New Year, new start – chicken soup and a return to healthiness

New Year is a time for reflection – and as ever, I’ve been reflecting about food…! The Romans dedicated New Year to Janus, who was depicted with two heads: one looking back at the old year, the other looking forwards to the new (stick with me – this will make sense in a moment!). For me, January is definitely a head with two mouths – one mouth saying it never wants to eat a calorie-laden, rich, roast-type dinner again, the other begging “Feed me! It’s cold and I want a lot of carbs!” The answer to this annual diet dilemma is simple: chicken soup.

Often called “soul food”, chicken soup is a perfect combination of hearty and healthy. Warming and nourishing, it is versatile, can be very simple to make, and is a great way of using chicken leftovers and other store cupboard ingredients. You can bulk it out with bread, or keep it as “temple food” by adding veg rather than starch. It’s wonderful.

We’ve all heard of “Jewish penicillin”, chicken soup as a means of bringing nurturing comfort to the poorly, tired, or just a bit fed-up. Chicken soup can be like a cuddle in a bowl, something Jewish mums have known for centuries.

Jewish chicken soup is essentially a chicken stock. For a really rich version, a whole bird is used; however it’s still fabulous if you use the bones. The chicken or the carcass is simmered with onions, carrots and other root vegetables, celery and parsley for at least a couple of hours, then strained and seasoned. It couldn’t be more wholesome.

However, for true Jewish penicillin, you need something hearty to float in the nutritious broth. Nigella Lawson writes in her book Nigella Bites that “it’s traditional to sully its purity with starch: go for lockshen (vermicelli) or go native with kneidlach, which are best described as cracker-meal dumplings.” Kneidlach are better known as “matzo balls” – try Nigella’s recipe. For the real kosher version (that is absolutely delicious), you need to use schmalz (chicken fat) instead of butter to make the dough. Not always easy to get; however you can make your own by skimming the chicken fat off the soup and cooling it.

So, if anyone in your family is suffering from a winter cold or the January blues, treat them to a bowl of chicken soup, with or without the dumplings.

As well as needing cosiness in January, we quite often want to feel healthier. A soup can be an extremely nutritious way of still having comfort food while helping you feel cleansed of the festive feasting (and it can be excellent calorie-wise as well). My favourite is a zingy carrot and coriander soup. Using a chicken stock as the base, the combination of sweet carrots and herbs and spices is lovely and uplifting. Jamie Oliver does a nice, straightforward version. Add red lentils for an iron-rich and thicker-textured soup.

After all the traditional food of Christmas, it’s also nice to spice things up a bit in January. Here’s a Thai-inspired chicken noodle soup that is served with delectable little chicken balls. The soup has those lovely Asian flavours: chilli, lemongrass, lime, fresh coriander. A lovely, healthy zing on a cold day. For a different sort of spiciness, try using your chicken stock as the base for a Mexican-style soup. Here’s one that’s includes chicken breasts – unusually, it doesn’t have any pinto or kidney beans in it, but you could always add them anyway, for an extra Mexican hit.

There are just a few variants of the wonderful hug-in-a-mug that is chicken soup. Start 2016 as you mean to go on, with some gorgeous soup recipes that have so much to offer in terms of flavour, nutrition, and general well-being. If you have a favourite chicken soup recipe that you’d like to share, please drop me a line – I plan to spend a lot of January in front of my stock pot!

Happy New Year!