AS SOON AS people around me start coughing, I start making chicken soup.
Scientists do not exactly guarantee that eating chicken soup will help you dodge the misery of a cold or the flu. However, researchers at the Nebraska Medical Center did conclude a few years ago that chicken soup can block a type of white blood cell over-stimulation that causes inflammation and leads to some upper-respiratory cold symptoms.
I read some of the write-ups of this chicken-soup study in medical publications. It was not easy going. They had sentences that read like this: "As it is likely that the clinical similarity of the diverse infectious processes that can result in 'colds' is due to a shared inflammatory response, an effect of chicken soup in mitigating inflammation could account for its attested benefits."
I translated this to mean "Hey, chicken soup - it couldn't hurt."
I went straight for the strong stuff, the traditional chicken soup that a cookbook recently published by the women of Beth Tfiloh Congregation calls "Jewish penicillin." The cookbook, America Cooks Kosher, has 320 recipes culled from some 800 dishes submitted by cooks throughout Baltimore. (The $30 spiral-bound book is sold at selected bookstores in Baltimore and online at www.bethtfiloh .com/cookbook.)
Shellye Attman Gilden, who with Wendy Miller headed the cookbook committee, told me that the chicken-soup recipe that appears in the book is a composite. It is similar to a recipe used by Gilden and by Nina Wand, another cookbook committee member.
But Gilden said that there were almost as many opinions on how to make chicken soup as there were volunteers who worked on the cookbook (200). As a result, she said, the recipe lays out the fundamental ingredients - a whole chicken, vegetables, herbs - and lists additional touches, such as adding a pinch of saffron, as optional.
One ingredient listed in the recipe that gave me pause was chicken bones. They are essential, Gilden told me, and cheap. However, they were not easy to find. When I asked the fellow at the meat counter at the Super Fresh in Hampden for chicken bones, he gave me a quizzical look before shaking his head no.
Gilden told me a good spot to buy bones is the Seven Mile Market, a kosher grocery on Seven Mile Lane just off Reisterstown Road. But when I arrived there at about 7 p.m. on a Monday the bones were nowhere to be seen and no butcher answered the service bell.
Subsequently I learned that I had visited the store at a bad time for bones. The store's butchers come to work early in the morning and leave in the middle of the afternoon, and so in the evening the bone pickings get slim, a store employee told me. The prime times to buy chicken bones, the employee said, are Wednesday and Thursday mornings, around 11. I left the store boneless.
Later that night, I ended up slicing the bones out of about a dozen chicken thighs, tossing them in the bottom of a large soup pot and briefly roasting them. This did not smell great, but it did, I figured, enhance the flavor of the bones and no doubt would help ward off those white blood cells, called neutrophils, I think, that researchers say go to town stuffing up our noses when we get a cold.
I cut a chicken into quarters, a practice I find therapeutic at the end of a tough day, and dropped it into the pot. Next I chopped vegetables -celery, carrots, an onion - and skinned a couple of parsnips and put them in the pot along with 10 cups of water.
The aromas coming out of the pot got much sweeter when I stirred in a fistful of parsley and a fistful of dill. I brought the mixture to a boil, turned it down to a simmer, then stirred and waited. The steam coming out the pot smelled terrific, and as soon as any neutrophils in my body got a whiff of it, I was sure they would clear out.
After two to three aromatic hours, the chicken soup looked like it was ready. I strained it through a colander. A golden liquid emerged. I poured some in a soup bowl and took a spoonful, then another, then another. It had terrific flavor. It smelled faintly of dill, and roasted bones.
It was, in short, magnificent medicine.
Bubbie Nellye's Traditional Chicken Soup
Serves 6 to 8
2 to 3 stalks celery
1 large onion
2 parsnips, whole
6 to 8 carrots
1 to 1 1/2 bunches fresh dill
1 to 1 1/2 bunches fresh parsley
1 chicken, skin removed, cut into quarters
1 bag chicken bones
10 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of saffron (optional)
Cut up celery, onion, parsnips and carrots and put into a huge pot along with dill, parsley, chicken, chicken bones and water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and cook for 2 to 3 hours. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Strain cooked soup through a colander into a fresh pot. Cut chicken into pieces and return to broth along with cooked carrots. Add optional pinch of saffron to give soup a golden hue.
-- From "America Cooks Kosher" (Beth Tfiloh Congregation, 2004, $30)
Per serving: 159 calories; 25 grams protein; 3 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 6 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 78 milligrams cholesterol; 125 milligrams sodium