Zingy chicken soups to knock the stuffy out of flu or cold

Tortilla Soup, cousin of good old chicken noodle, with baked corn tortilla strips playing the role of noodles.
Tortilla Soup, cousin of good old chicken noodle, with baked corn tortilla strips playing the role of noodles. (Photo: JOY MANNING)
Posted: February 01, 2013

If it hasn't already happened to you, get ready. Even five minutes of casual news watching will alert you: This is the worst cold and flu season in recent memory.

The sneezing that punctuates an unusually thick fatigue was my first clue that I was among the ill. Actually, my already-infected husband, sick a full week before I was, foretold the cold. Before I succumbed to the worst of it, something had to be done. I needed to make a lot of chicken soup for some serious symptom relief.

If you're willing to expand your definition of chicken soup beyond the usual brothy mix of meat, veggies, and noodles, you can get even more sinus-clearing, health-building ingredients in your bowl. Chicken soups from around the world are good eating as well as good medicine.

Consider making a batch of tortilla soup. It's actually a very close cousin of the traditional American soup, with crisp tortillas replacing the usual noodles. You'll also get an even bigger dose of garlic. Rich in antibiotic and antibacterial compounds, garlic has been used for centuries to treat cold and flu and seems to help some people fight off those illnesses altogether. Tortilla soup is more boldly seasoned than regular chicken noodle, so you can actually enjoy the taste of it in spite of a palate-deadening stuffy nose.

It's a good idea to use homemade chicken stock for tortilla soup or any chicken soup if you have it on hand. The golden liquid is enriched by the bones and bone marrow it's made with, and it's better for your health than the packaged kind. If you must go for premade, skip the can in favor of the carton and always choose one labeled "low sodium." You'll still get the soothing sensation of inhaling the soupy steam.

Another good alternative is making a batch of spicy sweet potato, chicken, and peanut stew. This one is particularly great if being sick leaves your appetite unaffected. An ample portion of peanut butter means the soup tastes rich and creamy while still being very low in saturated fat and full of protein. A rainbow of colorful vegetables ensures you are getting plenty of disease-fighting antioxidants and vitamins. The tomatoes are an especially good source of all-important Vitamin C. I like to add a spoonful of freshly ground jalapenos just before serving. It complements the sugar in the sweet potato nicely while also provoking serious sinus clearing with its intense raw heat. This is more effective than any over-the-counter decongestant I've ever tried.

Of the batches I cooked while coming down with my cold, I found the Thai chicken and coconut to be the most soothing when I was feeling the worst. It's at least partially because a bowl of chicken soup laced with fragrant fresh herbs and rich with buttery coconut milk is so pleasing to eat, but it may also have something to do with coconut's healthful properties. Long given an unfairly bad reputation because of its saturated fat content, coconut has been exonerated by new research that shows the fat in coconut is different from that in meat and dairy. It has many benefits beyond its wonderful flavor and texture, and the lauric acid it contains may even fight viruses.

I had enough time between my first sniffle and the three days I spent surrounded by empty tissue boxes on the sofa to make all three of these soups and sock them away in the refrigerator and freezer. (Full disclosure: I cheated a bit by using the chicken pulled off a supermarket rotisserie bird. One chicken yields enough meat to make all three soups below.) Most soups actually improve with some storage as the flavors harmonize more fully. If you haven't fallen ill yet, the time for soup-making is now.

But perhaps it's too late and you don't have the strength to chop and stir a single pot of sippable penicillin. There is an alternative. For the already afflicted (or their generous friends), there's a new company, Spoonful of Comfort (spoonfulofcomfort.com), which will deliver a gigantic mason jar of good old-fashioned chicken noodle right to the front door. It arrives like a cutely wrapped present with bread, tea, and cookies if you choose. The flavor isn't as fresh and vibrant as these homemade chicken soups, but when cold or flu strikes, it is definitely better than no soup at all.


Tortilla Soup

Makes 6 servings

8 small corn tortillas,  cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips

2 teaspoons canola oil      

1/2 yellow onion, chopped

2 roma tomatoes, chopped

1 shallot, chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro (stems and leaves), plus more for garnish

1 jalapeno                   

1 chipotle chile en adobo

1 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon canola oil

8 cups chicken stock    

2 cups shredded rotisserie or other cooked chicken

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the tortillas lightly with oil, sprinkle with salt, and slice into thin strips. Cut the strips in half lengthwise and arrange them on a baking rack over a sheet pan. Bake tortilla strips 8 to 10 minutes and reserve.

2. In the work bowl of a food processor, combine the onion, tomato, shallot, garlic, cilantro, jalapeno, chipotle, cumin, and oregano and process until a smooth paste forms.

3. In a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium high heat, heat the oil until almost smoking. Add the pureed onion mixture and fry, stirring constantly, until it has concentrated and become a shade darker, about 10 minutes.

4. Stir in chicken stock, reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the chicken. Ladle into bowls and top with the reserved crispy tortilla strips. Serve with diced avocado, shredded cheese, sliced scallions, cilantro leaves, and hot sauce.

Per serving: 203 calories, 16.9 grams protein, 18.4 grams carbohydrates, 2.7 grams sugar, 7.2 grams fat, 36 milligrams cholesterol, 340 milligrams sodium.


Chicken, Peanut, and Sweet Potato Soup

Makes 6 servings

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped (about ½ cup)

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped (about ½ cup)

1 small sweet potato, cut into small cubes (6 ounces, 1 1/3 cups)

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes in their juices

6 cups chicken stock

1 cup shredded chicken

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1 jalapeno, minced and crushed to a paste with a mortar and pestle or the back of a knife

Roasted and salted  peanuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

1. In a large soup pot over medium heat, combine the oil, onion, and bell peppers. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables start to soften, about 8 minutes. Add the sweet potato, ginger, garlic, cayenne, peanut butter, and tomato paste and mix well. Cook the mixture until it sizzles and the spices are fragrant, about 1 to 3 minutes.

2. Add the diced tomatoes and stock and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the sweet potatoes are tender enough to mash with a fork against the side of the pot, about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender to partially puree the soup or puree about 1 to 2 cups of it in a blender and stir it back into the soup.

3. Add the chicken, cilantro, and jalapeno paste and season to taste with salt and pepper. Top each bowl with some chopped roasted peanuts and serve.

Per serving: 239 calories, 15.5 grams protein, 13.4 grams carbohydrates, 6.2 grams sugar, 14.6 grams fat, 18 milligrams cholesterol, 494 milligrams sodium, 3.4 grams dietary fiber.


Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 shallot, minced

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1/4 cup good-quality Thai green curry paste

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup water

1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk

2 cups shredded chicken

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

1. In a large soup pot over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the shallot and red pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the green curry paste. Cook, stirring constantly until the curry paste darkens in color slightly and becomes very fragrant, about 1 minute.

2. Add the chicken stock and water and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, chicken, fish sauce, and sugar, and cover. Simmer until everything is hot, about 5 more minutes. Just before serving, add the lime juice and cilantro and stir to incorporate.

Per serving: 344 calories, 16.3 grams protein, 9.5 grams carbohydrates, 4.7 grams sugar, 27.5 grams fat, 36 milligrams cholesterol, 698 milligrams sodium, 1.6 grams dietary fiber.

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