My mother made sweet and sour tzimmes with melt-in-your mouth brisket, prunes, carrots and onions whenever someone was sitting shiva. She ground, by hand, the richest chopped liver moistened with schmaltz for her mahjong group. She rolled up delicate crepes stuffed with farmers cheese, pan fried them till they were golden brown on all sides and served the blintzes with a little sour cream and sweet blueberry sauce to break the fast for Yom Kippur. But her greatest work of art was served on Passover. It was….drumroll, please… Matzo Ball Soup!
Mom believed that matzo balls should be light and fluffy, and flecked with fresh parsley. She preferred to poach these dumplings just before serving, but to save time she often poached the dumplings the night before the big event, covered them with plastic wrap and placed them on a cookie sheet in the fridge. When it was time to serve the soup, she rewarmed the balls in a pot with hot salted water mixed with a little stock. Then she removed each ball with a slotted spoon and carefully slipped the matzo ball into the middle of a gold rimmed soup bowl that also contained a cooked carrot coin and a fresh sprig of dill. Finally, my mother poured her golden stock over everything. To some people, this first course might seem sparce, but that is the whole point of this soup— to ease you into the symbolic feast, to comfort you and to make you realize that a pure stock, a sprig of dill, a slice of carrot and a dumpling made of unleavened bread is something to celebrate.
Mom’s prowess in the kitchen was remarkable considering her mother died before she was sixteen. My grandmother, Jeannette, never taught my mother how to cook, never left her a recipe to follow. She did leave behind her 22 karat gold-rimmed hand-painted china, cut glass goblets, engraved sterling silver and the memory of a perfectly appointed Passover table.
When mother made mistakes (and my mother was not happy when she made one) she took precise notes and corrected her failures. She always kept a recipe box and in that box were beautifully hand-written recipes on 3x5 index cards. Some of the recipes came from the NYTimes, some from cookbooks by Julia Child, some from Jewish charities, some given to her from accomplished loved ones.
Strangely, considering what I do for a living, mom never let me get within six feet of her when I was a child and she was cooking. She didn’t want to be disturbed or distracted and she had no patience for teaching. She gave up cooking for good a few years ago, when she turned 83 and realized that cooking for one was no fun at all. “Been there. Done that,” she said as she somewhat regretfully handed over to me her large lucite recipe box filled to capacity with her sacred writings.
Today, with her permission, I will share one of Mom’s recipes, but it doesn’t come from the box. It comes from her memory and mine. It’s her matzo ball soup recipe. Though I thumbed through all of her cards, for some reason, she never fully recorded this recipe. There are some scribbles about the size of a proper matzo ball and a warning that ends with an exclamation mark: “Do not poach the balls in stock you are reserving for the serving bowls! ” but no details at all about the stock. So I called my meticulous mother and we remembered the details together.
“You must start with a kosher bird.”
“Why does it have to be kosher?” I asked her. I knew her answer, but I wanted to hear her passionate tone of voice.
“Because the meat is sweeter! It’s the best. You can’t make chicken soup without a kosher chicken.”
The woman who raised me is a reformed Jew, but when it comes to chicken soup, she is orthodox. She insists there are no acceptable shortcuts when making this soup. You must begin with one large or, even better, two small kosher chickens (Two chickens will make your stock more gelatinous and richer tasting, but you will need a big stock pot if you use seven pounds of chicken). Mom believes with all her heart that the meat of a chicken that has been raised and slaughtered according to the old dietary guidelines and blessed by the rabbi, is sweeter than any other. For sure, the salt used during the koshering process may make the chicken more flavorful. Trader Joe’s usually carries Empire Kosher Chickens, by the way, but if you can only get your hands on an organic, farm-raised bird that you dry brine a day before using, you have my blessing to swap it for a kosher bird.
Since mother’s memory of the specific ingredients that go into her matzo balls is blurry, I am going to step in and say I have tested many matzo balls for this writing and I have to say that Alison Roman makes a mean matzo ball. https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1020955-matzo-ball-soup-with-celery-and-dill
Her soup, however, is too hearty. Along with her balls, Alison adds lots of celery, dill, garlic and chicken. My mother was appalled when I mentioned this to her.
“There should not be any chicken meat in matzo ball soup. And she adds garlic. Garlic? What kind of meshugene adds garlic to matzo ball soup?”
My mother, the purist, doesn’t like things that are overwrought or as she would say: “ungapatchka.” But, and I say this most sincerely, I think Alison’s matzo balls are superb. They are composed of just the right number of eggs and not too much seltzer. They are light, yet sturdy and delicious. Most of all, these matzo balls are the perfect accompaniment for my mother’s transcendent stock. Obviously, you should serve this for Passover, but since Passover and Easter overlap this year, you could serve it for Easter! In any event, happy holidays, my friends.
Mother’s Matzo Ball Soup Recipe (with a little help from Alison Roman and Jill Strauss)
This soup can be made in stages. I suggest you first make the broth and refrigerate it overnight. In the morning, skim off the fat and reserve it for the matzo balls. After you make the matzo ball mixture (which only takes a few minutes) you should refrigerate the mixture up to 12 hours (overnight) to allow it to hydrate. On the second day, your stock will be cold, your schmaltz can be skimmed off and your matzo balls are ready to cook. Yes, this recipe takes some time to prepare, but it’s worth it.
2 (6 1/2 pounds) small kosher chickens cut into parts
14-16 cups of water
2 medium yellow onions, unpeeled, halved
1 leek, split in half, white and light green part only, cleaned, quartered
1 medium turnip, wax removed, quartered
1 peeled parsnip, chopped in thirds
1 peeled carrot, chopped in thirds, plus one carrot coin (1/2 inch thick slices) per serving bowl
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch parsley
1 small bunch dill, plus two sprigs reserved for each serving bowl
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 cup matzo meal (not matzo ball mix) or 1 cup finely ground matzo boards
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
5 large eggs
1/3 cup chicken fat, grapeseed oil or unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup club soda or seltzer
Place chicken and enough water to cover in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil and when lots of foam rises and completely covers the top of the pot, remove the chicken to another pot and run cool water over the chicken, making sure no scum clings to any surfaces of the chicken. Dump out the hot water with all the impurities. Wash it out with clean water, get rid of all the scum. Now you are ready to start your stock.
Combine clean, partially poached chicken, fresh cool water, onions, leek, turnip, parsnip, carrot, bay leaf, parsley, dill, whole peppercorns and kosher salt in clean stockpot. Bring to a simmer over low heat. Maintain a gentle simmer and cook for about 90 minutes. Let stock cool down a little for 30 minutes. Then strain stock through a fine mesh strainer and transfer hot liquid to containers with lids. Fill sink with some ice water and place containers of stock (with lids on) in ice bath that comes to the middle of the containers. Allow chicken stock to cool down. Then refrigerate until completely chilled, about six hours. Skim off any fat that has risen to the surface and reserve that fat (schmaltz) for matzo balls. Stock can be kept in refrigerator for up to 5 days.
When you are ready to assemble the soup, heat up your chicken stock in a clean stock pot. Taste it and adjust seasoning. It might need a little salt. Poach the carrot coins in the hot broth for about 8 minutes. Then remove the carrot coins and place in shallow serving bowls along with one or two sprigs of fresh dill. Cover the stock to keep it warm.
While the soup is warming, line a baking sheet with wax paper and with a soup spoon (a little larger than a tablespoon) scoop out some matzo mixture and roll it into a ball—about 1 1/2 inches in diameter). A generous ping pong ball of matzo mixture will swell when it is cooked to about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. (This is the perfect size, according to my mother. Don’t argue with her. You should have about 12 matzo balls when you are done rolling).
Fill a large Dutch oven with water, add a cup of chicken broth to the water and add just enough kosher salt so that the water is nicely seasoned and tastes vaguely of chicken. This is the diluted broth in which you will cook all of your matzo balls. When it comes to a boil, gently drop in all of the matzo balls. Cook until floating, puffed up and cooked through. This should take 18-20 minutes. After 18 minutes, if you can spare it, cut into one matzo ball to make sure it is not dense in the center. Using a slotted spoon, transfer one matzo ball at a time to each shallow serving bowl.
Heat up your stock till it is steaming and, with a ladle, carefully pour the hot stock over the matzo ball. Continue this way until the bowl is almost full. Serve.