Chicken soup for the soul.

Real chicken soup for the soul. Image from Nino Zoccali’s new book, Pasta Artigiana.

I don’t have a Jewish grandmother. Chicken soup was a mystery to me. My grandmother didn’t make it. My mother didn’t make it (although, uncharacteristically, she did sometimes give us packet chicken noodle soup for lunch when my brother and I were little — we loved it…).

A lovely neighbour, on hearing recently that I’d had a cold, told me that, if he’d known, he would have cooked chicken soup for me (yes, gay, of course). But he didn’t. No one has ever cooked chicken soup for me.

For me, chicken soup for the soul, as a point of reference, an article of faith, a medicinal force, a healer and a comforter, has always been a thing of the imagination.

And surely you can’t cook chicken soup for yourself. A travesty, yes? No. Not when you’ve discovered the secret to the best chicken soup in the world.

This winter I acquired The Knowledge.

As the chill started and I started sneezing, I craved soup. I craved something sourish and chilli-hot. I thought of an Asian fish soup but flicking through Melbourne food writer and teacher Meera Freeman’s The Vietnamese Cookbook (later re-released as The Flavours of Vietnam*), I stopped at her chicken pho. I thought of the fragrance of Vietnamese mint, of the spike of chilli, of the squeeze of a lime segment and got cooking.

Freeman’s stock base called for two chicken carcasses, a whole chicken on top of that, ginger, fish sauce, black peppercorns, brown onions. As it simmered, ever so slowly (“You just have to let it shudder,” she says), I realised I was on a path of no return. I started to understand.

The secret of soulful chicken soup lies in a calculation.

Time+effort+generosity=soul.

The time, two, three hours, as the broth shudders away in the stock pot and the bones and flesh and skin release their essence. The effort required to skim away the impurities that rise to the surface of that shuddering broth. The generosity in the use of a whole chicken to supplement carcass/bones in that broth. This is not some lean, mean thing based on a bag of bones. This is a broth that has taken quite some detour from any peasant origins it might once have claimed.

Following Freeman’s method led to a voluptuous but clear, intensely flavoured soup (the whole chicken comes out when it’s cooked; the broth continues to cook for another hour or more). Aromatics at the end. Winter seemed not so impossible.

But winter kept on keeping on. It was still winter last Sunday night and I was annoyed. I was low. I turned the pages of Sydney chef Nino Zoccali’s new book, Pasta Artigiana (Murdoch Books, $49.99). I considered pasta. I considered pulling out the dusty pasta machine. I kept turning the pages.

And there was Auntie Lidia’s chicken meatball soup with risoni. I got cooking. And there it was again in the ingredients list — a whole chicken, as well as another kilogram of chicken bones. With those into the stockpot: carrot, celery, leek (no bouquet garni). And a surprise ingredient in the stock — the rind from a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

I brought it all to a slow simmer, I skimmed until there was nothing left to skim and then I left the kitchen for a while and hoped for alchemy.

I returned later, to peer in the pot and for the therapeutic mixing and rolling of the meatballs. Bunbury-raised Nino Zoccali, who has been eating his Perth-based Calabrian Auntie Lidia’s chicken soup for as long as he can remember, points to the cheesiness of the meatballs as a vital element in the soup. But he acknowledges that whole chicken’s role in the soup base. “The great stocks, you do use a whole chicken,” says Zoccali, owner/chef of the Strand Arcade’s Pendolino restaurant and La Rosa Pizza.

That whole bird, giving its all for my soup. On my stove now, the movement of that soup’s simmer is pushing those little meatballs up and down and the kitchen is filling with the most marvellous aromas. Winter is bearable again.

And as I devour it, it’s confirmed: this is the most soulful of soups. Substantial, nurturing. A prince among soups, the chicken soup of my imagination. I don’t need a Jewish grandmother.

* Copies of Meera Freeman’s Flavours of Vietnam are available through her website.

Chicken broth (Brodo di pollo)

Makes approximately 2.5 litres (87 fl oz/10 cups)

1–1.2 kg (2 lb 4 oz–2 lb 10 oz) free-range chicken or boiling hen

1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) fresh chicken bones, thoroughly washed

100 g (31/2 oz) carrot, roughly chopped

100 g (31/2 oz) celery stalks, roughly chopped

100 g (31/2 oz) leek, roughly chopped

100 g (31/2 oz) onion, roughly chopped

100 g (31/2 oz) Parmigiano Reggiano cheese rind

3 flat-leaf (Italian) parsley sprigs

4 litres (140 fl oz/16 cups) water

fine sea salt, to taste

Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer without a lid for 21/2–3 hours. Skim away the excess fat and other particles that come to the surface of the liquid throughout the cooking process. Remove the chicken, shred the meat from the bones (discard the skin and bones) strain the liquid through a fine strainer and refrigerate. If there is excess fat, it will solidify at the top of the refrigerated broth. Remove this with a spoon before using the broth.

Auntie Lidia’s chicken meatball soup with risoni (Polpettini in brodo della zia)

2.4 litres (84 fl oz) chicken broth (see recipe above)

fine sea salt, to taste

200 g (7 oz) risoni

freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, to serve (optional)

Meatballs:

300g (101/2 oz) minced (ground) chicken

2 x 59 g (21/4 oz) free-range or organic eggs

90 g (31/4 oz/11/2 cups) fresh white breadcrumbs

150 g (51/2 oz/11/2 cups) freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

11/2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

fine sea salt, to taste

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To make the meatballs, mix all the meatball ingredients together. Roll into balls that are 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter and set aside on a plate or tray. My auntie’s tip for rolling the meatballs is to lightly cover your hands with olive oil as this makes rolling very easy and prevents the mixture from sticking to your hands.

Bring the chicken broth to the boil. Season with the sea salt, being careful not to overseason as the meatballs will add saltiness to the soup. Add the chicken meatballs one by one. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes before adding the pasta. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring the risoni intermittently. Serve topped with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, if desired.