Another stew post, for which I apologize; the rain made it impossible to think about anything else.
There’s something subterranean about the rains. Or maybe the proper word is hermetic, underground being only one form of hermetic retreat. Habagat-curdled sky, sky like a solid shell, the shuttered condo a shell inside a shell of rain. Inside the shell, fire, and something on the boil.
For the rains, I made chicken soup based on the recipe passed on to my wife by an hermetic friend we’ll Call B. More a list of tips, really, but one that’s guaranteed to make a stew that’ll wrap the soul in flannel and rock it to sleep by the memory of a primordial fire.
According to B, the best chicken soup is made with 1) “bits with bones” and 2) “near-tasteless, extremely boring ‘chicken broth’ from the store” mixed roughly in a 3:4 ratio with water. Call it 1 part broth to:2 parts water, just to make it easier to remember. I use Swanson broth, that goes for less than Php50 a can in Unimart’s soup aisle. (Unimart is located in the Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan). I’m pretty sure a fragment of Knorr cube would do, though I wouldn’t know how much to use as I haven’t tried the substitution yet myself. However much cube it would take to leave the water “near-tasteless”, I guess. Or, to put it positively, however much cube it takes to change the taste of the water.
A kilo of chicken necks goes for something like Php80 in Unimart. To this I added a couple of chicken thighs to have a couple of non-fiddly chunks of meat fit to tear with a fork. B likes to supercharge hers with collagen from chicken feet as well. I’d have followed her example except that the rains made more shopping seem affected in the face of the net’s compedium of watery disasters. With half the city submerged, I figured I’d let the feet go.
Like I said, the ‘recipe’ is really more a skeleton to be fleshed out with found specifics. Once the kilo of bony meat (which made something like six big servings in our 5.5 liter pot) is taken care of, practically anything else excepting cabbage, (which sours the leftovers, and you don’t want to cook anything for four hours and not have leftovers to show) can be added to the pot. Onions, carrots, garlic, corn (white corn is a very good addition), lentils, string beans, leftover beef, frozen gyoza, and so on. Go nuts.
First, drop a good handful of rock salt and maybe a half cup of vinegar on the chicken parts, channel your inner WWF and give them a good twisty manhandling. This should cut most of the smell from them. Rinse them out (twice to be sure of getting out all the salt) and fry in batches so the fat between the skin ans the muscle renders out and you get a bit of browning on the skins. Don’t worry if bits wind up sticking to the pan. You’re frying a bunch of chicken necks (and/or feet) after all: don’t worry about things tearing.
It’s a good idea to have a lid handy that you can prop loosely over the proceedings. You need to let the steam escape but keep the oil (and chicken necks render a LOT of oil) from spattering a coat of chicken lard over everything. Put the pieces in a big pot after browning.
Chop the root vegetables (onions, carrots, potatoes etc) roughly, (pieces about as big as ping-pong balls is good), brown them, and add to the pot. Deglaze the pan with water, the crap chicken broth, or leftover wine, taking care to scrape up the brown bits. I added two cans of Swansons chicken broth and used one of the cans to add four cans of water, enough to cover the mess.
DON’T add ANY salt at all, but do add a tablespoon or two of black peppercorns. I put them in loose, but it occurs to me now to say that if there’s any scrap of cloth (scrap of an old washed T-shirt, etc) you can get over putting into your soup (Peace: it’s going to boil for four hours. Any residual dirt on that shirt’ll be sterile dirt in three hours), I’d say use it to wrap the peppercorns so you can fish them out at the end. De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say, but I don’t like being ambushed by minty little explosions of boiled peppercorn when I’m chowing down on my stew. Breaks the groove.
Put the pot in the stove, bring to a boil, then move it to the smallest burner and cover loosely with a lid. Prop the lid loosely askew on the pot to leave a goodly-sized gap so the steam can escape: you want at least a third of the liquid to boil away before you serve this baby up. The idea is to control the heat so you have one little area in the middle of the pot bubbling away, with everything else just soaking in a hot bath. Three of four hours of this will fill the whole house with an aroma that is very nearly the Platonic opposite of rain.
Every hour or so you should take a spoon to the sides of the pot where most of the fat will gravitate. Ideally, the pot’s sides will be cool enough so that the fat will actually wrinkle when you scoop it up with your spoon. This is slightly fiddly work, but kind of restful if you remember not to worry about the bits that get away. Once an hour is plenty. Bask in the vapors of what is probably the best-tasting thing in a radius of a couple of kilometers. Think happy thoughts.
B throws everything out after her 4-hour ritual. Feet, necks, everything, says all the goodness has been boiled out. I can understand throwing the feet out, not the necks, which, I’m sorry, taste like they have plenty of goodness left in them. At most, I might cut the skins off before I serve it at table, but the necks definitely stay in the pot.
Add a handful of green stuff maybe ten minutes before serving. Chopped green onions, chopped kuchay, baguio beans, whatever you like. The photo is a snap from the soup’s second life at table, augmented with frozen gyoza, chopped kutchay and grated lemon zest. It was, I should say, nothing like tinola. Tinola is a soup of lightness and simplicity, maybe even minimalist elegance.
This is a stew of depth and excess. A lake of earthy richness filled with various and wonderful amusements, a liquid hymn to the passing of the great feathered dinosaurs that bequeathed their genes and proteins to gallus domesticus, whose bones we brew for solace and benediction, in this season of rains.