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Good for what ails you

Chicken soup has been scientifically proven to help ease cold symptoms

There is an old physician’s saying that a cold, left untreated, will last seven days while a cold that is treated will last about a week.

Well I’m half way through a particularly virulent strain and feeling pretty miserable but I managed to throw together my favourite home remedy – spicy chicken soup. Sure, there are lots of cold medicines available at the local drugstore but most of those only treat certain symptoms and more often than not will leave you feeling more groggy and irritable and your wallet a little less fat. There are no cures for the common cold but easing the symptoms – sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, fatigue – can be done by throwing some key ingredients into a pot.

Chicken soup has long been a folk remedy for the common cold. There are historical records dating back to as early as the 12th century showing chicken soup prescribed as a cold and asthma remedy. More recently the medicinal claims have been put to the test and scientific research backs folk lore, chicken soup does help alleviate a cold, but the findings vary.

Pulmonary specialist and professor at the UCLA School for Medicine, Irwin Ziment, M.D., found that when chicken is cooked it releases an amino acid which chemically resembles acetylcysteine, a drug commonly prescribed for bronchitis and other respiratory ailments. He also points out that many spices that are traditional ingredients of chicken soup – pepper, garlic, or onions, for example (all ancient treatments for respiratory diseases) – help to thin mucous and make breathing easier.

Another researcher, Stephen Rennard, Larson Professor of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., used his wife’s Lithuanian mother’s recipe for chicken soup as the test subject in his work with inflammatory white blood cells, also called neutrophils. Inflammation in the bronchial tubes is often the result of an accumulation of neutrophils, which then cause cold symptoms such as congestion and coughs. Neutrophils showed less tendency to congregate in the presence of "Grandma’s soup", even when diluted 200 times. In other words, the chicken soup helped to slow the progress of a cold.

A true researcher, Dr. Rennard also tested various store bought soups with even better results. Knorr’s Chicken Flavor Chicken Noodle, Campbell’s Home Cookin’ Chicken Vegetable and Campbell’s Healthy Request Chicken Noodle were the three top brands (he tested several others too) that effectively slowed the progress of colds.

One could argue that any hot liquid which produces steam helps alleviate colds by increasing the flow of mucous, thereby reducing respiratory inflammation. But in controlled studies with hot water, chicken soup performed better. Studies also show that if chicken soup is drunk through a straw the benefit is not as good as if it is taken from a cup or a bowl, so it must have something to do with inhaling the soup’s aroma. In addition, it has also been shown that the effectiveness of chicken soup is in the broth, not the bits of chicken in the soup.

Chicken broth and chicken stock are not the same thing, although the two terms are used interchangeably. Broth is made from either a whole chicken or pieces of chicken simmered until they are done, while stock is made by simmering the bones from a chicken for a long time until all the flavour is leached out of them into the liquid. Both broth and stock can be used as soup bases.

I often make chicken stock at home out of the leftover bones picked off of everyone’s dinner plates after we share a roast chicken. I throw the whole lot into a tall, narrow pot, fill it to an inch of the top with water and set it on very low heat to simmer overnight. The long simmer dissolves the gelatinous bits and breaks the bones down. In the morning the reduced stock is strained and left to cool. During cooling the fat accumulates at the top and I skim that off before freezing it or putting it in the fridge, to be used within the next two days.

The only problem with this method is my husband’s complaints about the dirty gym sock smell that permeates the whole house. I like the smell because I find it comforting and it gives me great satisfaction that I am using as much of the animal as I can without wasting it.

True stock masters will simmer vegetables to help flavour their soups. I prefer to leave veggies out because I don’t know what I might use the stock for and I prefer to add ingredients later.

One must be careful not to let the stock boil as this will cause it to become cloudy; instead it should be kept at a gentle simmer.

Homemade stock or broth is always better than any store bought variety, which is often flat and bland, but time is often a problem – I want soup today, not two days from now. Edna Lewis’s cookbook In Pursuit of Flavour has an excellent recipe for chicken broth which is made within an hour. Basically the method uses a whole chicken (about 4 pounds), hacked up into small pieces and cooked with a chopped onion until the chicken loses its pink colour. The pot is then covered and the chicken and onion are cooked over low heat until the juices are released – about 20 minutes. Then water is added and simmered 20 minutes longer. The chicken pieces can be removed and once cooled, the meat separated from the bones and shredded to add to the soup or for a cold salad.

The most time consuming part of this method is hacking up the chicken; it takes a good cleaver or heavy chef knife and a strong arm. If you want a good broth that is fast and a little cheaper than a whole chicken, use the same method with four pounds of chicken backs and necks, hacked into two inch pieces with a cleaver. The chicken solids will need to be discarded after making and straining the broth.

My favourite chicken soup recipe comes from Barbara Kafka’s cookbook, Roasting . I double or even triple the amount of aromatics that she uses in this recipe and regardless if it works to help slow down the onset of a cold, it is certainly comforting and, depending on the chilies used, nasal-passage clearing.

Chicken Soup with Zing

Makes 4 cups

• Add a cup and a half of leftover roasted chicken in shreds or cubes to make a hearty soup. This can easily be doubled or tripled for a large group.

• 4 cups basic chicken stock or broth

• half cup of water

• 2 thin slices of gingerroot, unpeeled

• 2 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced, lengthwise

• 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, deribbed, and chopped fine

• 6 fresh mint leaves

• 3 scallions, trimmed to five inches, white and green parts cut separately lengthwise into thin slices

• quarter cup fresh lemon juice

• quarter cup tightly packed fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped, plus several whole leaves for topping

• Kosher salt, to taste

• freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put the stock, water, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno in a medium saucepan. Cook, covered, over medium low heat about 20 minutes. When the garlic is almost cooked through, after about 15 minutes, add mint and scallion whites. After three minutes more, add scallion greens, and cook until just wilted, about one minute. Add lemon juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Warm throughout. Serve broth with a cilantro leaf or two in each bowl.