Why We Cook: Matzo Ball Soup

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My grandmother was in very poor health when I was growing up. She spent her winters in Miami Beach at my family’s former home on Hibiscus Island. It was a grand home on the bay, and I will always remember going down to the palm tree-surrounded house for Christmas a few times when I was a boy. There would be both a Christmas tree and a Menorah; we were not a blended family in any way other than the appreciation of all national holidays, especially ones that involved large family meals. Making foods like Matzo Ball soup is a culturally relevant example for why I cook and the foods that I still enjoy today.

Every time I make a pot of Matzo Ball soup, immediately I’m transported to my grandmother’s kitchen at Shangri La. Estelle, our family cook, would have cut up a few freshly killed fat birds on the broad stainless steel tables. They lay there, resplendent in their elegance and in my mind’s eye. The vegetables would be cut up and there was always much commotion in the kitchen between my great-grandmother and others who would always have to give their unsolicited advice.

Whenever I add a few onions, carrots and celery stalks to a pot of spring water containing the perfect Pullet chicken, I’m connected to the first time I saw my great-grandmother make this soup for my ailing grandmother. She knew that Jewish penicillin might not cure all ills, but it couldn’t hurt!

Matzo Ball soup is one of those historic recipes that connects each subsequent bowl of soup with all of those preceding it. Every taste of this soup is perfect and contains more than just ingredients — it contains memories of my grandmother, Sarah and her mother, Yetta. My stock is made with care from the same ingredients that she used, including parsnips, onions, carrots and celery. My great-grandmother taught me that the parsnip adds depth and balance against the Matzo meal. Her Matzo Balls contained a healthy pinch of nutmeg; she said this was essential and I still make mine this way. She also warned in a stern but caring fashion never to lift the lid off the pot, even for a second, to check the balls: “They’ll be as hard as golf balls, heavy as stones!”

Now, decades later, each bowl of this soup is like a flavor-driven time machine, transporting me to the past — a veritable healing journey into my family history, one steaming and savory sip at a time.

Yetta’s Chicken Soup for Matzo Balls

 

  • 1 or two pullet chickens (find some nice fatty ones)
  • 5 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 6 stalks celery, roughly chopped
  • 6 onions, ends cut off (do not peel)
  • 6 parsnips, sliced into coins
  • 1 large bunch of dill
  • 2 to 4 quarts spring water

In a non-reactive stainless steel pot, add all of the ingredients. Use spring water instead of tap. Bring to a nice simmer and cook until the chicken falls off the bone. Be careful not to burn the soup, stirring every so often.

Remove carcass and onions from the soup and correct seasoning. When cool enough to handle, strip chicken meat from carcass and add back into pot. Make sure no bones stay in the soup, but use as much of the chicken as possible to make your soup. Cool overnight in the fridge.

The next morning, scoop the congealed fat off the top and reserve for your Matzo Balls.

 

Matzo Balls from Yetta (with love)

  • 2 cups Matzo meal
  • A good pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 4 to 5 Tbs. reserved chicken fat from your soup
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 Tbs. seltzer water

Mix all the ingredients together and let rest for at least an hour covered with a damp cloth in the fridge.

Form the Matzo Balls with your hands. Try not to make them too perfect! Add to a pot of boiling chicken stock or water, reduce heat to a simmer and cover for at least 30 minutes. Take off the heat and rest (with the top still in place) for at least 15 minutes more.

Open carefully and add the Matzo Balls to your chicken soup. Then, with spoon in hand add with reverence into pre-heated bowls. Enjoy! Serves 4 to 6.