[Note: This recipe got some fresh photos in 2019 because it really, really needed them.]
A confession: In spite of my current, ongoing, seeming-like-it-will-never-ever-end condition, I don’t like traditional chicken soup. Obviously, boasting such sacrilege, I am undeserving of your sympathy. Obviously, this is why, four days in, I am still on the sofa on my second box of tissues, chugging down my 20th Brita pitcher of water, my nose as red as a rail-thin starlet at 4 a.m., the bitterness of having a SuperBowl party of one only slightly mitigated by the fact that the Giants triumph–I do not embrace everyones’ grandmother’s sworn-by home remedy.
Honestly, it’s not all chicken soup that I do not like; it’s just the stuff I can normally get. Those short noodles? I can never get them on my spoon! Those bits of chicken? Always overcooked. Those carrot specks? They’re just mush. I’ve tried X Deli’s and Y Market’s and Z Restaurant’s and they always disappoint, namely because these three ingredients were never meant to be cooked for the same amount of time, nor kept warm for hours on end, which is why I was given no choice this weekend but to take the matter into my own hand and make my favorite variety of chicken soup: matzo ball soup.
It helped that Alex had gotten a two-day lead on being sick, because it got me to take some assorted stock ingredients out of their freezer bags, into a pot and make a batch of stock so enormous, I was pretty sure I used every large dish in the apartment. Of course, by Friday I was laid out too and the gap between defrosting chicken stock from the freezer and making it into something seemed impassable. But the thought of eating anything else depressed me, with the help of my also-infirm husband, turned it into matzo ball soup.
It was not difficult. It was absolutely delicious. It did not, however, draw us up from the depths of flu season, but I forgive it because it solved a different dilemma for me: I had always been convinced I couldn’t make chicken stock or matzo balls the way our mothers do. Some things are just like that–they’re just not the same when you make them yourself–and I am relieved this wasn’t one of them. Not as relieved as I would have been if, say, our mothers had come to our apartment and cooked it for us, but let’s not get crazy, huh?
The single most helpful thing you can keep on-hand if you wish to make your own soups and stocks is a stock bag, a concept I picked up from Sara Moulton way back when. This is a bag you keep in your freezer with ingredients you’re saving to flavor a soup base. It’s especially awesome for those of us who hate throwing things away–you never have to. Chopping leeks tonight? Throw the tough green ends in your stock bag. Discarding mushroom stems? Add them too. Only using half that onion? Don’t let it grow old and forgotten in your fridge.
This works for chicken as well. When you go to buy chicken for a dish, grab a whole one and ask the guy behind the counter to chop it for you. It costs a lot less and you can then save the back and wings (because who eats wings?) in a separate stock bag, so they’ll be ready when you are.
Yield: Approximately 3.5 quarts
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 pounds chicken necks, backs and wings
3 celery ribs, cut into big chunks
3 carrots, scrubbed and cut into big chunks
2 parsnips, scrubbed and cut into big chunks
2 onions, unpeeled and quartered
1 head garlic, cut horizontally in half
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon Kosher salt
4 quarts cold water
Any vegetables you have stashed in your Stock Bag (described above)
Bring all ingredients to a boil in an 8- to 10-quart heavy pot. Skim froth. Reduce heat and gently simmer, uncovered for 3 hours.
Pour stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl and discard solids. If using stock right away, skim off and discard any fat. If not, cool stock completely, uncovered, before skimming fat, then chill, covered. Reserve a few tablespoons of the skimmed fat if you wish to use them in matzo balls (below).
Stock can be chilled 3 days in the refrigerator or frozen 1 month.
Matzo Ball Soup
There are two matzo ball camps: those that like them heavy and leaden at the bottom of a bowl and those that like them light and fluffy–these are the latter, and in my mind, the better ones.
If you can’t find matzo meal, pulse a few pieces of matzo in your food processor until it is a coarse powder. If you can’t find matzo, well, you obviously do not live in New York City.
Makes 8 to 12 matzo balls
1/2 cup matzo meal
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons reserved chicken fat or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons chicken stock or seltzer (which both of our mothers swear by for making the balls extra light)
2 to 3 quarts prepared chicken stock (recipe above)
1 carrot, thinly sliced
A few sprigs of dill
Mix all matzo ball ingredients in a bowl. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Bring 1 1/2 quarts of well-salted water to a brisk boil in a medium sized pot.
Reduce the flame. Run your hands under water so they are thoroughly wet. Form matzo balls by dropping spoonfuls of matzo ball batter approximately 1-inch in diameter into the palm of your wet hands and rolling them loosely into balls. Drop them into the simmering salt water one at a time. Cover the pot and cook them for 30 to 40 minutes.
About ten minutes before the matzo balls are ready, bring prepared chicken stock to a simmer with the sliced carrot in it. Ladle some soup and a couple matzo balls into each bowl and top with a couple snips of dill. Eat immediately.