Originally published April 2006
With a title like this, you’re probably thinking that this is a dish I’ve spectacularly mangled. But you’d be wrong (for the most part). It’s a very easy dish, and one that I’m particularly proud of because my daughter actually requests this from me, which means that when she grows up and has kids of her own, God willing, she may fondly remember something I made for her from her childhood kitchen. I don’t remember anything from my childhood kitchen other than creamed tuna on toast and crock pot chicken over rice. Sorry Mom. I think of you as one kick-ass woman; the dame I’d want in my corner if I ever found myself in the gutter with one nickel and a shot glass. But if I had to ask how to cook a roast chicken, I’d ask someone else first. She taught me how to drive a stick-shift, write a killer resume and stare down an angry man twice my size. Puttering in the kitchen didn’t interest her, which really, is admirable for a woman raised in the ‘50s. I do continue to wonder about her penchant for processed food, though. To this day she can’t see what’s wrong with pre-cooked fettuccini Alfredo in a bag from the 99-cent store and “fresh” bread pulled out of a Pilsbury cardboard roll. No wonder I’m so crap in the kitchen: No early training and questionable culinary genes.
When I’ve polled my friends who cook about what childhood experience compelled them to excel in the kitchen, they all say the same thing: They watched their mothers cook for them. They helped her in the kitchen. They sat down to hot meals at the family table every night. Food and the preparing of it became entwined with their sense of self, home and health. Their stories made me think of large, extended families in gracious East Coast homes; traditions; coherence. These people most certainly did not sit down in front of the idiot box with a TV dinner on a tray. Somewhere along the line I must have decided it was an admirable trait, this cooking from scratch for your family. Because I started trying, in my own feeble way, around the time my daughter started eating solid foods.
And so we’re back to the chicken no-no soup. When my daughter was a toddler, one of the only foods she’d eat was Trader Joe’s chicken noodle soup. It had noodles and veggies and heck, she had to eat, so she had it pretty much every day for probably her entire third year. She pronounced it “Chicken No-No” soup, and the name stuck. Years later I tried making my own version of it, and the concoction I created wasn’t half bad, as evidenced by the fact that my daughter, now hovering around 10-years-old and a full-blown kid with opinions of her own, actually requests it. She doesn’t want the store-bought soup anymore. “Make your home-made soup, Mom,” she says. She likes it; devours two whole bowls of it, and often eats her younger brother’s portion of it, too. Which means she’ll remember it fondly, and tell her friends about it. I imagine her sitting in Paris, where she’ll be studying the art of pastry, and she’ll be a tall, gorgeous young woman who all the French men will covet, because although she’s an American she is tempered by her bookish demeanor and her laughing yet haughty green eyes. And she’ll say, “I know you said this bistro had the most exceptional chicken soup in Paris, Etienne, but you know, my mother made a superior version.” And Etienne will try to argue, but my daughter will wave him away. “Argue all you will. My mother’s is better.”
I’ll have taught her how to make it herself, but she’ll always prefer the bowl I make for her myself. She’ll make it for her own children, and maybe for her grandchildren. “This is what my mother made for me when I was a little girl,” she’ll tell them. And they’ll wonder what kind of woman I was, what I must have been like, to make chicken no-no soup like this that was so tasty and fragrant. And that means that my scattered, no-tradition Southern California family will have created a culinary tradition as good as anyone’s Italian or Jewish grandma.
And in a way, that’s immortality for you. If somebody remembers the chicken no-no soup you made for them, you’ll live forever. I’ll take that over fame any day.
Two end notes: Yes, I did once foul this dish up by putting too much pasta in for too long. It got way too starchy and became more a soggy noodle and vegetable dish than a soup.
And no, I’m not on Trader Joe’s payroll.
Mom’s Home-made Chicken No-No Soup
One tablespoon olive oil
One pint Trader Joe’s chicken broth. Free-range or organic, who cares which?
One cup water
One medium onion, diced
Two cloves garlic, diced
One teaspoon ground cumin
One teaspoon ground coriander
One half teaspoon ground tumeric
Four or five pieces of chicken, raw or pre-cooked.
Two small zuchinni squash, cut
Lots of baby carrots
Two handfuls of pasta, preferably the curly kind
Sea salt and pepper to taste.
Cut the onion up as best you can. Smash the garlic with the back of your knife, and chop it up, best you can.
Sauté the garlic in the olive oil quickly to flavor the pot (I learned this on a cooking show I saw once). Add the onions. Sauté until translucent.
Add the spices one at a time. Give a swirl to each before adding the next. Tumeric is great for you and adds a lovely golden color. Sauté gently for another few minutes.
Add the chicken broth and the water
Add the carrots because they take a bit longer to cook.
Bring to a simmer – add the chicken bits. I like to use Trader Joe’s flash frozen chicken bits myself. After they’re cooked through I cut them up into smaller chunks and add them back to the soup.
Add the zuchs.
When the soup has simmered about 20 minutes, add the pasta.
When the pasta is al dente, add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with fresh crusty bread.