Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
Chopping the vegetables and stirring the pot can be a soothing meditation, a rich sensory immersion in the colors, textures, aromas and tastes of simple whole foods. Many of the components of this soup are so familiar and comforting we have never thought of them as “medicine” But new research is finding surprising benefits to these grandmotherly herbs and vegetables. Traditional cultures around the world have developed ways of preparing and combining foods which actually optimize the health-supporting benefits of each. The good news is that many of the same foods that help you ward off the flu today will also support your long-term well-being with a variety of cleansing, soothing, and anti-inflammatory effects.
Hot water has many properties, both mystical and scientific, known to extract beneficial compounds from all sorts of plants and animals. If you don’t have access to all of the ingredients listed, go ahead and improvise. Think of the components as colors on your palette. Each will blend with the others to create new colors, sometimes surprising you with their synergies. Each also offers its own healing properties. There is no wrong way to make this soup, if it is made with attention to your own taste and instincts. The magic is taken care of by water, good ingredients, and time.
Here is loosely what you will need. This will make a big pot of soup, and could be a few dinners for a small family. Scale it down if you are on your own, or don’t want leftovers. You can choose to use a miso-based vegetarian broth, or a chicken stock. Either will be wonderfully infused with these diverse yet harmonious flavors.
1 large onion
2 large carrots
3 celery ribs
2 tablespoons fat: organic coconut oil, butter, pasture-raised chicken fat or lard
2 teaspoons ground turmeric (or 2 tablespoons coarsely grated if using fresh)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne (optional)
1 teaspoon dried oregano or 2 teaspoons chopped fresh leaves
1 teaspoon dried holy basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh leaves
2-4 teaspoons sea salt
thumb-sized chunk of fresh ginger root, finely grated
2-4 large cloves fresh garlic
2 pasture-raised chicken breasts, raw or cooked (optional)
1/2 pound mushrooms, preferably a mix of shiitake, oyster, or crimini as available
4 quarts of homemade chicken stock
4 quarts filtered water or veggie stock AND 2/3 cup Shiro (white) or barley miso paste
1 large bunch italian flat-leaf parsley (curly parsley will work fine)
Let’s make soup.
Chop an onion. Ancient Egyptians saw a mirror of eternity in its concentric rings. I’m chopping mine into 1/4 inch bits. Dice a few celery ribs and two large carrots. In addition to beta carotene and immune-support vitamins such as C and K, each of these humble vegetables contains flavonoids and phytochemicals which complement each other and aid in the absorption of the other nutrients in your broth. The three diced together form what French chefs call a Mirepoix, which is the foundation of hundreds of wonderful soups, sauces, and braises.
Put your soup pot on medium-low heat, and melt the fat. High quality saturated fats are now seen as an excellent choice for cooking; new research suggests they actually improve cholesterol balance, and they are very stable when exposed to heat, unlike olive oil. I’m using the chicken fat I saved from last night’s roast chicken: while battery-raised chicken fat is too high in inflammation-causing Omega 6’s, pasture-raised chicken fat can be a good source of those wonderful Omega 3’s, generated by natural exercise and foraging. You can also use organic coconut oil, rich in lauric acid, a potent anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal agent. Good old organic butter will also work just fine. Throw in your chopped vegetables and stir periodically, adjusting the heat as needed to gently sauté your mirepoix without browning.
After about 5 minutes, when the onions are starting to become translucent, add two cloves of finely chopped garlic, and your dried herbs and spices. The healing compounds as well as the flavors will be best activated by gently sautéing in fat before simmering. I am adding turmeric, ground black pepper, dried oregano and holy basil, and two teaspoons of sea salt. Add your cayenne if you enjoy a little spice.
Turmeric is a traditional ingredient that adds a subtle flavor and a beautiful yellow color. Its active ingredient is curcumin, a powerful antioxidant recognized as an adaptogen: it helps your body deal with stress by directly supporting healthy immune response. As a bonus, research has also been done on curcumin’s positive effects on digestion and joint health, and studies also show anti-viral and anti-cancer activity. Turmeric’s properties are believed to be optimally absorbed when combined with black pepper and heated in oil before consumption. Black pepper increases the bioavailability (absorption) of many foods, and has many benefits on its own as an antioxidant and digestive aid. If you don’t have pepper-averse small children in your house as I do, go ahead and double the pepper.
Capsaicin, the most prominent active compound in cayenne pepper, is well-established as a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. If you enjoy cayenne’s kick, you may already be familiar with cayenne’s immediate effects clearing congestion and warming the blood.
Oregano has become a popular natural remedy for cold and flu season in its essential oil form, and research verifies its symptom-relieving power in upper-respiratory tract infections. One study showed that oregano may increase white-blood cell count and boost overall immune response. Fresh herbs are even more potent, so plant some oregano in your herb garden or window box this spring! Ours has gone to seed and lost its leaves in the winter frosts, but it will spring back up when the weather turns warmer. We like to dry it for winter use. Thyme has long been used as an expectorant to clear the lungs, and it is the best source of thymol, an immune stimulant, liver detoxifier, and antimicrobial.
Holy basil or “tulsi”, often sold as a tea, has been used as a tonic to treat colds and flu by traditional cultures in Australia, Thailand, India and Thailand. Now Western studies have confirmed its immune-boosting properties. Equally pleasant brewed into a soup or a tea with ginger and lemon, holy basil is another easy addition to your herb garden. Medicinal herbs become much less daunting when you needn’t leave your yard to gather them!
Now I’m stirring all of my dried herbs and spices into the cooking vegetables, to give them a couple of minutes of activation with the oil before adding the broth. The turmeric may begin to stick to the pan a little bit, so keep the heat fairly low. Your soup base will be releasing some good smells at this point! The turmeric can smell strong while sauteing, but in the finished soup it is subtle and very child-friendly.
Now add the strained broth or filtered water, as well as the grated ginger. Traditional ayurvedic medecine prizes ginger for warming the blood, cleansing the lymphatic system, and enhancing digestion — in the ayurvedic view, if your digestion and lymph systems are healthy, sickness cannot take hold. Bring the whole pot back to a gentle simmer while you clean and slice your mushrooms and optional chicken meat. You can use boneless/skinless breasts or thighs: just cube the meat and throw it in the broth.
Next, add the sliced mushrooms. Shiitakes, familiar to many of us in Asian dishes, are rich in B vitamins, D2, iron, selenium and zinc, in addition to their unique phytonutrients which appear to stimulate your immunity when needed while also moderating over-activity of the immune system that could contribute to excess inflammation. Even plain old supermarket button mushrooms and criminis possess phytonutrients worth including in this soup. Note that mushrooms should always be gently cooked before eating. The cooking process breaks down cell walls, making mushrooms much more digestible and releasing nutrients trapped within the cells. Cooking also neutralizes some “anti-nutrients” (which may represent the mushroom’s natural defense against being eaten).
Your soup is almost done!
Keep the soup at a high simmer (or very low boil) for at least ten minutes to give everything time to “marry”. After the mushrooms have darkened in color and are not floating as persistently, turn off the heat. If you like garlic, grate an extra clove or two into the soup now to take advantage of the antiviral properties of garlic which can be lost in long cooking.
If you are using miso, now is the time to add it: the beneficial bacteria naturally occurring in fermented foods such as miso are destroyed by boiling, so avoid overheating the soup once the miso is incorporated. Probiotic foods like miso can significantly shorten the duration of colds and flus: they appear to activate certain immune-related genes in the walls of the intestines. Scoop your miso into a small bowl, and slowly stir in one cup of filtered water, adding a tablespoon at a time to gently thin the miso. Once the consistency is liquidy, you can pour it into the pot, stirring to incorporate.
Now carefully taste the soup. Add salt or more miso if needed. If it tastes too salty or intense to you, simply add a little water or unsalted broth, half a cup at a time, until it is right for you. When it is perfect, ladle into soup bowls and finish each with a handful of chopped Italian parsley. Not only does the parsley provide the perfect refreshing flavor and color to brighten and balance the soup, it is also packed with Vitamin C and a host of protective “volatile oils” which are generally destroyed by cooking.
For maximum benefit, make yourself comfortable, eat slowly, and go to bed early. Rest and sleep may be the most powerful immune-enhancer of all!