Today would have been my mom’s 76th birthday, she passed away in June. I’m so sad I can’t talk to her anymore, and I miss her like crazy. But I know she lives on in my heart and in my memories of her. And this week I wanted to feel especially close to her memory, and I often do that through cooking. She never thought of herself as a good cook, but there are certain dishes she made that were unique to her and my dad’s heritage and she made them even more special to us by adjusting to our tastes. I’ve already shared one dish that we love in the summertime, Roll Kuchen, which is essentially fried dough served with watermelon or other fruit, what’s not to love! I love the pics I took when I wrote that post, as I captured my mom working in the kitchen, which was truly her domain and from where I have memories I will always treasure.
As I think about making another dish uniquely her, I can’t help but think of chicken noodle soup and the last time I made it with her. It was in March of this year when she was having a relatively good day and not in too much pain. This soup is not typical of most chicken noodle soup recipes you will find when you Google. Most chicken noodle soup recipes call for carrots, celery, and onion as staples. This recipe is from our Russian-Mennonite heritage and shares an onion as a staple but then departs into its own realm of flavors. It starts with chicken, onion, and noodles but the spice blend is what makes it special and here’s why – it contains star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns, bay leaves, flat-leaf parsley, and ginger! I honestly don’t know who in our history of cooks thought to put those spices together but what results is a delicate flavor that is so soothing and comforting you won’t be able to eat “traditional American” chicken noodle soup in the same way ever again. 🙂
So let’s start with star anise. If you’re familiar with aniseed, you might know it has a mildly sweet, licorice flavor and so does star anise. But after that, they are entirely different plants. Aniseed is from the parsley family and a Mediterranean spice also used in French pastis and Greek ouzo. Star anise is the fruit of a small evergreen tree native to Asia – it produces a small star-shaped fruit with ~8 points and a seed is in each point. It can be used whole, individually, or ground and it is the main ingredient in Chinese 5-spice powder. It seems some people either like or dislike the taste of licorice. I am one who does not like it and avoid black licorice. However, in this soup it is an absolutely critical ingredient and blends with the other spices to create a singular flavor. The cinnamon and ginger contribute to a subtle sweetness that perfectly compliments the savory spices – peppercorns, bay leaves, and parsley. And after simmering and assembling, this soup also needs a healthy dose of sea salt to boost the blend.
The only thing left is the chicken and the noodles. My mom used different pieces over the year but found that organic chicken legs not only provided the best base for the broth but the best meat to add back to the soup. My grandma made homemade fine noodles which were unbelievably amazing in this soup! But my mom and I just purchase the fine egg noodles from the grocery or better yet – homemade noodles from Amish sources in Ohio or Mennonite sources in Saskatchewan. Always cook the noodles separately in water and assemble the cooked noodles, broth, and chicken prior to serving, as the noodles produce a lot of starch that greatly dilutes the broth.
What results is a soup that is both bold and interesting yet subtle and comforting that is definitely not your mother’s or your grandma’s chicken soup. You know why? Because it’s my mom’s chicken noodle soup! 🙂
8 organic chicken legs
1 med onion cut in big chunks
1 bunch fresh flat leaf parsley
Salt to taste
Spices for spice container:
3 star anise pods
1 inch peeled fresh ginger
1 small stick of cinnamon
3 crushed bay leaves
Cover 8 chicken legs with water in a large soup pot with the onion, parsley, and spices in the spice container. Bring to boil, and simmer for an hour. Remove chicken and let cool. Strain broth and put back on the stove to keep warm (you can simmer longer just with spices but the chicken will be cooked). Add salt to taste. Cook fine egg noodles separately according to package directions. When chicken is cool, remove meat from bones. Assemble noodles, broth, and meat and serve warm!
Note: For remaining broth, pour into mason jars and close tightly. Let rest on the counter until you hear the seal pop. Store in the fridge for up to 3 months.