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Magical Chicken Soup

To me, everything about chicken soup is magical: the sweet, brothy scent that wafts through the house as the ingredients’ aromas mesh in my stock pot; its deeply comforting flavors as I slowly slurp it down; and the sustained sense of nourishment and belly-warmth I feel long after I have finished my meal. No wonder mothers throughout the ages have administered chicken soup to nourish their loved ones’ bodies and souls.

Every culinary culture has its chicken soup: in China it is perfumed with ginger, scallions, black pepper, soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil; in France they add bay leaf, fresh thyme, garlic and dry white wine; the Greeks flavor their famous avgolemono soup with lemon and thicken it with egg; the colonial Brits added Indian spices and split yellow peas to their traditional English chicken soup, thus creating Mulligatawny—a very useful recipe for any anti-cancer repertory. And let’s not forget that all-time classic, Jewish chicken soup with matzoh balls or egg noodles, widely described as “Jewish penicillin."

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In fact, chicken soup is such an integral part of healing traditions across the world that two Israeli researchers wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association declaring it an “essential drug” (1).

Homemade chicken soup is indeed a concentrated source of nutrients, which is especially important for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy in need of nutrient-rich but easy-to-digest food and hydration. Vegetables, mushrooms and herbs provide a wide range of vitamins and plant chemicals that can help our body get rid of toxins and fight infections. The easily digested protein of chicken meat helps prevent weight loss and supports immune strength. Indeed, chicken soup has even been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect, which may be why it is often used to combat colds and flus (2).

The recipe that follows contains ingredients—onions, leeks, bok choi, garlic, celery and green tea—whose chemical components are thought to enhance the effectiveness of various cancer treatments by increasing cancer cells’ sensitivity to radiation or chemotherapy, protecting the healthy tissues from the effects of the treatment, as well as supporting the liver in breaking down toxins.

This recipe doesn’t involve much work; just some light vegetable scrubbing, peeling, chopping and patience as the chicken, vegetables and herbs yield their comforting aromas to the broth. You can make this as chunky or liquid as you want: if you feel weak and digestively challenged, you may prefer to sip just the broth. If you want something more sustaining, add some finely shredded chicken meat, mushrooms and bok choy, or perhaps a little pre-cooked basmati rice to make the soup even more satisfying.

A small word of warning: according to the Environmental Working Group, celery is often tainted with pesticide residues—in fact, it ranks second on the organization’s “Dirty Dozen” list (2); I recommend buying organic celery only.

The same goes for the chicken you use to make this soup: treat yourself to an organically reared one (ideally, a chicken that’s led an active outdoor life and is a little older than average: the older, the tastier!) Most supermarket chickens are reared at lightning speed in confined spaces and fattened with corn and antibiotics. They may look nice and plump under their shiny shrink wrap, but they have little flavor and contain unhealthy fats since corn is rich in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids that make their way into the meat of the chicken.

 

Magical Chicken Soup (Serves 4-5)

1 small organic chicken (2-3lb/1-1½ kg), any giblets removed

2 leeks, darkest third cut off, rinsed under running water (peeling the outer leaves apart) to re-move any grit; then coarsely chopped

3 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 yellow onion, coarsely chopped

2 ribs organic celery (non-organic celery may contain pesticide residues), coarsely chopped

1 large chunk of fresh ginger root (1-1½ inch/3-4 cm), coarsely sliced

3 cloves garlic, chopped

½ tsp thyme

1 bay leaf

10fl oz/1 ¼ cups/300ml strong green tea

3.5oz/⅔ cup/100g green peas (fresh or frozen)

1 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms

1 head bok choi, green portions finely shredded

½ cup peas (fresh or frozen)

3-4 tbsp cooked rice (optional)

1-2 tbsp lemon juice,

a drizzle of Thai fish sauce (optional)

3 tbsp finely chopped fresh cilantro (coriander) or parsley

salt & freshly ground black pepper

Wash the chicken inside and out and place in a large cooking pot with a lid. Sprinkle the chopped leeks, carrots, onion, celery and ginger around the chicken along with bay leaf, thyme and a table-spoon of lemon juice. Fill the pot with just enough cold water to barely cover the chicken. Bring to the boil, skim off any foam that may rise to the surface, cover and simmer on lowest setting for 1½ hours.

When the chicken is cooked through, lift it out of the broth and set aside to cool on a plate. Pour the broth through a fine-meshed strainer or cheese cloth into another large pot and discard the vegetables. If you want to drink just the broth, season it now with salt, pepper, fish sauce (if desired), lemon juice and add a small sprinkling of chopped cilantro or parsley. (You can shred the chicken meat and freeze it for later use in a salad or soup.)

If you want a more sustaining soup, bring the both back to a simmer and add sliced shiitake mushrooms; cook around 5 minutes until they begin to soften. While the mushrooms are cooking, remove the chicken skin, shred one or both chicken breasts (depending on how much meat you want) and refrigerate or freeze the rest of the meat for another meal.

Add shredded meat, finely sliced bok choi, peas, cooked rice (if using) and green tea to the broth and cook 1-2 minutes until the bok choi is soft but still retains its bright green color.

Season to taste with pepper, salt, fish sauce (if desired) and lemon juice. Sprinkle with cilantro (coriander) or parsley and serve immediately.

References

(1) Is Chicken Soup an Essential Drug? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1230870/pdf/cmaj_161_...

(2) Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard SI. Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11035691

(3) EWG’s Dirty Dozen list http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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