Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part III: The Additions (but mostly Matzah Balls)

For part one, click here. For part two, click here.

Author’s note: I will discuss non-Ashkenazi additions at length, b”h, in future posts.

Kneidlach/matzoh balls in a pot
Kneidlach/matzoh balls in a pot, waiting to be served. (Photo Ohayon Avi and the GPO-Israel, October 2011, via CC/Wikimedia)

Jews have added stuff to soup ever since Jacob made something tasty and distracting for Esau. Some of these are not as well-known, others, such as matzah balls, noodles, and kubbeh, are widely praised. Now that you have your soup, you may want to add some of these. But which?

In the Ashkenazi culinary tradition, the humble matzah ball is probably ranked highest. These soft and fluffy dumplings, also known as kneidlach (sg. Kneidel), are made from ground matzah – the wafers that substitute for bread and other leavened products during Passover. They are often thought of as the quintessential Jewish dish – American Jewish media has canonized kneidlach for over a century, and Ashkenazi Jews the world over consider the soup an essential part of holiday and Shabbat celebrations. Yet this dumpling shows clear similarity to and influence from other European dumplings – for example, the German Knödel and Czech knedliky. Even the names are similar. In fact, some writers consider the kneidel to have emerged in medieval Germany at the same time as Knödel; the dumpling then travelled east as Jews migrated into Eastern Europe. We’re glad matzah balls came along.

The matzah ball is not the only non-Jewish addition we have made to our soups. For starters, we have added kreplach – dumplings similar to the Russian pelmeni or Chinese wonton, which probably sourced in part from the mantı brought by Turkic soldiers from Central Asia in the 13th century – which are still common in Turkey today. Of course, there are lokshen – noodles, brought in via Persia and Central Asia in antiquity (where Jews call the noodles lagman), and then again from China in the Middle Ages (where they are known as laomian). Some Romanian Jews add hazelnuts – which were probably first encountered by Jews in the early medieval period as they settled around the Black Sea region. An unadulterated dish chicken soup is not.

Even the most “Jewish” of dishes reflects two thousand years of influence from our neighbors. I think that for us Ashkenazim, in the context of Eastern Europe, it is difficult for us to acknowledge external influences on our culture(s) given the long history of anti-Semitism and abuse in the region. We want to protect “our” chicken soup, its dumplings and noodles, its scattered hazelnuts or dill. Yet there is something far more liberating about saying that we not only contributed to our neighbors’ cooking, but also took things and made them Jewish. Most of the time, when I eat a kneidel, I’m enjoying the kneidel. But occasionally, I like to remind myself of how it reflects the way changes to Jewish culture (dumplings) eventually become celebrated and almost essential. If you ask me, totally essential.

I’m including a recipe here for matzah balls with the optional addition of neshommes (“souls” in Yiddish) – fried onions in the center of a kneidl. They take a bit of time to make, so we only did them for holidays growing up – but they are really worth the effort. This seems to be a Lithuanian tradition, but I’ve read that Polish Jews sometimes include gribenes – crisp, fried chicken skin cracklings with onion – in festive kneidlach. Can anyone confirm this?

Matzah Balls with Optional Neshommes

Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman

Matzah Balls

makes about 20 matzah balls

 

~2 1/4 cups matzah meal

6 eggs

1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil

1/3 cup warm water

2 tbsp salt

2 tbsp pepper

1 tbsp dried dill

 

  1. Mix all the ingredients to form a thick batter-like thing. If your batter is very thin, add more matzah meal. Refrigerate for one hour.

 

  1. With wet hands, roll the mixture into little balls of about 1.5” diameter. If adding neshommes, stick your finger into the ball to make a dent, add a tiny bit of the neshommes, and then wrap up the ball again.

 

  1. Boil in boiling water or soup for 30-35 minutes. If in soup, serve immediately. Otherwise, remove from water and keep separate until serving time for soup. I strongly recommend that you cook the matzah balls separately.

 

Neshommes

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp oil

Fry the onion in the oil until the onion is brown and very, very soft. Remove from the heat, drain out a bit of oil, and let cool before adding to matzah balls.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part II

For part one, click here.

So we’re back: Chicken Soup, Part II: now that you’ve got your stock, it’s time to have some soup!

Chicken soup with kreplach
Chicken soup with kreplach (image Yoninah via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

But first, let us note that chicken soup has a long history in the Jewish world. In the Talmudic era, it was already a festive tradition to cook a chicken in broth; the medieval scholar Maimonides touted it as a curative dish for one’s health. By the modern era, chicken-based soups were common across the Jewish world, including among Turkish Sephardim and Yemenite Jews. But they were perhaps most widespread – as yoikh or goldene yoikh – among Ashkenazi communities in Eastern Europe, where dozens of variations of chicken soup were consumed for Shabbat and festivals. These soups were brought by Ashkenazi immigrants to wherever they landed – and especially America. And, as other dishes became less popular, chicken soup had a certain staying power. It was comforting; it was easy; it didn’t have calves’ feet. By the mid-20th century, “Jewish penicillin” – coined by performers on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit – was an icon of what we can roughly call mass Ashkenazi culture. And it stuck: mass media has have also helped reify chicken soup in today’s Jewish world. From blogs to television shows to Tumblr, chicken soup is the Jewish classic.*

So, you want to make this classic. But how? There are many different ways, particularly if you have your stock. I have five recipes here, with the basic parts of liquids, soup-solids, and additions. I’ve written them in order of difficulty.

Of course the ingredients and methodology vary. For mock chicken soup, ignore all directions involving the chicken.

Easy

Don’t even take your ingredients out of the stock. Just add your additions if you have any – noodles, matzoh balls, ground hazelnuts, etc., cook them in the soup, and you’re good to go.

Friday Night

Take out the chicken and cut it up, leave the vegetables in there. If you would like, add some boiled broad beans or some carrots. Add back the chicken, with any additions. Enjoy!

Some Friday Nights

Take out the chicken and vegetables. Keep the stock vegetables for something else, but add new vegetables and boil them in the soup until they’re soft. (I recommend a few carrots, a few peeled parsnips, and some finely chopped onion. Chop up the chicken and add it back in, with separately cooked additions.

Birthday Shabbat/Holidays

See Some Friday Nights, but cook a more difficult addition – such as matzoh balls with neshommes (forthcoming), kreplach, or homemade farfel.

Rosh Hashanah and Pesach

I only do this twice a year at most. Essentially, you make a stock all over again using half first round chicken stock, half water with fresh chicken and fresh vegetables – including some cabbage and apple for Rosh Hashanah – and cook again for about an hour or so. (Keep the chicken and vegetables from the stock for later meals.) Then, you add separately cooked additions – and it’s one of the two biggest food holidays of the year, so go all out here – and freshly chopped herbs as a garnish. Chop up the chicken for the soup and add it back in. There is also a veritable tradition in my family of using the fattiest chicken you can find – or even turkey – for even more flavor. Pesach is no time for a diet, because we are being liberated.

*Albeit this entire post is a tad Ashkenormative. Apologies.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part I – The Stock

A loyal reader of this blog, Marianne Kwok, has requested chicken soup – “it’s such a classic!” Indeed, “chicken soup” – be it with kneidlach or lokshen/lagman or kubbeh – is the first thing that comes to mind when many people think of “Jewish food,” nebulously defined. Most Jewish cuisines have some form of chicken soup, often served on Shabbat – from the Ashkenazi savory goldene yoikh to the coriander-spiked soups of Yemenite Jewry (link in Hebrew). In a Jewish culinary sphere of many differences, chicken soups are one commonality.

Vegetarian "chicken" soup with lokshn
Mock chicken soup with lots of veggies and noodles! And dill. Dill. I like dill. Photo mine, June 2012.

Hence this series: Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup! We’ll be going through three parts here: the stock, the soup itself, and all the additions. I’m doing both the meat version and a vegan/pareve version not just for those of you not inclined to eat delicious, delicious flesh, but also for those of us who wish to serve cheesecake for dessert at all times. (Not like I’ve ever been that person…) This soup is a rather Ashkenazi one: it is what I grew up with. Not all Jews grew up with this.

I’ll go more into the history of chicken soups across the Jewish world in Part Two, but for Part One, I’m going to teach you how to make the stock. You don’t have to use stock for soups – I don’t always – nor does the stock have to be separate from the “broth” of the soup itself. For most of Jewish history, it wasn’t. But making stock is a good skill for the Jewish or non-Jewish cook to have. Stocks make so many things that much more delicious, and it is the basis, after all, for soups. Making stock can be hard work, but it is so worth it.

Here are four rules I have for stock. Stock does not have to be hard, nor does it have to be wasteful, and these three rules really help.

  1. It’s okay to use store-bought, and save the effort of your own (or this stock) for special occasions. I’m not going to lie. Making your own stock – though supremely easy – does take time, and you don’t necessarily want to use all of your equipment every time you make something just to make stock. I would say that this problem is especially acute in our small New York City kitchens. I would encourage you to make your own stocks for special occasions – Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot, your partner’s birthday, and so on – but for ordinary weekday and Shabbat meals, it’s really fine to use other stock. If you have a packaged stock, soup powder, or bouillon cube you like, use it! Parts II and III of the Soup Series will still apply to you, and lots of stock is good to have for everything. But I really do encourage you to go all out for special occasions – you get so much more control over the taste of the final product!
  1. Freeze your stock. If you don’t want to use store-bought or you make a lot of stock, freeze it for later use. You’ll be glad you did.
  1. Herbs are your friend. No, seriously. I get that people go for the protein in the stock – the chicken or turkey or fish – but the herbs actually form the foundation of the flavor. I honor my Lithuanian background with a very dill-heavy stock, but your own tastes and palate should inform it. And different Jewish cuisines have distinctive stock flavorings – for example, cumin in an Iraqi stock, or more parsley in a Moroccan one.
  1. Save your leftovers. Now, the most traditional thing to do would be to chop them up and throw them back into the soup. This was definitely the tradition for meat, which was historically rather expensive. But if you’re saving stock for later or making it for later, don’t throw away the solid materials! I know, I know, the flavor of the ingredients in the stock “gets cooked out.” But the stuff you use to make the stock can actually be used and flavored to be delicious! My mother would always give us turkey from her turkey stock to eat when she made stock for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and the vegetables for a vegetarian stock can taste great with rice and a bit of chili sauce.
Chicken soup with kreplach
From the “Jewish Cuisine” page on Hebrew Wikipedia: chicken soup with kreplach – dumplings. (photo Zierman via CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Anyway, here’s the stock recipe. It’s a more Lithuanian-style stock, with dill and black pepper, and it’s not too sweet. I am giving both a chicken (meat/bashari/fleishig) version and a mock chicken (vegan/pareve) one. I actually make the mock chicken version far more frequently than the meat version.

The Stock (Litvak-Style)

For two to four gallons of stock, depending on your pot size and how much water you add.

Feel free to adjust all the spices to taste.

Chicken

1.5 pounds chicken necks and/or feet

2 medium-sized white onions, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

2 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

3 stalks celery, chopped

3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

1.5 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

 

Mock Chicken (Vegetarian)

2 large white onions, chopped

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1 leek, finely chopped

½ cup fresh dill, chopped

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

2 tbsp salt

1 tbsp black pepper

1.5 tsp thyme

Water

The methodology for making either of these stocks is pretty simple. Start off with a big stock-pot – mine is good for about three and a half gallons. You throw in the non-spice ingredients first – up to the dill in each recipe, and cover to the top of the pot with water. Bring the water to a boil, and then add the spices. Reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring frequently, for two hours. You can add water if too much evaporates off. Less water means a stronger stock flavor but less stock overall. Keep the liquid; it freezes well for about four months, I usually try to use stock in the fridge within a week. You can either use the solid materials in your soup or keep them for other uses.

Author’s note: some people fry their onions for vegetable stocks in oil before making the stock. I tend not to do this, because I think that the fat should be added closer to the final dish.