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Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls
By George Erdosh
My mother's chicken soup, a genuine central European Jewish version, was legendary. Clear as a fresh-brewed tea, sparkling golden honey-colored with mouthwatering coin-sized pale gold rounds of chicken fat drifting on the surface around the contrasting coarse-chopped green Italian parsley flakes, while in the liquid serpentine strands of vermicelli, polka-dots of green peas and orange carrot rings (cooked separately to remain crisp and bright) lent body and firm, toothsome texture. The flavor was bright, deep and almost clucked it was so full of the taste of chicken. Yet my friends claimed that their mothers' chicken soup was better and when I had the occasion to test, I didn't think so. Every Jewish mother who knows how to turn on and use her kitchen range claims she has the best chicken soup based on a recipe passed down through generations.
Small variations in starting ingredients, method of preparation and the finishing touches make enough difference in the final result that the highly sensitive taste buds of a growing child can detect and retain the flavor memory of a chicken soup forever. Particularly the flavor of matzo balls! In most Jewish kitchens today's cook reaches for the box of matzo ball mix (each time with a small dab of guilt) and the result is uniformly the same. They are OK matzo balls, nothing great or memorable (and certainly not something you would pass down to the next generation).
When I became a food professional, I tested my mother's chicken soup recipe, re-tested and revised it to suit modern taste buds and dietary trends, particularly lowering fat level. I may have even improved on the flavor with my food science wisdom. But what I definitely improved was the matzo ball. My mother, may God rest her soul and her famed wooden spoon, made excellent matzo balls. They were the size of a lime or a lemon, not too soft to be mushy and not too hard that it jumped across the table on your attempt to split it, with just a touch of ginger to give it a tiny zing.
Yet I succeeded to improve my mother's matzo balls with some jazzy flavor, reducing it to a more manageable and eye-appealing walnut size while improving on preparation method. Now here is a matzo ball that's worth passing down to the next generation and with not much more effort than opening a box of mix.
But let's deal with the soup first.
CHICKEN SOUP OR JEWISH PENICILLIN
A good, traditional Jewish chicken soup is a supreme first course to launch any festive meal. As luck has it, it is also highly nutritious and even has some therapeutic health benefits. A University of Nebraska Medical Center team in 1993 implied a medical basis for chicken soup's mythical healing powers. Whether it is a single ingredient that is responsible or the combination of all the ingredients is still not known. But a traditionally prepared chicken soup inhibits the clumping of a certain type of white blood cells (called neutrophils) that cause congestion and inflammation in people suffering from the common cold.
To start the soup, recipes often call for a whole stewing hen. Yet you can produce just as good chicken soup from parts you have been accumulating in the freezer - bones, gizzards, hearts, wings, any chicken parts, including the skin and the feet. Liver is the only part you should reserve for other purposes because it adds too much flavor of its own to the soup. You can also buy these various chicken parts in packages at a fraction of the cost of a whole stewing hen, yet the flavor will not suffer.
The first step is to prepare a long-simmering stock on low heat with the chicken parts and the essential flavoring vegetables - carrots, onion, celery and parsnips (or parsley root) - and spices: salt, peppercorn, thyme, parsley (some recipes add a bay leaf and garlic). In the second step you drain the stock, retaining nothing but the liquid. Discard chicken meat too. Even though many thrifty cooks reuse the chicken meat from the stock, in a well-made soup virtually all the flavor has passed into the liquid - the chicken is dry and flavorless. Your cat may turn its nose up should you offer it.
HOW TO DE-FAT YOUR STOCK
If there is too much fat on top, there are a couple of easy ways to remove most but not all. Fat contains the fat-soluble flavors that contribute to the overall taste of the soup as well as the glimmering golden globs for eye-appeal.
If you have plenty of time, the easy way to remove fat is to chill the stock until the fat floating on top congeals. Then you scoop off as much as you wish. Retain at least a thin layer. If you have little time before serving, use a poultry baster to dig under the fat layer and pump the clear liquid below a basterful at a time, emptying it into a second pot until you have accumulated enough.
There is also an ingenious little defatting device, a decanter with a long spout designed to separate the fat on top while the long spout drains the fatless bottom portion, that you can buy in kitchen stores if you are into gadgets.
Now that you have the crystal clear, partly-defatted stock, it is time to add some complementary color and body for your chewing pleasure, and, of course, the matzo balls and the soup is ready for the diners.
Vermicelli (broken into short pieces for easier spooning), freshly blanched crisp peas and carrot rings and matzo balls were traditional at my mother's tables, but you may serve whatever you feel is best. Keep colors in mind and add just a little so the uncluttered soup retains its clarity and brilliance. Never add the flavorless and mushy vegetables from the stock. Garnish the top with flakes of coarse-chopped fresh parsley.
Cook the matzo balls separately, not in the soup because starch and congealed protein from the matzo balls will murk up your nice clear soup, ruin its appearance. You can cook them in plain salted water or a light chicken stock from chicken bouillon. You may prepare the matzo balls well in advance, ready to be reheated just before serving.
JEWISH CHICKEN SOUP
1 1/2 kilo chicken parts: bones, wings, thighs, feet, gizzards, hearts, skin in any ratio
2 large carrots, washed, unpeeled, broken into coarse pieces
1 large onion, peeled, cut into quarters
2 celery stalks, cut into quarters
1 medium parsnip, washed, unpeeled, cut into three pieces (or parsley root)
6-8 sprigs fresh Italian parsley, whole
4 sprigs fresh thyme, whole or 2 tsp dry thyme
1 Tbsp salt
1 1/2 tsp whole black peppercorn
matzo balls (recipe below)
Place all ingredients in a large stock pot and add water to cover (3 to 4 liters). Bring water to boil over medium heat but watch the pot so water never comes to rolling boil (to avoid clouding the soup). When water is just about to boil, turn heat to lowest setting so only a few lazy bubbles break the surface. Cover pot and let simmer for 4 hours. (Longer simmering will not hurt soup.)
Remove pot from heat, fish out most of the chicken parts and vegetables and discard. Strain the liquid through a fine strainer and defat soup if necessary (see defatting suggestions above). Adjust salt to your taste.
Makes about 3 to 4 liters of chicken stock.
For soup body, take about 1/4 cup dry vermicelli (broken into matchstick lengths), 1/4 cup peas (fresh or frozen) and 1/4 cup thin carrot slices per serving. Cook vermicelli in salted water, blanch peas and carrots in boiling salted water until cooked but still crunchy. For garnish, coarsely chop fresh Italian parsley. Add these with matzo balls into individual soup bowls.
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp fresh grated ginger
- 3 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
- 1/2 t ground black pepper
- 1 clove garlic, finely minced
- 3/4 cup matzo meal
- 2 Tbsp soft butter, oil or chicken fat
Scramble eggs, blend in salt, ginger, parsley, pepper and garlic. Slowly mix matzo meal and butter (or oil or fat) into egg mixture until it forms a dough. This will be a stiff dough, to lighten it add water slowly until it is workable (about 1/4 water).
Shape dough into neat, round 14 to 18 walnut-sized balls, lower them into simmering stock (using chicken bouillon), cover pot and sgently for 10 minutes. Drain stock.
George Erdosh is a member of the International
Association of Culinary Professionals. For ideas on food and cooking, check out his
website at www.howfoodswork.com
from the January 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine