Thursday, 28 March 2013

My Family Chicken (and Matzah Ball) Soup Recipe

Growing up, I had quite a few rather random influences on the food I ate. Russian. Chinese. Jewish. Polish. And that's just what I ate at home. But there's one dish that usually only got made once a year that I always devoured. It also happens to (in part) be that one dish that everyone should know. Most families have a slightly different recipe for it that's been passed down from generation to generation: home made chicken soup with matzo balls, or kneydls. Yes, the matzah balls are the optional part. Now, I want to clear something up straight away...matzah is not an animal, and therefore matzah balls are not part of their anatomy as some people have been known to think. Matzah is unleavened bread usually eaten at Passover, which started on Monday night. It's basically a big cracker. So with Passover starting on Monday, I thought it was a perfect opportunity for me to get into the kitchen with my grandma, baba, and learn her family recipe so I could start to cook it, but also to make sure I have the recipe. It was also lovely to spend time with baba, and hear some of her stories.
Given this is a family recipe, I thought I'd share a family photo. This is baba, my mum and me at the hospital the day I was born. How amazing does my mum look given she'd just had a baby!

The recipe here is for chicken soup and the matzah balls. Don't be afraid to make both, they are delicious, but remember, you can just use the soup recipe. After all, we know that chicken soup cures almost anything!
This is baba's cook book. She got the book when she left China in the 50's from her Chinese students, and had been filling it up and and tweaking the recipes in it ever since. 

Like all good recipes from your grandma, it's not 100% precise. There's a little of 'a bit of this and a bit of that' here. I've tried to be as accurate as I can, but some of it is up to you as to how much of different ingredients that you want and prefer.

Soup Ingredients
200g chicken necks (these add a heap of flavour and are very inexpensive. Most good butchers, and Woolworths stock them although I had to buy a 1kg from Woolworths. Overkill much)
1 free range chicken at whatever size you want (the larger the chicken, the more soup and leftover chicken you'll have, so just get one to suite your needs)
3 - 4 carrots
2 parsnips
2 white onions
4 - 5 bay leaves (try and get fresh ones if you can)
2 - 3 sticks of celery (not too much more, otherwise it can dull the flavours of the soup)
Salt

Matzah Ball Ingredients (makes around 25 matzah balls)
1 x 375g pack of COARSE matzo meal (you can only really get this around passover, either in deli's and stores that sell a lot of jewish products, or sometimes your local supermarket)
1/2 C vegetable oil + extra to help roll the mixture
1 tbs chicken stock powder
1 tbs salt
4 eggs (free range of course)

Get a nice big pot out. Basically, it needs to be big enough to fit the vegies and quartered chicken so it can be covered with water. Peel the carrots and parsnips then cut each into 3 - 4 pieces of similar size so they cook evenly. Chop the onion in half, and then peel it. DON'T cut off the little section at the base, as we want the onion to stay in one piece if possible. Trim both ends of any yucky bits, and then cut in half again.
Wash the celery sticks and cut into 2 - 3 pieces. No need to cut off the leaves or the white bit as they add flavour. Quarter the chicken, and cut off any excess fat. Tail or no tail? Baba says it add's a lot of flavour so we left it on, but you have to take off the little gland on top of it, so just take cut off the top 3 - 4mm of flesh.
Pop all this in the pot with the bay leaves, the chicken necks and about a tablespoon of salt. Fill the pot with enough water to cover everything all the ingredients.
Put the pot on the stove, and bring it up to a gentle boil. Baba says it needs to be 'breathing'. I didn't quite get what that meant, so I'm going with a very gentle boil. Once the soup has come to a gentle boil, turn it right down to a low setting, and let it gently cook away and develop all the lovely flavours. You can give it a taste to see if it's got enough salt, and add a little more if you like, or wait till later to do that. At this point, you can also skim off any fat or foam that's on top it if you want, but baba doesn't as apparently there's a lot of nutrients in what you skim off (??!?!) so we left it, and it dissolved into the liquid.

We left the soup to simmer for about an hour, but taste it and if it's not flavourful enough, leave it for a bit longer. Once you're happy with the flavour, and the salt levels, take the chicken and vegies out and put them aside. Then, sieve the soup and put it aside too. Ideally, you'd let it cool and then skim off any fat. We didn't have time so we just left it, and it wasn't too fatty. Otherwise, there are various methods to skim it when it's hot, like paper towels, lettuce leaves and zip lock bags you can use to get the fat off, but to be honest, I've never really worried.
Now, if you're just having the heart warming and all curing chicken soup, all you need to do from here is chop up the cooked vegies (taking out the bay leaves, celery leaves, onion and any bits that have overcooked) and shred the chicken. Put the vegies and chicken in the soup, serve it up and wait for the sick to be revived. If you want the matzah balls as well, read on...

Get out a medium sized pot, and put in the 1//2 oil, 1 tbs salt and 1 tbs chicken powder. Add in 3 1/2 C water and pop it onto the stove. Mix it together and bring it to the boil. Add about 325g of the packet of matzo meal, putting the rest aside, and mix it together. The meal should soak up all the liquid nicely. Next we need to cool this mixture. Depending on how much time you have on your hands, you can either just leave it in the pot but spread it out a bit, or you can spread it on a couple of plates and stick it in the fridge. It doesn't need to be super cold, just cold enough so you can add the eggs and the don't cook.

Before we get onto the next step, you want to prepare a few things as your hands are about to get dirty! Get out a little saucer and pour a heap of oil onto it. Also, get out a tray, board or a couple of plates, put a layer of baking paper on top and spread some oil onto it. Half fill a small pot and put it on the stove, but don't turn it on. It will make sense soon...I promise.

Once the mixture is cool make a bit of a ditch in the middle, crack in the 4 eggs and mix them together a little so the yolk breaks. Now, put the spoon aside as you're not allowed to use it. This instruction comes directly from baba, so it's a must. Using your hands, mix the eggs into the matzo meal. No need to be gentle here.
One of the trickiest bits of this dish is getting the balance of liquid to dry ingredients right. Sounds simple, but in reality it takes years of practice. Too moist and it falls apart, too dry and it not nice. The mixture needs to be sticky, but hold it's shape. If you don't have an experienced, kneydl making baba handy, my suggestion is to test now, before you roll and cook all the mixture (which is where your oiled plates and pot preparation will come in handy). So, turn the stove on that has the small pot on it. Lightly coat your hands with the oil from the plate and grab about a tablespoon and a half of the mixture and roll it into a ball (it should be about as big as an egg) and put it on your oiled baking paper. Leave it for about 5mins, and when the water is starting to heat up, gently put the matzah ball into the water, making sure it isn't sticking to the bottom. Put the lid on and leave it for 15 - 20mins, but don't let it boil too rapidly. If the cooking process makes it fall apart, it's too liquid so you'll need to add a bit of the matzo meal that you put aside. If it doesn't fall apart, take it out and cut it in half. If it's too tough and dry, it either needs a bit more cooking or a little bit more liquid. You can pop it back into the water and see which it is and adjust accordingly. Once you're happy with your mixture, roll the rest out.
Get a decent sized pot of well salted water on to boil. We used the one we made the mixture in, but just gave it a good rinse. Once the water is simmering, gently put the matzah balls in the water. Don't overcrowd the pot, as the matzah balls grow by about 50%. Again, make sure they haven't stuck to the bottom, cover the pot and leave them for 15 - 20 mins, or until you're happy they are cooked enough.
If you're ready to eat, all you need to do is serve them with a ladle or ladle and a half of the lovely chicken soup. Add the vegies and chicken if you want, up to you. Some people do, some don't. If you're not ready to eat, take them out of the water until you are ready. Then all you need to do is pop them back into some water to heat them. Some people put them into the chicken soup to heat them up, but I prefer not to.

So there it is, the family recipe. Maybe a little fiddly, which is maybe why it's usually only cooked with the matzah balls once a year, but I think it's worth it. Especially for it's healing properties.

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