A Food Writer's Chicken Soup for the Soul: Caldo de Gallina
North Country winters are harsh. The mercury hovers at -10° Fahrenheit, and the sun negotiates an abridged arc in skies that are more often gray than not. On these days, as the wind roars through pines and rattles the old windowpanes, I seek comfort in the kitchen, one of the warmest rooms in my upstate New York 1820s farmhouse. This is chicken soup weather.
My go-to soup recipe is a treasured souvenir of an extended journey far from home, one I picked up during a research trip to the Peruvian Andes, where Quechua ladies prepare caldo de gallina, or hen soup, at stalls in Cusco's San Pedro Market. Here, frugal cooks use tough stewing hens that are long past laying eggs. Older birds are often stringy but create rich stock. They aren't always readily available, though, so I've learned a roaster is a fine alternative, aged enough to produce similarly concentrated flavor with even more meat on its bones. Following breakfast, I set a large stockpot on the stove and then quarter a chicken, adding the pieces to aromatics in cold, filtered water. I set the soup to simmer, then peel and chop more ingredients to add later.
My dog Dharma wants to go out. She doesn't mind subzero temperatures or the onset of a storm, and bounds through the snowdrifts after a squirrel that foolishly attempts to raid the bird feeder. I lower the heat on the stove and pull on an Arctic goose-down parka, then stomp a path to the garage to gather firewood as flurries swirl in the wind.
Dharma returns from her romp. We hustle back inside, snow melting on the heart pine floors. I haul logs into the dining room and start a fire there as the last light fades in the west. The dog flops down next to the blaze. I add potatoes, then noodles, as starchy thickeners. After hours of slow cooking, the chicken breaks down into tender morsels that easily shred with a fork, and the pot liquor turns golden. It smells gamey and herbal, like a cure for homesickness. Peruvians traditionally add a squeeze of lime, fiery chiles, and chopped cilantro before serving. These garnishes brighten the heady broth, adding subtle heat to each mouthful. I spoon some into a bowl as the windows steam up, hiding the blizzard outside for a little while.
View Recipe: Caldo De Gallina (Peruvian Hen Soup)
A corner of Cusco's San Pedro Market is devoted to open kitchens where Quechua women make this soup with new crop potatoes and tough old stewing hens, which can stand up to the long simmering time better than young chickens. We find that widely available roasting hens—older than broilers and fryers—work just fine, growing tender and succulent after hours of stewing. The lime-herb-chile garnish makes the dish sing with flavor.
Shane Mitchell's new cookbook, Far Afield (Ten Speed Press, $40), showcases recipes gathered from her years of world travel. Her insightful profiles of farmers, fishermen, and other culinary stewards make it as enjoyable to read as the recipes are to cook.