Friendship, Food, and Jamaican Chicken Soup

We all look for different virtues in our friends and my list is blissfully short. It’s pretty much about the books, music and food that they love, though not necessarily in that order.

Somehow food always ends up holding the primary spot.

I’ve enjoyed more delectable and adventurous home-cooked meals than I could ever count, improved my own cooking skills, and established lasting relationships – all through a mutual love of food.

Like so many mothers of elementary school children, I’ve made several cherished friends on the school playground, which is where Dannette and I first struck up a conversation. While our kids chased each other around in circles, she dropped a few hints about the brunch she was hosting and what was on the menu.

When she said something about fresh oysters being delivered and the jarred hibiscus flowers slated for her Prosecco, I knew I had to move fast. Before coming back to my senses, I did the unthinkable—I invited myself to Dannette’s brunch.

“Okay…” she said, looking at me with just a whiff of suspicion.

The brunch was as lovely as I had anticipated, with multiple courses and just the right balance of simple and complex, familiar and exotic, sweet and savory. And I picked up a couple of tips on new specialties from Dannette’s friends, like zucchini flower quesadillas, baked ham with jerk gravy, and a decadent mango challah pudding. Could there be a more promising start to a friendship?

Dannette and I also shared a kind of sadness that our passion for cooking is somewhat lost on our children, three adorable boys with remarkably subdued palates. Dannette makes a lot of homemade mac & cheese for her son, and I’ve made more variations on chicken soup for mine than most Jewish mothers procure in a lifetime.

I was going through the soup making routine on a day Dannette dropped by the house unexpectedly. She immediately followed her nose into the kitchen where a stock pot containing the bird and as many vegetables as I could conceal were bubbling away. Dannette tasted it and didn’t seem impressed.

“I should make my chicken soup for you,” she said.

By then I was familiar with the extent of Dannette’s culinary talent, so my mind started spinning with possibilities. A native of Jamaica, Dannette’s comfort food variations bristle with heat, depth, and an unpredictable range of textures. I knew her chicken soup would be something special.

It turned out to be more of a stew than a soup, thick with several varieties of squash, fragrant with thyme, juniper berries, and the kick of scotch bonnet. I don’t know how I got Dannette to share her secrets of the perfect Jamaican Chicken Soup, but I am glad she did!

There are many rules but the most important one is never substitute Scotch bonnet with a habanero or any other chile. Your soup may get its spice elsewhere but it will never have that inimitable, magical island heat, the kind that can cool you off when it’s blistering hot or warm you up in the dead of East Coast winter.

Danette is particular about her chicken too, preferring to keep the bird whole instead of splitting it into parts as I like to do. She likes chicken breast in her soup, I do not.

Another important tip is not to substitute Kabocha squash with any other variety if you want the stew to be naturally creamy and buttery. Try to find an organic one if you can and then you don’t need to peel it. (Trust me, it is not an easy task.)

Dannette juices her scallions the Jamaican way, which involves whacking the sprigs with the knife against the edge of the pot before throwing them in. (I suggest you pass on this test of authenticity until you’ve attempted the dish a couple of times.)

Dannette didn’t appreciate my obsessive skimming of the broth but my theory is you can’t have a broth that’s too silky.

And last, chop the vegetables uniformly and don’t be tempted to cook then in one batch to save time—they are of different densities and the most delicate ones will be overcooked (chayote squash, or cho cho as they say in Jamaica, or zucchini, for example) if they simmer in the broth for too long.

Other than that, the stew is a piece of cake, so to speak. It is also a perfect late fall dish that with a side of a bitter sweet salad (like pear, goat cheese, and arugula) makes for a complete and satisfying meal.

 

Jamaican Chicken and Squash Soup

Ingredients:

1 3 pound chicken
1 large yellow onion
8 cloves of garlic, divided
2 sticks of celery
3 large carrots
½ medium size Kabocha squash, divided
2 plus ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon Juniper Berries
10 sprigs of fresh thyme, divided
3 bay leaves
1 chayote squash
2 Medium Yukon Gold Potatoes
1 Scotch bonnet
3 sprigs of scallions
½ frozen peas
1 yellow squash
1 zucchini
1 teaspoon Adobe spice
Black Pepper, to taste

Prep and cooking time: 2 ½ hours.

Serves: 12.

 

Directions:

1. Put the chicken into an 11 inch stock pot and cover with water. (If you are using the white meat, place the bird breast size up without completely submerging under water). Bring to a boil.

2. While the water comes to a boil, prepare the first batch of vegetables—onion, 4 cloves of garlic, celery, carrots and ½ of the kabocha squash. Peel the onion and garlic but leave them whole. Peel and chop the other vegetables into ½ inch chunks.

3. When the water starts to boil, turn the heat down and skim the top. When the broth is clear, add the first batch of vegetables and bring the broth to a boil once again. When the broth comes to a second boil, reduce the heat to simmer. Do a second round of skimming.

4. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, juniper berries, ½ of thyme leaves and bay leaves. Cover the pot leaving a slot for the steam to escape and simmer for 1 hour.

5. While the stock is cooking, prepare the second batch of vegetables—chayote squash, reserved kabocha squash, and potatoes. Wash the chayote squash, splitting it with a sharp knife vertically, remove the soft seed with the spoon, and chop into ½ inch pieces. Peel the potatoes and cut into ¼ inch pieces and place in a bowl filled with water until ready to use.

6. After the stock has been cooking for one hour, remove the chicken, place on a cutting board or in a bowl (which ever seems less messy to you) and allow it to cool.

7. Skim the stock for the third time.

8. Remove the onion, juniper berries, bay leaves and garlic from the stock and toss. Fish out the cooked kabochi squash and crush against the side of the pot with the back of the ladle or large spoon. (Or perform a mashing ritual of your choice.)

9. Add the chayote and remaining kabocha squash the stock.

10. Drain the potatoes and add to the stock.

11. Toss the scotch bonnet into the mix.

12. Raise the heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for another 20-25 minutes, until the second batch of vegetables are tender.

13. While the stew simmers, prepare scallions, garlic mesh, yellow squash and zucchini. Trim the scallion, removing the tips and peeling of wilting layers. Prepare the garlic mesh by pouring ½ teaspoon of salt over the garlic and crushing it with the blade of a chef’s knife. Cut the yellow squash and zucchini in the ½ inch cubes and set aside.

14. Remove the skin from the chicken and strip away all the meat you want to use. Tear or chop into small pieces.

15. When the second batch of vegetables are tender, add the scallions, garlic mesh, chicken, peas, yellow squash and zucchini, adobe mix, and the second batch of thyme leave into the pot. Raise the heat and to bring to the boil for the last time.

16. Remove from heat. Scoop out the scotch bonnet and scallion. Adjust seasoning.

Eat when it cools off slightly. Tastes even better the next day.


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