Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jewish penicillin (aka Chicken soup with matzo balls)

"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 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)
1. Clean the chicken: Keep neck, pupik, any other hard stuff; get rid of liver, fat, kidneys and membranes. Run water through until clean.

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)
1. Beat eggs and oil together well.

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 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.)


  1. So happy! Foster Farms chicken is on sale at Safeway right now. Bet you can guess what I'm doing this weekend!

    P.S. One can never make too many matzoh balls!

  2. Okay, I'm curious about a couple of things. I make my chicken soup more or less the same way, but once the chicken is cooked thru and falling off the bones, I remove it and strain the broth (cheesecloth is great for this step), then I pull the chicken off the bones, remove the skin, shred it and add it back into the pot. At this point, I add my chopped vegies, fresh herbs, noodles or rice (matzoh balls?!!) etc.

    So, my question is this: Do you leave the chicken on the bones in the soup? And the whole onion? Just curious.

  3. I'm glad Kristen asked about the chicken, I was wondering the same thing.

    I have some really fond memories of a childhood friend's mom's homemade chicken and matzo ball soup. I don't care how many ways I make my soup with rice, etc...NOTHING compares to the real deal. *sigh* Do they make GF matzo?

  4. Kristen...I'm lazy! I leave everything in the pot. The chicken falls off the bones, as you said. Then, as I ladel out the soup to serve it, I will throw away bones, pick out skin, cartillage, etc
    If I put it into a soup tureen, I do that as I transfer it.

    I find that having all the veggies, herbs, etc, all the way through gives the soup more taste; adding them at the end would leave the veggies themselves tastier and crisper, though. It's a matter of preference. (Or, in my case, tradition. This is just the way my mom and grandma, etc., always did it.)

    Finally, I strain the broth through cheesecloth when I put it into pint jars or freezer bagss and freeze it for future use as 'stock'--after I've eaten as much of the soup as I can over three days or so. I tend to have a couple of quarts of broth left over when I make a batch as big as the one pictured above!

    Niksmom...I'm guessing no on GF matzo, since matzo if pretty much nothing BUT G! ;-)

  5. (My computer's acting weird; my apologies for all the typos above!)

  6. Oh, gawd, that looks delicious. I have not made homemade chicken soup in such a long time. Mm!

    You have just inspired me. I am going to make it next weekend. No matzoh balls unfortunately but I do have a recipe for GF dumplings I been wanting to try.

  7. I must state here and now that I don't like soup so to say this tempted me is saying A LOT. I do however make broth or soup bases (for Thanksgiving gravy, for example, or stew, or soup for dh and the kids). Anyhow, I never ever bother starting with pure water: I start with organic, chicken broth, and poach the chicken in that. An alternative fix if lack of simmering or dislike of bouillon cubes is an issue.

    All that said, I might try this recipe at some point it does look delicious. Dh and the kids do like soup so....

  8. I'll have to admit that the one good thing that came out of dating a Jewish guy for 3 years in college is that I learned to make really good matzo ball soup. :)


  9. I use seltzer instead of water for the matzoh balls.
    I do as you do and don't tie anything up. I take the chickie out and debone, etc. as I love eating the cartillage (yes I am your weird aunt, I love it... I must be missing something in my diet), I add an extra onion and turnip and parsnip as I love them. I throw in whole carrots not the little ones as my mother did.
    Much easier to cut up before serving. I expect my girlfriend's husband to request this any time soon. It was 32 degrees here in FL the other night and will be again this weekend... I am in love with this cold weather!!!

  10. Here is where I differ.. First - I only use a stewing hen otherwise the meat is useless. I take chicken out after 4 hours and pull meat apart and reserve to add later then I strain the entire batch to catch just the stock. I then put in the refrigerator over night and skim the fat in the am to use for my Matzo balls. Also for the matzo balls I separate the eggs and wish the whites till firm and fold into mix to make lighter and fluffier. Then I cook them in salt water for 30 min with the LID on (no peaking) then I reheat the stock add matzo balls and carrots sliced on the bias, and serve with fresh dill and parsely and reserved chicken.

  11. oops.. seltzer water also and if I can find them, chicken feet. They really make a difference when it comes to real chicken flavor.