Posted by Tania Kindersley.
As you may have gathered by now, I yield to no one in my faith in the healing power of chicken soup. (My cousin says I must stop citing Italian and Jewish mothers as my witnesses in this regard, since it is just playing to stereotype, and if there is anything I hate more than a dangling modifier, it is an idle stereotype; so from now on, I mend my ways, and apologise unreservedly for past transgressions.) Anyway, there I was, all filled with Christmas gloom, which was not helped by the news this morning that last month Britain borrowed more money in one single 30 day period than at any time since RECORDS BEGAN, when I got the news that my poor niece was suffering with a hacking cough and a filthy cold. 'Should I make soup?' I ventured. Soup, it seemed, would be the very thing.
At once I was galvanised. The grumpiness melted away like snow on a sunny day. I had a mission. I would cure the patient with soup. I had no time to rake over the catastrophic financial news and the inexplicable fact that everyone has had two years to prepare for the Copenhagen meeting, and yet no one can agree on anything, the radio reports that the talks are in 'chaos', and it looks like all those carbon emissions from private jets and presidential motorcades will have been emitted in vain. I had a job to do.
There are as many recipes for chicken soup as there are mulish cooks who insist their version is the best. I like the old English one with carrots and potatoes and onions. I also adore the spicy citressy noodly ones of the East, which I make with chillies, the juice of a lime, coriander, mint, and glass noodles, in a sort of Thai/Vietnamese melange. Sometimes I make a thick creamy one with mascarpone. In a perfect world, one should start from scratch, simmering a whole chicken for a couple of hours with bay leaves and onions to cook the meat and produce the stock at the same time, but I had no bird in the fridge, and there was no time to go to the shop. So I cheated, I do not mind admitting. And because I wanted as many vitamins and minerals in the mix for the poor patient, I went with my green version.
Should you need to banish the winter blues, and only have half an hour to do so, here is the rough recipe. Play around with it as you please.
Take two chicken breasts and poach them gently in simmering water with a tablespoon of Marigold bouillon powder. Meanwhile, very finely chop an onion, two or three sticks of celery, and a couple of fat cloves of garlic. Sweat them in extra virgin olive oil for five minutes or so. I like to use olive oil in this recipe, because it gives a clean flavour to the broth. I think butter would be too rich. Then add about a litre of chicken stock if you have it, or water with a tablespoon of Marigold if you do not. I do strongly recommend that you use no other stock cube or powder; all the others I have ever tried are too salty or too greasy. You can get Marigold now in almost every supermarket, and it really is the closest thing to proper stock I have ever tasted that comes out of a pot.
Cook for fifteen minutes at a low boil. Then add one finely sliced leek and simmer for another five minutes. The fine chopping of all the ingredients is important, because you do not want great chunks of stuff floating around; it takes a little more time and concentration, but it really does make a tremendous difference. It's a texture thing.
By now the chicken breasts will be ready. Tear them or chop them into smallish pieces and add them to the soup. And finally take a handful of watercress, chop roughly, and throw it in. Cook for another couple of minutes, just so the leaves are wilted but still a vivid green. Check for seasoning. A good screw of black pepper is an excellent addition, although sometimes I like a little scatter of finely sliced dried chilli for a real kick. If you feel strong enough, you can finish the whole thing off with a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
And there you are.
It is not as perfect a thing as the proper version with the stock from scratch, but it is quick and easy and still very delicious. And if you are anything like me, the very making of it will make you feel suddenly as Christmassy as all get out.