From Russia with Love: Matzo Ball Soup
by Warren Bobrow
Welcome Fall – Welcome Cold Season – Russian-Jewish New Year style.
Yom Kippur – the day of Atonement for observant Jews – is a day of fasting. This means no food sundown to sundown. Ok, in the morning I had a few locally gathered scrambled eggs with Herbes de Provence. And, of course, a cup of coffee made with the beans my wife and I bought a few short weeks before on Martha’s Vineyard. I really wanted a Kossar’s Bialy with tomato and onion for lunch. I didn’t eat that. Wanted to, but didn’t. And no BLT‘s or cheeseburgers .. I had one last year and had to atone for it this year.
What I dreamt of that day was the sweet and savory (Kosher) chicken soup made by my mom- in- law, Lenora. Her matzo balls are perfectly light and airy and she worries about how they turn out. They are wonderful, handmade with love. They are the essence of perfection. No leaden golf-balls in this family. The matzo balls would be the first thing I would bite into, hot or not. Her soup broth, slowly simmered using only Kosher ingredients, would break our fast.
Yom Kippur is that holiday when a bowl of chicken soup is not just a simple bowl of soup, it means something deeper, it binds us to our past. We stress out all year over it. My 90 plus-year-old grandmother, Sophia, was able to join us for dinner, so we enjoyed a lively evening of memories discussing the preparation of the matzo ball soup. At Break-Fast, the next day we enjoyed conversation about the soup we ate the night before over platters of smoked fish from Zabar’s.
Matzo Ball soup as a cultural metaphor has been the source of much lore. It is sometimes known as Jewish Penicillin. I’ve been fighting off a grippe for the past few days, and a bowl of this soup has reputed mystical properties long understood to be the cure for the common cold-and now Swine Flu. It is my thought to offer this matzo ball recipe because to share it brings another generation to the dinner table.
Unfortunately for strict recipe followers a great bowl of matzo ball soup is something that is felt deep inside the soul, and it doesn’t hurt to be Jewish, but this is not a prerequisite. It transcends the ages as an identifiable cause of that specific kind food story…that the matzo ball may be too firm, or too heavy or it fell apart in the pot!
I’ve heard that some people actually like their matzo balls to be as hard and heavy as a golf ball. In fact they have a golf ball in their kitchen so when they build these little bricks of cement ,the matzo ball’s weight will be about 2 ounces or more. Not me! I like them light and fluffy, made by hand,
Don’t bring me matzo balls that are round or heavy or hard to the tooth… I won’t eat them. If you consider using a boxed- mix, leave those matzo balls at home and feed them to an unfriendly neighbor or his dog. Open the pot- ruin the matzo ball, they’ll drop to the bottom like a hard potato dumpling in a kettle of Frogmore Stew. Patience is necessary. A good pinch of nutmeg is also recommended according to my great grandmother, Yetta, who taught me years ago about her Eastern European methods of matzo ball cooking.
And so, as we move into fall, I’m reminded of those in my family who have influenced me both present and past-through the ever-present bowl of matzo ball soup.
Prepare your chicken soup with a nice roasting bird like a Pullet, *a small commercial supermarket chicken- just won’t do* add washed and peeled carrots, celery, onion, parsnip, maybe a turnip if you desire, add fresh dill and a several garlic cloves unpeeled, but cut on one end.
Heat the Pullet and the vegetables over a medium flame with at least 12 cups of pure spring water in a non-reactive soup pot. Stainless is best. (the soup will reduce over time-making you thankful you listened to me on the water amount used)
Set chicken aside to cool and when you can handle it, separate the flesh from the bones. Make another pot of water and put the remaining bones in it.. heat for 30 minutes or so on a medium simmer. Use this bone-infused broth for cooking the matzo balls. Strain the first stock and chill covered so that the fat rises up to the surface. Put this stock in the fridge for the next day. This will be the soup.
Retain chicken fat for toast points ( memories of Sammy’s Roumanian? anyone?)
1/2 cup matzo meal
2 farm fresh eggs at room temp.
2 tablespoons reserved chicken fat from your soup
1 teaspoon salt and 1/2-3/4 teaspoons of freshly ground nutmeg (more if you want some spicy matzo-balls)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons seltzer water, not club soda (too salty)
Mix all matzo ball ingredients in a bowl. Cover and rest in the in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
Bring 3 1/2 quarts of well-salted water or chicken stock to a brisk boil in a medium sized pot.
Reduce the flame. Wet your hands. Form matzo balls by dropping just enough of matzo ball batter to form approximately 1-inch in diameter into the palm of your wet hands and rolling them in the shape of an Idaho potato- loosely into oblong balls. Drop them carefully into the simmering chicken stock from the bones one at a time. Cover the pot and cook them for 30 to 40 minutes without opening or peeking or allowing anyone else to open the pot to catch a glance at them…. EVER!
Heat the dark Pullet-infused stock, add chicken pieces, some freshly snipped dill, carrots, celery and onions from the soup-pot. Place the matzo balls into the stock to warm, and serve in heated bowls.
I dedicate this article to my great grandmother, Yetta, who taught me to make a pretty good matzo ball and to my grandmother, Sophia, who was there to share our Yom Kippur supper with us.
Wild River Review contributing editor, Warren Bobrow grew up on a farm in Morristown, NJ. A graduate of Emerson College with a degree in Film, he spent his senior year as a research assistant in visual thinking at The Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. He worked for many years in the corporate world.
His column, Wild Snack, appears every Wednesday on WRR@Large. His daily Blog; Wild Table is coming soon in October. In addition to Wild River Review, Warren writes for NJMYWay.com, NJ Monthly and NJ Life, also, SLOWFOODNNJ.org. He has upcoming work in Edible Jersey Magazine on the topic of Biodynamic Wine and a piece in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Ed., 2., and NJ Savvy Living. Please follow his moving about and drinkin’ ’round on Twitter @ WarrenBobrow1