Kitchen Tips Tuesday: The Chicken and The Hen

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Last week, I decided to make a pot of chicken soup. I asked my husband to go to the butcher to purchase a soup chicken, which is often an old hen. Respect your elders people, because you are about to hear a tale touting the superiority of the older female.

He ordered the soup chicken and the butcher asked if he wanted a regular chicken, or an old hen. Horrified by the thought of the latter, he opted for the chicken. After cooking the soup for several hours with lots of carrots, onions, parsley, parsnip and celery, the soup seemed thin and  a little bit on the bland side. I put it in jars in the freezer to use another time.

This week, he went back to the butcher and requested the old hen. Same vegetables, same cooking time. This pot of soup is so rich that it fully congealed after it was chilled. A thick layer of fat was skimmed off leaving me a deep golden soup that is full bodied. I placed it in the freezer next to the other stock, and the difference is boldly apparent.

Forgive the bad photo, but a picture paints a thousand words! The "hen" soup is on the left.

Forgive the bad photo, but a picture paints a thousand words! The “hen” soup is on the left.

The quality of the ingredients makes all the difference in the outcome of the dish. As a young cook, I thought that meant using an organic, free range chicken to make soup. I may have gotten the organic part right, but the free range chicken, while superior for eating, lacked the fat and meatiness of the aged hen, which can be a bit tough and stringy after cooking.

Should you make soup that turns out lackluster, there are a few things you can do to salvage it.

Reduce it: After straining out the meat and vegetables, boil the liquid until until it reduces by about 25% or more. This will obviously yield you less, but it will be more flavorful.

Cheat: Add some chicken bouillon and cook it for a bit. It will give you some taste, but may make it a bit salty. Look for the best boullion you can find. Whole Foods carries some that are low sodium and made of more natural ingredients. You can also mix some boxed chicken stock into it to give it more taste.

If it is really bland, freeze it in small containers and use it in place of cooking water for rice, vegetables and other things that might benefit from a little extra something. One man’s bland soup is another man’s tasty cooking water.

Enjoy!

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