The wisdom, history and whimsy our grandparents hold is to be treasured. More often than not, the knowledge is lost to the universe as the older generation passes on. Add to that the fact that in today's day and age, many Americans are not learning to cook in a family-centric way. Home cooking is making a rebound, no doubt, but rather than learning to cook from recipes written on stationary cards kept in keepsake boxes, passed down from generation to generation, we learn from the multitude of cookbooks, food blogs (oh hi), and television programming devoted to the craft. And while Epicurious and Ina Garten have their merits, unless we begin to ask, begin to document, begin to learn to share a kitchen (still learning that skill myself), we'll lose those recipes that have been passed down from one Great Auntie Nunu to Nana Estelle on a newspaper clipping from 198-? with handwritten notes beginning to disintegrate in the already yellowing margins.
Not too long ago, I spent the day cooking with my Nana, Estelle. It was tough to decide which recipes to tackle together first but I decided to start with the classic dishes she has always made for holidays: matzoh ball soup and cocktail meatballs. The cocktail meatballs will be another post but-- how totally awesome is that recipe card?!
Cooking with my Nana was a blast. She made it very clear that I was going to be the cook-- she was merely there to show me her methods, pass down the recipes and insure quality control. At first, she demured-- she's really "a recipe cook!" And, "Look, the soup recipe is straight out of this book! It's really very simple!"
Nit geshtoygen un nit gefloygen, Nana. [Yiddish for "it never rose and it never flew," or, alternatively: "bullshit."]
That book certainly contains a recipe for basic chicken soup, but it ain't Nana's matzoh ball soup. And while Nana admitted in hushed tones that the matzoh ball recipe is actually off the Manischewitz box, that box is actually the family secret ("The whole family uses the box now!"). Nana's soup recipe is below. It is the result of nearly an entire day's work and four pages of careful notes in my Moleskin. Rosh Hashanah is coming up later this month but even if you aren't celebrating the New Year with your family you might want to try your hand at some matzoh ball soup. It'll set you right as rain.
Estelle’s Matzoh Ball Soup
Yield: a LOT of soup. At least 10-12 bowls. At. Least.
For the chicken stock:
One 6lb. capon, quartered* 2 stalks celery, peeled and chunked 2 large carrots, peeled and chunked 1 parsley root with leafy tops, root peeled and left whole, leafy tops bundled and tied with kitchen twine 1 parsnip, peeled and left whole 1 leek, cleaned and left whole (trim so only 3” of dark green remains) ½ small onion, cleaned and skin-on (Estelle says: “for color!”) 1 tsp. kosher salt 6 black peppercorns 1 bay leaf
For the matzoh balls: 1 packet of Manischewitz Matzo Ball Mix (each box contains 2 packets) 2 eggs 2 Tbs vegetable oil
*Estelle says: “Never use a supermarket chicken for The Soup— get the very best chicken you can find [L: Estelle recommends Harrison’s on Waukegan Road]. You can have the butcher quarter the capon for you and you can add gizzards, necks and feet to the stock if you have them. Chicken feet are good for body but they have to be fresh. And have the butcher take the nails off, yech!! You’ll be best off with 6-8 feet per batch of stock.”
To make the chicken soup, In a 16-quart stock pot (or the largest you own), bring 5 quarts of water to boil. (Estelle says: “If you add the chicken to the cold water and then bring it up to a boil, there’s more yeccch to skim off the top later. Boil the water first. Then add the chicken.”) Once the water comes to a boil, add in the chicken. Let the water come back up to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover partially and simmer the chicken for 25 minutes, being careful to ensure the water doesn’t boil. As the chicken cooks, occasionally skim off “the yeccch” with a slotted spoon and discard it, being careful to get the sludge that hangs out around the edges of the pot. (Estelle says: “Never cover the pot. Leave a bit of an opening.” “Why?” I asked. E: “That’s what I read somewhere!”).
After simmering for 25 minutes, add all the remaining ingredients. Continue to simmer (E: “never boil!”) for an hour and a half. Taste the stock for seasoning, adding salt or pepper if necessary.
Remove the soup from the heat and discard the larger solids except for the carrot (Estelle says: “You can absolutely eat the chicken, but it’s kinda bland by now. It’s still good for a nice chicken salad or something. Or you can add pieces of the meat to the soup. I always put the carrot into the soup, but if you’re making it ahead of time you have to store it separately with a little bit of the broth in its own container otherwise it leeches flavor and makes the soup too sweet.”). Set a large mesh strainer into an even larger bowl [Laura says: this needs to be a big bowl, kids. It’s a LOT of soup.]. Set a smaller, finer mesh strainer into the larger mesh strainer. Ladle the soup carefully into the smaller strainer, ladle by ladle, making sure the strainers catch any remaining “yeccch.” [Laura says: Yep. This is totally ridiculous. I brought up that point to Estelle (“you know, they make larger strainers than this. Or you could strain it through cheese cloth if you’re really worried about the clarity of the soup. And I’m strong enough to pour it through instead of using the ladle!”). She didn’t have any of it. That’s the way she has always done it, so that’s the way I did it. Ladle. By. Ladle. Teeny. Tiny. Strainer.] If you are still with us after that process, you can serve the clarified broth immediately or refrigerate or freeze it for later use.
To make the matzoh balls, follow the instructions on the back of the box—adding the eggs and oil to the contents of one packet and stirring very well until evenly mixed. (E says: “For the yuntif [Ed: read: holiday], you can make a big batch of stock ahead of time and place it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, skim the schmaltz [Ed: read: chicken fat] off the top and use that instead of the vegetable oil.”). Set the mixture in the fridge to chill for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, set a 4-quart pot on the stove with 2 ½ quarts of water to boil. Salt the water lightly. (Estelle says: “By the time the water boils, you can take the mix out of the fridge.”) Using wet hands, roll a heaping tablespoon of mix into a ball. Continue until you have 8 matzo balls. (Estelle says “That ‘makes 9-12’ stuff on the box is nonsense. One packet makes eight.”) Carefully drop the matzoh balls into the boiling water then lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20-25 minutes. (E says: “You cook them first before you add them to the soup. If you cooked them in the soup, the broth would get all cloudy. Cooking them in water separately keeps the soup nice and clear.”) Remove the matzoh balls carefully with a slotted spoon and drop them into the soup to serve. If you’re making the matzoh balls ahead of time, let them cool on paper towels before storing them in a Ziploc bag in the fridge. They freeze beautifully, too.
Matzoh ball soup is best served on special holiday occasions surrounded by boisterous family, when one suffers a rather annoying illness (i.e. chest cold, mononucleosis and the like) or to heal up heartbreak.