Classic matzo ball soup

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This recipe, from Jayne Cohen's book, "Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations" (Wiley, $32.50), is not for the faint of heart. But all the attention to detail pays off in the form of incomparable chicken soup.

1 (5- to 6-pound) fowl or stewing hen and its giblets (reserve liver for another use)

2 chicken feet or 1 pound chicken wings

Salt

2 large onions, 1 peeled and quartered, 1 washed and roots trimmed but left unpeeled, and quartered

2 parsnips, scraped and cut into large chunks

3 celery stalks, cut into large chunks

1/2 cup celery leaves

5 large carrots, scraped and halved

2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled 6 fresh parsley sprigs, preferably flat-leaf

1 parsley root, peeled and cut into chunks, optional (often found in greenmarkets and specialty stores, as well as supermarkets with well-stocked produce departments)

2 large leeks, trimmed (reserve long green leaves), washed of all traces of sand and cut into large pieces, or 1 sweet red onion, peeled and quartered

10 to 12 peppercorns, lightly crushed 1 bay leaf

Several leaves of mild-flavored lettuce, such as Boston or iceberg, if no leek greens are available

About 1/2 cup snipped fresh dill

 

1. Divide chicken roughly into quarters; remove all visible fat from the chicken and giblets. (You can render fat to make schmaltz.) Remove skin from the neck and the neck and tail openings. Wash all the pieces thoroughly, including feet or wings, and place in your largest stockpot, which should be tall and straight-sided. Add 4 quarts of cold water and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt to begin with.

2. Turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer. As the soup cooks, skim off any scum and fat that rise to the surface. When the soup begins to "smile," that is, tiny bubbles open and close along the edge of the pot, turn the heat down to very low. Skim the soup constantly; at this point, you really need to fret over it. When the soup is just about clear, add the onions, parsnips, celery stalks and leaves, carrots, garlic, parsley sprigs, parsley root, leeks, peppercorns and bay leaf, and raise the heat slightly to bring it back to a simmer. Continue skimming any froth or scum.

3. When the soup is again clear, turn down the heat as low as possible. Cover the surface of the soup with the leek greens or lettuce leaves, and put the pot lid on, leaving it slightly askew. Simmer the soup for at least 2 1/2 to 4 hours longer -- overnight is better still. (Some cooks simmer their soup in a 200-degree oven overnight.) Never let the soup boil, but do make sure the bubbles are breaking very gently on the surface. If there is no surface movement at all, the soup might spoil. To achieve a very low simmer, you can use a flame tamer or put the pot on two burner grates stacked on top of one another.

4. Adjust the seasonings. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and carrots and set aside. Let the soup cool to room temperature in the pot, uncovered. (Hot soup in a covered pot may turn sour.)

5. While the soup is cooling, pick over the reserved chicken and discard the bones, skin and other inedible parts. Reserve the chicken for another use or refrigerate along with the carrots to serve in the soup.

6. Strain the cooled soup through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down on all the vegetables to extract as much of their juices as you can, then discard the vegetables.

7. Refrigerate the soup, covered, overnight, or until all the remaining fat has congealed on the top. Carefully scrape off the fat and either reserve it for use as schmaltz, or discard it.

8. Before serving, reheat the soup. Taste for salt and pepper and add lots of fresh snipped dill. If you feel the soup is not strong enough, reduce it over high heat to concentrate the flavors. Serve the soup very hot, with additional fresh dill, the reserved carrots, and if desired, shred of the soup chicken. It is delicious with kreplach, matzo balls, egg noodles, rice, kasha, or just plain. Makes 2 1/2 to 3 quarts soup.

CLASSIC MATZO BALLS

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4 large eggs

6 tablespoons chicken fat (schmaltz) at room temperature, or 6 tablespoons mild olive oil or other mild vegetable oil

4 teaspoons grated onion

1 cup matzo meal

1 teaspoon baking powder

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Up to 4 tablespoons finely minced fresh herbs (dill, chives, parsley or a combination) and/or 2 pinches ground ginger (optional)

1. In a large bowl, beat eggs and schmaltz or oil until well blended and thick. Whisk in the onions. Mix together the matzo meal, baking powder, if using, salt (figure about 1 1/2 teaspoons), and pepper to taste, and stir in the egg mixture. Stir in the optional seasonings, if using. Cover the mixture and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours, so the matzo meal can fully absorb the liquids and seasonings.

2. Bring 4 quarts water and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt to a boil in a large, wide pot with a lid.

3. The balls formed from the soft batter may not hold their shape well, especially those made without baking powder. Not to worry: They will be very tender. Shape the batter into walnut- or olive-size balls, and place on a platter. When the water comes to a rapid boil, reduce the heat a bit. Carefully slide the balls in one at a time. Or you can form the balls using two spoons and drop them right into the water. Don't crowd the pot -- if necessary, prepare the matzo balls in to batches or use two pots.

4. When the water returns to a gentle boil, immediately cover the pot tightly and lower the heat to a simmer. Cook 35 to 45 minutes, without removing the lid. (They will cook by direct heat as well as by steam, which makes them swell up -- lifting the lid will reduce some of that steam.) Test for doneness: Remove a matzo ball and cut it in half. It should be tender, fluffy and completely cooked through. If it isn't, continue cooking for a few more minutes.

5. Remove the matzo balls gently with a skimmer or a large slotted spoon -- they are too fragile to pour into a colander. To serve, heat the chicken soup, add the matzo balls, and simmer until they are heated through. Don't eliminate this vital step: Matzo balls cooked in water need to absorb some of the soup's flavor. Ladle into warmed shallow bowls and serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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