With this persistent cold weather, lack of sunshine, rain, sleet and snow, spring still feels a long way off and it’s easy to fall prey to winter sniffles. Much as I enjoy being outdoors and the smallholding life, it’s no fun doing the chores with a streaming nose and thumping head.
So, in an attempt to stave off winter ills, I often cook up a big pan of chicken soup in the hope that this will protect me and my family from pesky pestilence. We’ve all heard reference to the famous therapeutic powers of chicken soup, but it got me wondering how much truth there is in it, or is it just an old wives tale?
It seems that there is actually very little scientific evidence for chicken soup per se, having any actual curative function. I could only find one study, which looked at the effect of chicken soup on neutrophils (immune cells) in order to discover if any effect on immune function occurred. The study concluded that on exposure to a solution of the chicken soup, the movement of the neutrophils was inhibited -in essence the soup slowed down the action of the cells, which in the human body would migrate to the source of the infection and produce an immune response. The study appeared to show then, that chicken soup may slow the inflammatory response to infection, reducing symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection such as blocked nose and headache. What the paper didn’t mention was whether this might mean that while there may be symptomatic relief, would the immune response be slowed enough to prolong the infection? You can read the paper here and draw your own conclusion!
So it seems we can’t rely on scientific evidence to find out how effective my soup recipe is, so I decided to look at the ingredients of the soup and how they might work together to give a body, depleted by a long winter, a much-needed boost.
My soup always begins with a good chicken stock, by this I don’t mean a cube from a packet, dissolved in water. (I do resort to those at times, but never for cold comfort soup) Starting with the best chicken you can afford is the key and if used thriftily, can reward you with many a tasty meal. We reared some table birds last year for the first time and it’s something we will definitely do again as it has diversified our meat meals somewhat from the usual pork and lamb. It’s good to have a supply of ‘happy’ chicken in the freezer which has foraged around in the orchard with the other hens and been fed good quality food. As with all of our animals, because we have reared them ourselves, we feel we want to use every part of the animal we can. So when we have had a Sunday roast chicken, I pop the carcass into a casserole pot with some onion, celery and carrot and stick it in the bottom oven of the Rayburn overnight. Lifting off the lid in the morning reveals a lovely golden, wholesome smelling stock, which will provide for two more meals- I usually make a large pan of soup and a risotto with the stock and leftover meat from the roast, three meals for the price of one!
The traditional practice of making bone stocks has been central to the cuisine of many cultures and with good reason, it is a very nourishing food for the body. Long slow cooking facilitates the release of lots of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon and trace minerals, in a form which is easily absorbed. In fact, in many cultures where milk is not consumed, soups and stocks are the main source of easily assimilated calcium. Cartilage and tendons also break down and release essential nutrients such as chondroitin and glucosamine- often bought as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint problems. The gelatin which forms when stock cools, is a rich source of amino acids, aiding digestion and helping the body break down proteins- this may the origin of soup traditionally being the first course of a meal.
Adding vegetables to make the soup increases the nutritional value. While some vitamins and nutrients are undoubtedly decreased by cooking, others become more available and it is advised that we eat a variety of vegetables both raw and cooked to receive the optimal array of nutrient from our foods. By adding veg into a soup or stew, the heat stable vitamins and minerals leach out into the stock and you get the added benefit of improved digestibility of the vegetables.
I have two variations on the cold comfort recipe, for times when we might be just feeling a little run down and under the weather, I will add in some onion, leek, celery, carrot and potato, to make a comforting chicken and vegetable soup which is warming and comforting on a cold day. I often stir in a spoonful of sauerkraut as the soup cools to eating temperature to give a little pro-biotic boost and valuable enzymes to aid digestion.
If however, we have succumbed to the dreaded cold or flu virus, special measures are necessary and I go hard-core with soup recipe!
This variation is much hotter and maybe less comfort, than ‘kill or cure’! I start by sautéing onion and leeks over a low heat until soft, I then add 2 or 3 fresh hot chillies (finely chopped), 8-10 crushed garlic cloves and a 10cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated. I add the chicken stock and pieces of leftover chicken meat and simmer for 10 minutes. You can add in extras like a handful of rice or noodles or some shiitake mushrooms, whatever takes your fancy.
Now consuming this soup may not be a comforting experience, depending on how much chilli you have added, but it will certainly clear the head, unblock the sinuses and generally get everything flowing!
Garlic and its cousins, onions and leeks are well-known for their health promoting properties. These vegetables contain powerful compounds which are known to influence the body’s systems such as the circulation, immune system and detoxification. They are also thought to have anti-bacterial properties and are prebiotic foods (stimulate growth and maintenance of beneficial gut bacteria), all good things in the fight against respiratory infection.
Ginger contains many inflammation fighting phytonutrients known as gingerols, which may provide symptomatic relief from the pain and discomfort of colds and flu, it can also have a calming influence on the stomach.
Chillies are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are thought to have analgesic (pain relieving) properties as well as being anti-bacterial. Like the other ingredients, chillies may offer valuable symptomatic relief- capsaicin, the substance which gives chillies their characteristic pungency, is thought to have anti-inflammatory effects and the peppery heat may stimulate the release of substances which help clear mucous, improving congestion.
So while I can’t promise that my chicken soup will cure your cold, it may offer you some respite from unpleasant symptoms. So if you are struggling with the last of the winter ills, feel free to try it out, let me know how you get on!