Not Like Grandma’s Recipe

Chicken soup takes on special and surprising flavors when prepared by chef David Bitton of La Regence. The version below is an adaptation for the home kitchen.

Chicken soup
Chicken soup. Dan Peretz

Once every few months, you simply have to take a total time-out. You head home and peel off those everyday clothes, putting on the fancy clothes kept for special occasions. Not for festive events or Shabbat dinners, but genuine costumes − the sort that puts some distance between the body and anything that’s habitual or familiar. You wait for the night to settle in and for the rain to ease up, and then stride briskly in the cold air from the front door to the car. You start the engine and tune the radio to the classical music station and then start driving on the dark road, without saying a word.

You periodically exchange glances and smile, hum the cello solo of a duet while perhaps remembering a similar drive you once took together in Safed or France, or even Mitzpeh Ramon. You park by the stone wall and walk up the broad path, your heels clicking on the brick pavement until you reach the doorman, in his brimmed hat and overcoat. A welcoming gesture and the heavy doors are opened. You cross the foyer, descend the stone steps, present your coats at the hatcheck, and follow the waitress to your table.

Now it begins: the white tablecloths and crystal; the gold-rimmed dishes, neatly arranged silverware and quail eggs in caramel toffee, served on a silver tray. This is the real place that never was, a here-and-now that never happened. You exchange looks once more, and smile. That’s it − everything has finally come to a stop. When you are in the care of David Bitton at his La Regence restaurant in Jerusalem, you feel free and liberated for the first time.

A terrine of goose liver with praline; tomato leather; tomato jelly and beetroot granita; fish suspended in smoke, served on a green cypress branch; ground chicken stock with noodles melting into it; olive oil-laced chocolate and a “financier” with marmalade. And the dishes continue to be laid down and picked up, and the silverware is retrieved and replaced and retrieved again, and the glasses of wine seem to refill of their own accord. All is flanked by silence, and occasional cries of astonishment and surprise, but there’s not a single trace of the world that continues to race around us.

He is only 30 years old, and for 15 of them he has been moving slowly and unassumingly in his dazzling white jacket about hotel kitchens, moving his ideas in and out of ovens. A few years ago, he quietly entered the sacred sanctuary that lies in this emotionally charged stone building, and transformed everything that is local and primeval into something that goes beyond place and beyond time, and is bathed in hot water and fire and plumes of smoke. He does not console or flatter and turns things upside down and then right-side up until everything that has been concealed from the eye is revealed − until, in his exacting hand, he serves up the cloud and the raindrop, the question and the answer, on the plates.

Stop everything when you have a moment and, even if you have no time at all, head to Jerusalem, to David Bitton, who is at La Regence at the King David Hotel. And if you don’t have a car, or if the children are sleeping, console yourself by making his soup at home.

Ingredients for David Bitton’s Chicken soup
Dan Peretz

Chicken Soup with tapioca and chicken noodles (10 portions)

The most fascinating thing about Bitton’s kitchen is his ability to turn something that’s so everyday into a work of art. For example, he disassembles the routine, familiar taste of chicken soup and then reassembles it into a different and surprising texture and flavor. In his restaurant Bitton prepares the stock using a consommé technique, into a clear, rich essence of soup, although we have adapted the mode of preparation to the home kitchen.

Contrary to our usual custom, this is not a simple, intuitive recipe. One should be highly attentive to changes in ingredients and consistency, and even measure the exact temperature so as to stop the cooking at the exact point at which the egg white congeals, so the noodles won’t be dry and tasteless. On the other hand, the tapioca and noodles can be prepared ahead of time, so that the Shabbat meal will not be disturbed by fits of fussiness and punctiliousness in the kitchen.

This is not a soup you make for when the kids come home from school on a winter day. This is a soup you prepare slowly and conscientiously for important guests who will keep on thinking even when they are eating.

For the stock:

1 kilo chicken bones

1 onion

2 carrots

1 leek

1 celery root

1 parsley root

4 tbsp. (60 ml.) olive oil

3 liters water

2 bay leaves

1 wild fennel bulb or 4 sprigs of dill

12 sprigs of parsley

Atlantic salt

coarsely ground black pepper

For the tapioca:

100 grams tapioca

2 1/2 cups (650 ml.) chicken soup stock

For the noodles:

1 kilo chicken breast, without fat or tendons

1 egg white

fine sea salt

Begin preparation of the stock: rinse and clean the bones well. Place half in a flat metal baking tin and roast for about 15 minutes in a preheated 250-degree-Celsius oven, until the bones are seared and browned.

Peel the onion, carrot, leek, and celery and parsley roots; cut into large chunks. Heat the oil in a large pot and steam the vegetables slightly. Add both the partially cooked and the seared bones into the pot, then add 3 1/2 liters of water. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately lower the heat so the liquid will be at the verge of boiling, at a gentle simmer. With a spoon, remove the cloudy foam that forms on the surface, continuing to do so until none is left. This stage is highly important as it is responsible for ensuring the clear color of the soup.

When the stock is clear, add the bay leaves and the fennel/dill; cover the pot and cook for about four hours. The lengthy cooking time brings out the flavors of the vegetables and the meat, and imbues the soup with a deeper color. Strain the stock and put back on the stove. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, we move on to preparation of the tapioca. Bring the stock to a boil and add the tapioca pearls. Reduce the heat; stir constantly until the tapioca turns transparent. When the pearls are still white, take a spoonful of the tapioca and taste it. If the consistency is pleasant to the palate, remove from the flame and cover until serving; if it is still somewhat hard, cook a bit more. Take care not to overcook, as the tapioca will then become colorless, gelatinous dough.

Preparation of the noodles is easy, as you will see. Grind the chicken two or three times, to a fine consistency. Transfer to a food processor equipped with a steel blade, and add the egg yolk and a little salt. Process thoroughly so you get a smooth and delicate cream. Bitton pours this cream through a flour sifter, using a special baker’s instrument to push the mixture through the tiny holes. But excellent results may be achieved even without this method. The mixture is transferred, portion by portion, into a pastry bag with a narrow, spaghetti-width hole at its tip.

Place a thermometer into the stock, and heat to 63 degrees Celsius. Remove from the heat and “spray” the noodle mixture into it in a circular movement. Spray enough noodles for one portion, and then repeat. Place the soup back on the stove, checking that the temperature has returned to 63 degrees; cook for another half minute or so. Move with the help of a slotted spoon into a tureen, repeating the action with the remaining mixture.

To assemble the dish: Place 2 tablespoons of tapioca in an elegant soup bowl, with a cluster of noodles on top of it. Then pour in the boiling broth and serve hot, complete with silver tablespoon and snifter of cognac.