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Black chicken stew for the ill and adventurous soul

Black chicken stew for the ill and adventurous soul
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 9:28pm

It was a devil of a cold. A tickle gave way to a rasp, which was swallowed up by a tide of winter ick that proved impervious to pharmaceutical intervention. After two weeks of hacking, wheezing and Googling "cough with a squeak at the end," it was time for an exorcism.

It was time for soup.

First stop was pho - the heartily-brothed, soul-bolstering Vietnamese soup that can, with the application of enough hot sauce, rage like a brushfire through gummed-up sinus cavities. Mission accomplished, but my aim was off. The murk of the cold had by that point beaten a retreat to my chest and set up camp. Still, the steam was nice and the dish felt like a hug - which was great because I wasn't allowing any loved ones within my phlegm zone.

Next on the tour, a sturdy tortilla soup from a favorite neighborhood Mexican joint. Chicken soup may be good for the soul, but after a few days of listless broth sipping, I needed sustenance, too.

The chicken soup self-prescription, it should be noted, is not just the stuff of well-meaning grandmothers and bestselling self-help authors. Back in 2000, researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center studied the efficacy of a chicken and root vegetable-based "Grandmas's soup" for the treatment of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections by taking samples from various parts of a pot to determine which, if any, components of the soup contained inhibitor activity. The group's finding was that chicken soup may possess properties that inhibit the spread of inflammation and help mitigate the effects of a cold.

Moreover, a previous study from the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel, found that a full randomized controlled trial of chicken soup's potential impact was impossible because "depriving the control group of chicken soup would, in our opinion, be unethical" and "whether it be a drug or not, chicken soup is...essential." Tongues may have been firmly planted in cheeks, but said tongues belonged to medical professionals, so who am I to argue?

Sadly, while the aforementioned tortilla soup was possessed of a nearly volcanic and thoroughly welcome smokiness, the cheese and crema in this particular rendition only further mucked up matters.

It was time to pull out the big guns. While I'm proud of my homemade roasted chicken soup (you can see the recipe here) and am thoroughly convinced of its power to soothe most psychic wounds, it was time for a little dark magic in the form of Silkie stew.

Silkie is a breed of bantam, black-skinned, black-boned chicken, long prized in China for its purported medicinal effects. It's been deemed a "superfood" due to the meat's high levels of the anti-oxidant carnosine - double the amount found in less Goth chickens - and has been used as a cure-all for conditions ranging from headaches and menstrual cramps to stomach aches and lung ailments.

In its plucked, head-and-feet-on state, it also resembles the unholy union of a vampire bat and a rather accusatory dragon. If nothing else, I figured it would terrify the germs and mucus right out of me. To Sunset Park, Brooklyn's Chinatown, I went.

After a fortifying bowl of hand-pulled noodle, bok choy and fish ball soup at Fei Long Market's adjacent food court, I spent a good 45 minutes crouching, staring and Google translating my way through a football field-sized maze of unfamiliar herbs, roots and dried items to find the makings for a stew so strong it would render me impervious to colds for the next few decades. I found the black chicken, jujubes (also known as red plums) and bean paste in short order, had a small psychic breakdown while hunting for wolfberries (fun fact - they're packaged as "fructus lycii" in Asian markets and called "goji" when marketers are hawking vodka and energy drinks), and nearly compromised on a substitution of ginger for galangal, but held firm and limped home.

I'm glad I did, because the alchemy of medicinal berries, dark soy, chiles, strong beer, powerful aromatics and inky, gamey, luscious chicken shocked the cold right out of me. I've made barely a sniffle or a squeak since scarfing up a plate of the slow-cooked stew last night.

While I can't with any certainty say which came first - the black chicken stew or the already inevitable end to my cold - I'd be willing to guess that four out of five cold-researching scientists would find it delicious. Unless they were too chicken to try it.

Note: I followed this New York Times recipe for Black-Skinned Chicken Slow-Cooked in Dark Soy Sauce to the letter, save for swapping in dark, coffee-based beer for the cola. Mostly because I couldn't face going to the store again.

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