A Chicken in Every Soup Pot

It's hot. It's steamy. It's rated G (good for you). But how does it taste?

A hush falls over the test kitchen of Seattle Weekly, as mugs of steaming chicken soup are placed before the tasting panel. We are kidnapped by memory, transported to those winter weekend lunches under windows steamed opaque. Can you hear the whispered "Careful, it's hot . . . "? Is it any wonder that the promise of America is a chicken in every pot? That grocery shelves groan under the varieties of chicken soup? "If you ask any grandmother around the world, 'What's best for a cold?' the most common answer will be 'chicken soup,'" writes pharmacist Tammy Chernin on the Swedish Medical Center Web site. Stephen Rennard went a step farther. He looked at his Latvian grandmother's chicken soup and asked: Why? Rennard, a professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska, experimented and reported in the October 2002 issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians, that he found chicken soup can help reduce congestion. Thus was "proved" what your mom, grandma, and everyone since the Egyptian Jewish physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides in the 12th century has said: Chicken soup is good for what ails you. But which chicken soup (apart from Grandma Rennard's) tastes best? We assembled a team of volunteers to check out some easily accessible brands. Our taste test begins inauspiciously: The tasting manager (OK, me) fails to dilute the Kroger house-brand soup as directed. The tasters empty a sleeve of saltines to cleanse their palates. It's almost cruel to offer Amy's No Chicken Noodle soup next. The consensus: Nice try, Amy, but you haven't found a substitute for the only ingredient that matters. Three contestants, Progresso, Campbell's Classic, and handmade soup from nearby Kosher Delight, are taste-tested, and they are . . . good. Progresso gets good marks for the structural integrity of the vegetables and noodles; a rich, not-so-salty broth; and a nice, light chicken taste. Campbell's stands out for its noodles, both in shape (skinny, not curly) and quantity. There is not much chicken (OK, which early tester spooned up all the meat?), but the flavor is good, and it has the right ratio of stuff to broth. Kosher Delight's matzoh ball soup? It has a nice broth that is light and homey, with good chicken flavor. The soup is tasty, just as one would expect: Owner/chef Michel Chriqui, a native of Morocco, uses his mother's recipe. Still, the fan of stuff wants more stuff. Three more widely available canned soups bring in mixed results. Wolfgang Puck's brand is noted for having a thick broth, lots of wild rice (though it's in want of some vegetables), and good chicken—in fact, "better chicken than most canned soup." No one had anything good to say about Walnut Acres Certified Organic chicken soup, and Shelton's brand did not fare any better. Bubbe's, from Metropolitan Market, draws satisfied sighs and the highest praise. "Looks appealing before any tasting." "You can definitely taste the vegetables." "Real chicken texture, well-cooked noodles, tasty veggies." Peas delighted the tasters, and Bubbe's is judged "the only one so far that I can imagine being good for you when you're sick." With such a tough act to follow, Tabatchnik, a frozen kosher chicken soup, is found to have too much salt and not enough chicken. Are we wrong to seek the Platonic ideal of chicken soup? The experts at homecooking.about.com suggest there are many paths to perfection. "Basic chicken soup begins with a broth made by cooking the chicken with savory vegetables (such as onions, carrots, and celery) and herbs (usually sage, thyme, bay leaf, and parsley). From the basic stock, you can vary your soup by adding your favorite vegetables, pasta, or rice. Combinations for chicken soup are as limitless as your imagination." Then again, guest taster Judith, no slouch in chicken-soup cooking, reminds us: "Chicken. All the rest is commentary." jgarrett@seattleweekly.com Research and testing by Heather Logue and Neal Schindler.

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