Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Making of a Chicken Soup Snob

I am Jewish. I am a mother. Therefore I must make chicken soup.

This legacy is no small burden. The ability to conjure massive pots of steaming liquid gold out of a few bloody bones and a fistful of herbs is a critical part of the job description.

According to stereotype, being a Jewish mother means that I am required to ply everyone who enters my house with mountains of heavy food. In particular, I should supply those foods of our Eastern European ancestors, such as leaden sweet and savory kugels, over-baked chicken, Heinz-infused brisket, and any dish whose primary source of nutrition is schmaltz. Should you, as my guest, dare to suggest that these meals are imperfect in any way, I need only employ a little spit and a few carefully-chosen Yiddishisms to place the curse of the evil eye upon you. This food is what my mother cooked, and what her mother cooked, and her mother before her. Ask any Jewish daughter and you will get the same answer: Don’t mess with a Jewish mother's cooking. Ever. (Unless you’re an ungrateful, over-confident, budding foodie Jewish daughter like me. But we'll get to that.)

Learning to make chicken soup is a serious right of passage. I missed my first opportunities to learn to cook -- at the knees of my mother in the kitchen of my childhood. Mom claims, and I can attest, that I was always too busy in the other room reading to be bothered with helping to prepare family dinners. So when I was twenty-something, living away from home for the first time and not thinking a whit about cooking or my potential future status as a  Jewish Mother, my mother had the foresight to send me a completely unsolicited note in the mail:

“I didn’t want you to ever say ‘I wish my mother had taught me how to make chicken soup,’ so here is my recipe…”

My mother was thinking ahead. Way ahead. She sent this note about a decade before I even had conditioned myself to remain in the house while a chicken carcass was bubbling away on the stove (the smell was repellent). So when I received the recipe, inked in her flawless cursive hand, I carefully tucked it away for future use. For years that recipe languished among the tangle of recipes that I had inherited from dozens of well-meaning relatives. I cracked the spine of my recipe binder only when I needed to add a new, equally unsolicited recipe to the stash.

But mothers always know, don’t they? My mom knew that sooner or later, fate would step in to squat me squarely and inevitably into her shoes. Eventually I’d need to serve chicken soup to my own family. I might as well learn how to do it right.

Before I could say "kaynahora," I had a house of my own, a husband at the office, and a growing family to nourish. I was forced to overcome my aversion to the smell of cooking meat, and I began boiling up bottomless vats of chicken soup with matzah balls to see us through the season of sneezes and wheezes. I even learned to enjoy the aroma of onions and chicken pieces slopping their rich flavors together in a boiling hot stockpot. Matzah ball soup is now one of the most requested soups in our household, and desperate is the day when I must turn to stock-from-a-box for any of my other soups. I’ve become a chicken soup snob.

It has taken a lot of practice, trial and error, and even some advice from the MOTH (a shrewd kitchen maven if ever there was one) to become comfortable with the alchemy of chicken soup. Over time and at great risk of eternal damnation, I’ve adjusted some of the details of my mother’s recipe (see “salt” and “herbs”), but Mom gave me a baseline from which to start, and for that I am grateful. I’ve completed my culinary conversion and now I understand: homemade chicken soup really does make everything feel (and taste) better.

As with most of my recipes, the one that follows is a fairly loose interpretation, with lots of room for personalization. Again, I owe my mother an apology for halving the salt, and for replacing some of the parsley with a bundle of fresh herbs. But at least there’s no dill (which is certainly curse-worthy in her soup world). 

No matter how you prepare it, I am confident that you’ll agree that there is just no substitute for homemade chicken soup. If you are lucky, that soup will be made with love by a genuine Jewish Mother who Knows What She’s Talking About.

This Jewish Mother's Chicken Soup
  • 2-3 pounds assorted chicken parts (I like to use 4 raw, bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and 4 chicken drumsticks, but chicken carcasses, including backs and necks – previously baked or raw -- work just as well)
  • 3-4 large carrots, in 3-inch chunks
  • 3-4 stalks of celery, in 3-inch chunks
  • 2-3 medium yellow onions, sliced in half, with or without skins
  • 3-4 cloves garlic (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons salt plus 2 bouillon cubes
  • a large handful of fresh thyme, oregano, sage, or a combination of all three (20-30 sprigs)
  • approx. ¼ cup dried parsley, or 3-4 stems of fresh parsley
  • approx. 2 teaspoons ground black pepper (if you have whole peppercorns, you can use a teaspoon of these instead)
  • 3-4 bay leaves

Throw all the ingredients into a 20-quart stockpot. Fill the stockpot with water to about 2 inches below the lip and boil it for an hour, stirring occasionally.

Remove the chicken parts.

Reduce the heat to simmer and continue cooking for 2-3 more hours.

Taste the broth and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Strain out the vegetables and herbs.

Cool the soup in the refrigerator overnight.

Skim the fat (schmaltz) off the top of the soup and save it in a plastic container. This will keep in the freezer for months and it is perfect for making matzah balls later. (Check out this cool iPad cookbook by Michael Ruhlman to learn more about what else you can do with schmaltz.)

De-bone and chop the chicken to use for anything your heart desires. You can place it in the bottom of individual soup bowls when serving the soup, or turn it into the base for chicken pot pie, chicken salad, chicken burritos, or any number of other dishes.

To make matzah balls:
Go buy yourself a box of Streit’s Matzo Meal, some canola oil, a dozen eggs, and some plain seltzer water. Follow the recipe on the box, substituting a couple of tablespoons of schmaltz for some of the oil, and using all seltzer instead of plain water. (This will create light, fluffy floaters, which are almost universally preferred over sinkers.) 

Cook the matzah balls in the broth, not boiling water, as the recipe on the box suggests. Why would you waste all that good flavor?

Serve hot soup with matzah balls and chopped chicken, if you wish.

Note: Broth freezes well. Matzah balls tend to change their texture when defrosted.


  1. My copy of the recipe from Mom is still in the recipe book, unused as of today. Maybe I'll dust it off and try it myself (using your adjustments of course).

  2. I'm always open to trying other chicken soup recipes. Yours sounds promising!

  3. I'm also a Jewish mother but I don't make a good chicken soup. Hmm...Maybe I'll give it another try. Thanks for sharing!


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