This year’s flu season has been worse than usual, and even if you got your shot and have been taking care of yourself, a bug can still knock you down. Although there's no real cure for viral colds or flu, certain foods can help bolster the immune system and ease symptoms.
My mother's surefire cold and flu remedy was a steady diet of piping-hot chicken noodle soup. Just the aroma wafting from a big pot of that soup simmering on the stovetop could make me feel like I was on the mend. When she was pressed for time she'd substitute a can of Campbell's, but that never seemed to work the same magic.
Chicken soup has been a popular cold remedy for centuries; some date it back to Maimonides, the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician. Recent research has shown there may be a scientific basis behind the folklore. In informal studies conducted in the 1990s, a scientist with the University of Nebraska's Medical Center ran tests on his wife's chicken soup that found that it reduced the movement of white blood cells called neutrophils, which defend the body against infection. Inhibiting the neutrophils, he theorized, might reduce the cold symptoms caused by inflammation. Other theories hold that chicken soup's healing properties stem from cysteine, an amino acid with antioxidant properties that can help relieve congestion.
Mothers and Experts Agree
So mothers and other experts agree: If you've got the sniffles, eat your chicken soup. But if you don't eat meat, don't despair—chicken isn't the only ingredient that makes soup a healthy and comforting meal for the flu- and cold-afflicted. It's important to consume a lot of fluids when you're sick, and warm liquids in particular can help ease congestion. Be sure to throw in plenty of vegetables and spices with anti-inflammatory properties, such as leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, garlic, ginger, and turmeric. And don't discount the psychological boost of a comforting, hearty bowl of soup.
My mother never wrote down a recipe for her beloved chicken soup, but over the years I've developed my own version based on her original. I also like to make this soup after Thanksgiving, with leftover turkey and stock made from the carcass. It can easily be made vegetarian by using vegetable stock and leaving out the chicken.
As with many of my recipes, I don't worry too much about exact quantities, throwing in handfuls of whatever vegetables I feel like eating at the moment. Use the recipe below as your own starting point for experimentation.
Hearty Chicken Noodle Soup
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped (I prefer larger chunks)
3-4 carrots, sliced into rounds
1 large turnip (or 3-4 baby turnips or other root vegetables)*
1 bunch kale or other leafy greens
1 8-ounce can diced tomatoes
4-6 cups chicken stock**
1-2 cups cooked diced chicken
1 tablespoon pickling spices***
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 package egg noodles (optional)
- Peel and chop the garlic and onions. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stockpot, then sauté the garlic and onions on a medium flame until softened, stirring. Add the stock, carrots, turnips (or mushrooms), and tomatoes.
- Measure the pickling spices into a tea ball, or cut a square of cheesecloth and place the spices into the center, then pull the corners together and tie with string. Immerse the packet of spices in the soup. Cover the pot and bring the soup to a rolling boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer.
- As the soup simmers, wash the kale and trim away the tough ribs and stems. Stack the leaves and chop into long, thin strips; dice any remaining stems. Dice the cooked chicken meat. Add the kale and chicken meat to the soup pot. Continue simmering until vegetables are cooked through but not mushy (be sure to check kale stems for doneness), for about 45 minutes to an hour. When the kale stems are cooked through, remove the soup from the heat. Remove the pickling spice packet.
- Cook the egg noodles separately according to the instructions on the package, then drain and rinse in cool water. To serve, place some noodles in the bottom of each soup bowl and ladle the hot soup over top.
Serves 4. Prep time, 10 minutes. Cook time, 60 minutes.
*or substitute ¼ pound fresh mushrooms, cleaned and halved.
**homemade broth is best. Roast or purchase roast chicken; remove meat; place carcass in stock pot (or crock pot) with 8-10 cups water; simmer for 1-2 hours. If using canned broth, use low-sodium.
*** Pickling spices can be found in most grocery stores, or you can make your own mix. Typically, a pickling spice mix includes some combination of bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, mustard seed, coriander, ginger, and dried chile pepper flakes.
Eileen Ecklund is an San Francisco-based writer and editor.