"I don't know why," my friend's son, Joey, said to me the other night, when he arrived at my house for a sleepover with N, wiggling with delight when he smelled the soup cooking on the stove, "but I love Jewish food!"
Chicken soup with matzo balls goes so far beyond Jewish food, though. It's comfort food, too. And if you'll allow me to depart from my usual steadfast belief in peer-reviewed studies for just a moment, it's downright medicinal. (And I'm not the only one who says so.) I'll never forget my junior year in college in snowbound Schenectady, New York, sitting in a classroom trying to study for finals despite a fever and sinus pressure I thought would make my head explode, and smelling...I swear, I smelled it like there was a pot right in front of me...my mother's chicken soup with matzo balls. (Yes, even though it was pure hallucination, I knew there were matzo balls in it. There are always matzo balls in it.) Afterwards? I felt better. Seriously.
Joey's mom, my friend A, prone to bronchitis and other wintertime infections, will undoubtedly back me up on the curative powers of my soup; I've made her more than one batch in my time for just that purpose.
But wait. There's more.
Both my kids graduated from baby foods to soft foods via matzo balls scooped out of the soup. Em has more than once requested chicken soup with matzo balls as her special birthday dinner...despite her birthday being in late August. When we head up to Big Bear with "the gang" for our annual four-family trip next weekend (eight adults; ten kids under the age of 13; more fun than you can shake a sled at), I will be expected to bring my enormous 15-quart pot with me, and soup will be one of my culinary contributions. (I'll have to add extra turnips and parsnips, or A and I will fight over them.)
But, really, I doubt I needed to sing this soup's praises for quite this long. I'm guessing--especially if you've ever had a bowl of the "real thing"--that I had you at "matzo balls."
Chicken soup with matzo balls: A recipe in two parts
Part 1: Chicken soup
None of these amounts are set in stone; this is very much a go-your-own-way kind of recipe. But I'll give you the approximate amounts I use.
- chicken (for a big batch in my 15-quart pot, I use either two whole chickens, or one whole chicken plus as many additional parts as I can find, depending on what's on sale)
- carrots (I'll come clean and admit I've gotten lazy over the years, and so I usually just throw in a couple of handfuls of those already-peeled baby carrots, rather than peeling and chopping my own; if you go the peel-and-chop way, I'd use about a pound of carrots)
- onions (one large or two medium)
- turnips (one if you're not a turnip fan; more if you are)
- parsnips (see turnips)
- celery (the leafiest bunch of celery you can find; that's where the flavor is, soup-wise)
- dill (one bunch)
- parsley (one bunch)
- kosher salt (to taste)
2. My mother's method of making this soup--and she's the one who taught me--is to run cold water into the pot, bring it to a boil, then add the chicken. I, on the other hand, find that too much water makes it impossible to get a really chicken-y soup. So instead, I put in as much chicken as I have, then add water to about an inch above. (This level will rise as you add the various veggies; make sure you don't start the soup with water anywhere near the top of your pot. Mine is generally between the half and two-thirds point. It's why you need a really big pot if you want to make a lot of soup. My pot? Makes a LOT of soup.) I then bring the water to a boil with the chicken already in the pot, and skim the foam that arises. (No, I don't want to know what that foam is or where it comes from.)
3. Again, my mother and I differ here. She has you next wash the dill and parsley and tie them together before throwing them into the pot; makes it easier to remove them later on. I find that no matter what I tie them with, they always fall apart, and then I'm fishing around for a string in the soup. I just wash them and throw them in, and my soup is full of green bits, and sometimes my kids complain, but most of the time they ignore it. So my instruction would be just to wash the dill and parsley, and toss 'em in the pot.
4. Peel and chop carrots (if you need to); peel and chop turnips and parsnips. Use leaves from celery, plus some of the stalks as well, cut into pieces. Take skin off of onion, but leave whole. Add to soup.
5. Boil over very low heat (you barely want it to bubble) for several hours. Taste as you go, adding whatever is needed, usually salt.* Once it's done, and if the whole chicken-fat thing bugs you, you can let it cool overnight and then skim the fat off in the morning before adding the matzo balls. But me? Not a chance.
*OK. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the soup never gets chicken-y enough. The world will not end if you add a couple of bouillon cubes or whatever to boost it along. Not that I have ever done that. No way, no how. Except for, um, pretty much every time when I first started making my own soup; about a third of the time now that I have the proportions down a little better. If I don't have five or six hours to simmer it, though? I almost always need to add a little somethingsomething.
Part 2: Matzo balls
Get ready, folks: Your cholesterol is about to go up 30 or 40 points just by READING this recipe. Don't say I didn't warn you. Oh, and also? My mother's recipe is for half this amount, and if you have a smallish pot or make just one chicken's worth of soup, you might want to halve it, too. But I don't think I've ever made that few matzo balls; the natives would revolt if I tried. So I'm giving it to you the way I make it most of the time. Sometimes, I'll up this by 50% again!
- 8 eggs
- 10 tablespoons oil (I use canola)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt (or just eyeball it, which is what I do)
- 1 cup warm water
- 2-3 cups matzo meal (very approximate; see instructions)
2. Add water; mix again.
3. Add salt; stir.
4. Stir in matzo meal. How much? It's really an eye thing. What you want is to form a batter that is no longer watery, but isn't too thick.
(See this? This is too soupy. It needs more matzo meal.)
Now, this? Is perfect. It's not a leaden lump at the bottom of the bowl; it'll flow, slowly, like lava, if you tilt the bowl. But it still has a little 'shape' to it.
5. Place batter in refrigerator for several hours. It needs to chill well in order for the batter to firm up properly.
6. About half an hour to an hour before you want to serve the soup, it's time to make the matzo balls. You do this the old-fashioned way...by rolling them with your hands. To keep the sticky batter from sticking to your hands, you'll want to wet them (your hands, not the balls) frequently with cold water. Drop each matzo ball into the soup as you make it; if there's room, they will sink into the soup, then rise to the top as they cook. Oftentimes, though, there's not enough room for all of them to do this (at least not in my crowded-with-veggies-and-chicken pot!) and you'll need to occasionally stir the soup around so that the matzo balls roll over and get a chance to absorb the soup on all sides.
And that is it! (Are you happy now, Green? Me, too.)