy local and would prefer better food. They had the time to cook, often. What they didn't have, if they had to give up driving, was transportation to the local farmer's market, so we used to collect their lists and purchase for them. This would probably make a good side business for someone who wants to shop at the farmer's market anyway.


Oh, those "food deserts" - and the people who don't have time to cook - I've been vegan for several years and find that work, study exercise and caring for the bipedal and quadrupedal family, veggie garden etc still leaves plenty of time to cook - seldom spending more than 20 preparation/cooking time for a highly nutritious meal - it's not bloody rocket science! And best of all, you get up from the table and can say "and no-one got hurt...." Have a look at the World Wildlife UK report on food production and climate-changing emissions if any other reasons are needed to stop killing defenceless animals.

How nice for you, Rita.

I guess we're not all as virtuous as you are.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 28 Jan 2010 #permalink

OK Rita, if it's all that simple, I expect you'll be coming over tomorrow night to cook a highly nutritious dinner for me and my partner. It cannot contain mushrooms or anything with spicy peppers. Other than that, feel free to bring ingredients.

Cooking is work. This is part of why we pay people to do it for us, when we can. Shopping is work; hence FreshDirect, PeaPod, etc. All of those cost money, trading off for time. Some people can't spare much of either, or have other priorities.

Oh, and does that 20 minutes (I assume you mean minutes) include the time it's taken you to learn your recipes?