Family Recipes Get Put to the Test in the Chicken Soup Challenge

By Max Gross

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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Think that the golden chicken broth that your mother fed you when you were sick is the greatest panacea in the world? The most delicious? The most salubrious?

Prove it.

On January 8 the National Jewish Outreach Program announced its Chicken Soup Challenge, a national contest to find the best chicken soup in America (beside your mother’s) in an effort to promote the organization’s 8th annual Shabbat Across America event on March 12. Amateur cooks across the country are invited to send in their family recipes. The top five will be selected for the contest’s final cook-off in February, and the winner will receive a trip for two to Israel. (And that’s nothing to cluck at.)

“Chicken soup contest?” asked Arthur Schwartz, former food critic for the New York Daily News and host of “Food Talk” on New York’s WOR 710 AM, upon hearing about the challenge. “How many different ways are there to make chicken soup?”

In its essence, Schwartz argued, chicken soup comes down to putting a chicken in a pot with water and adding vegetables and herbs.

But Jeffrey Nathan, the chef at Abigael’s kosher restaurant in Manhattan and one of the prime organizers of the contest, was horrified at the suggestion that there was only one way to make chicken soup. “You have no idea,” he told the Forward, how many different methods there are.

“It’s like sauce-making,” Nathan said. How long to simmer the chicken is a big factor. How many vegetables to add to the broth is another. Do you leave the skin on the onion or do you peel it? What herbs do you use? Are they dried or fresh?

“It’s very important that the recipe is done in the right manner,” Nathan continued, noting that recipes need to emphasize “lots of tender loving care.”

One shouldn’t doubt the vital role that chicken soup has played in the collective Jewish consciousness. “To many people, Judaism is chicken soup,” said Robert Miller, one of the promoters of the Chicken Soup Challenge.

Schwartz, too, conceded that chicken soup is slightly more complicated than simply dropping a chicken in a pot and letting it simmer. “There’s only one way to make good chicken soup,” said Schwartz. “That’s with a good chicken.” Most kosher chickens are far above average, Schwartz said. But the secret to the best of the kosher chickens is age.

In the olden days, chicken soup was made out of the mature chickens that were long past the egg-laying stage, and not good for much of anything beyond soup. These older hens gave the chicken soup a special sort of richness that’s hard to duplicate with a Perdue Oven-Stuffer.

For those who can’t get a hold of older chickens, Schwartz recommends saving chicken parts: “Collect the necks, stick them in the freezer. Wings are very good too.”

“Another determining factor is that for most people, their goal is clear soup — clear golden broth,” said Schwartz. “There are ways of ‘clarifying’ the soup, if you cook it gently, skim it at the beginning. Certain proteins coagulate and come to the surface. Skim it so that there’s no more shmutz at the top.”

A chicken soup cook-off is not an untried notion. Last year Houston’s Congregation Emanu El Brotherhood invited local Chinese, Italian and Mexican restaurants to participate in its Chicken Soup Cook-off.

This new contest will be slightly different. It is only for the chicken soup purist: no matzo balls, no rice, no MSG or bouillon cubes. No more than 12 ingredients are allowed. All ingredients must be natural — and all kosher.

And unlike other cook-offs, it is not for professionals.

Less than a week after the Outreach Program announced the contest by contacting synagogues and Jewish institutions around the country, submissions began pouring in from California, Massachusetts, Illinois and other areas across the country. Nathan will spend the next month perusing the recipes and trying out the more interesting ones.

On February 24, the five finalists will travel to New York to spend a morning in Abigael’s kitchen cutting, dicing, simmering and seasoning. A panel of five judges will decide the best soup.

When the Forward asked to see some of the recipes that have been submitted, organizers declined to let anyone take a peek. The contest is serious. There shall be no swiping of recipes. This is chicken soup for the competitive soul.

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