Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup

Passover prep is well underway at my house. Last weekend I got the chicken soup and matzoh balls made. I used Big Grandma’s recipe, as recorded by my mother in Cooking Is My Bag, a fundraiser cookbook put out by the Montclair Education Association, I’m guessing in the late 1970s.

Big Grandma (may her memory be for a blessing) was (among many other things) my mother’s mother, an ace fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal, a fiercely competitive Scrabble player, a skilled knitter and needle-pointer, a Canadian Club drinker, an opera listener, a staunch supporter of and frequent flyer to Israel, and our family’s official soup maker.

She was famous for two soups: mushroom barley with beef, and chicken with matzoh balls. She brought them to our home frozen in quart-sized containers weeks before whatever holiday they were meant for. Serving the soup meant setting the container in a saucepan half filled with water and gently heating it until the soup was melted enough to slip out of the container, and then getting it nice and hot. Once I was living too far from New Jersey to come home for Passover, I found out that making chicken soup with matzoh balls is more difficult than just waiting for your grandmother to drive up the Garden State Parkway with her vats of frozen soup.

But it’s not that difficult. Mostly, it just takes some advance planning, because doing it right takes three days. Here’s how I did it this year.

Day one: Make soup!

Quarter your whole chicken. (B.G. didn’t keep kosher, but she did demand a kosher pullet for her soup. I don’t keep kosher, either, but I do try to eat only the meat of animals I believe have been raised humanely. This year’s soup chicken scored a 5 – the highest grade — on Whole Foods’ animal treating ratings.)

Throw the chicken parts into your soup pot, along with three large onions, four or five celery stalks, and two or three large carrots. (I also add a bunch of whole garlic cloves. And this year, a parsnip. Don’t tell B.G.)

Add four quarts of water and bring to a boil. (B.G. says to then skim any accumulated “fluff.” This makes the final broth beautifully clear. But it’s also a pain in the neck, especially when the chicken and vegetables are bobbing up over the top of the water. I used to spend a lot of time and effort trying to accomplish this step. Now I ignore it. No one has ever complained.)

Simmer, covered, for 90 minutes. (I think B.G. cracked the pot lid. I used to, but no longer bother.)

At this point, this year, I added a bouquet of parsley, as recommended by Big Grandma’s brother-in-law, Uncle Moley. I also seasoned with salt and pepper.

Simmer another 30 minutes.

Remove the carrots and chicken parts, and strain the rest.

Cut the carrots into coins and return them to the soup. (Uncle Moley also returns the chicken to the soup. B.G. and I reserve it for other uses, such as chicken salad and chicken tertrazini, one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

Cool the soup in the fridge overnight.

Day two: Skim, mix and chill

Skim the fat from the top of the soup. (This soup fat isn’t exactly the same as schmaltz you make by rendering chicken fat with onion. But it works just as well for matzoh balls, and it’s a lot more convenient.)

Make your matzah ball batter by creaming the soup fat and combining it with beaten eggs, matzah meal, and salt and pepper to taste. Amounts: 3 TBS fat to 3 eggs to 3/4 cup matzah meal.

Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.

If you’re freezing the soup for later, you can do that now.

Day three: Make matzoh balls!

Get a big pot of salted water boiling while you set up your matzah-ball-making station. (The recipe in the Montclair Education Association cookbook doesn’t include this part. It’s the secret to success B.G. shared with me when she found out I was planning to actually use the recipe she had so casually dictated to my mother. I felt privileged that she’d given me this extra wisdom. Especially since years earlier, when I asked her to teach me to knit, she’d gotten disgusted with my ineptitude and given up almost immediately.)

To make your matzoh balls B.G.’s secret way, you’ll need the batter you’ve had sitting overnight, a bowl of warm water wide enough to wet your palms, a towel to dry your fingertips.

To form smooth, round matzoh balls, dig walnut-sized bits from the batter with your dry finger tips, and roll them between your wet palms. Keeping your finger tips to be dry prevents the batter from becoming soggy, and keeping your palms wet helps the balls slide around without sticking, so you can form a lovely sphere.

Drop the balls into the water and let them boil, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Remove them with a slotted spoon. Let them drain and cool. Then you can freeze them. (I used to freeze the balls in the soup, but they tended to fall apart as the soup thawed.)

That’s it. Do it right, and the result will be a broth that’s rich in taste, just slightly sweet, and not at all greasy, and matzoh balls that are flavorful, firm enough to stand up to a spoon, soft enough to melt in your mouth, and not at all heavy. Plan on offering seconds.

Happy Passover!

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4 Responses to “Big Grandma’s Chicken Soup”

  1. Linda P. Epstein Says:

    Awesome recipe! The fat Israeli guy who owns the Falafel place near my house cooks big chunks of fresh ginger in his chicken soup. I started to do that too because of the healing qualities of ginger and my tendency to make vats of chicken soup when anyone in my family gets sick. The Israeli guy leaves the ginger in, so that sometimes unsuspecting soup eaters get a sharp surprise. I fish my ginger chunks out and toss them, but it gives the soup a spicy complexity that I love. Zeisen Pesach, lovey!

  2. Bennett Cabido Says:

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  3. Harriet Hornack Says:

    Traditionally, American chicken soup was prepared using old hens too tough and stringy to be roasted or cooked for a short time. In modern times, these fowl are difficult to come by, and broiler chickens (young chickens suitable for broiling or roasting) are often used to make soup; soup hens or fowl are to be preferred when available.:

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