It was raining this morning. Not torrential rain. A steady, dismal drip, drip, drip. Kind of like our noses. Drip, drip, drip. And our spirits. Drip, drip, drip.
Whatever medication the doctor had to offer we are already taking. It was time to bring on The Big Gun. Jewish Penicillin. The cure-all. Chicken soup.
I make really good chicken soup. I didn’t learn it from my mother because she was a terrible cook and thought heating up a bowl of Campbell’s was haute cuisine. I get recipes from cook books and friends, then keep messing with them until they taste the way I like. For this reason, I’m a little hazy about quantities.
Nonetheless, this is about as foolproof a recipe as you could want. Although I’m not much for precise measuring when I cook, I’m very precise when I bake. But cooking is forgiving. If you don’t over-salt it or overwhelm it with garlic or some other strong spice, it will turn out well enough. Usually much better than that.
This is the recipe for chicken soup to cure what ails you. The kneidlach (matza ball) recipe follows.
You need 4 boneless, skinless chicken quarters — lower or upper quarters will serve equally well — and a good-sized pot. A 7-quart tureen should do nicely. Some people like to use smaller pots, but I like room to spare. It makes less of a mess.
Put the chicken quarters in the pot. It doesn’t matter if the chicken isn’t entirely defrosted. It’ll defrost soon enough. Add enough water to cover the chicken with maybe an inch or two to spare. A lot of it will boil away as it cooks. Add a large quartered onion. If you have one, peel and cut up a carrot or two. Into the pot it goes.
If you have a sweet red or yellow pepper, clean it, dice it into bite-size pieces and throw it in the pot. Green pepper doesn’t work with this recipe. Trust me. It doesn’t.
Turn the heat to high. While the pot is coming to a boil, get the spices ready: salt, pepper, garlic, thyme, bay leaf, parsley, basil, dill and oregano (it’s not just for spaghetti sauce). And three beef bouillon cubes.
Crush the bouillon cubes and turn them to paste with some hot water. Into the soup pot. Add all the aforementioned spices. To taste. Don’t get carried away with the garlic and especially, not the salt. You can always add more, but it’s hard to remove. How much of each you use is a matter of personal taste. A couple of bay leaves should suffice. Otherwise, it’s up to you. I use a lot of basil and thyme. Some people like a bit of rosemary, but use with caution. If you have fresh parsley, chop it up and add it.
While this is coming to a boil, it’s time to make the goop, aka – Kneidlach or kneidels. Pronunciation is a matter of dispute, depending on your extraction. My mother and father spoke different version of Yiddish. The issue was never settled. If you aren’t sure, refer to them as matza balls. Technically, they are matza dumplings.
When the soup is boiling, turn it down to a high simmer. It should continue to boil slowly and gently.
Kneidlach (Matza dumpling) Ingredients:
4 eggs, well beaten
1 cup matza meal
1/4 cup very cold water or seltzer
1/4 cup corn oil
A bit of pepper, a pinch of salt and my no longer so secret ingredient, a dash of nutmeg.
Mix it up in a bowl. I use a wooden spoon because it sticks less to wood than metal. Put the mixture in the fridge to chill. An hour or more makes the dumplings lighter and the mixture easier to handle.
HOW DO I KNOW WHEN IT’S DONE?
The soup is done when the chicken is falling apart. Taste it. Add whatever you think is missing. Exactly how long to cook it? A couple of hours is enough. Contrary to cooking mythology, longer isn’t better. If you cook anything too long, it loses flavor. Except for salt which will grow stronger until it’s the only flavor left. If the soup boils down too much, add as much water as you need at any point.
Make sure there’s enough liquid to cook the kneidlach. Dumplings need to cook in liquid.
ABOUT THOSE DUMPLINGS
Bring the soup back to a full boil. Take the goop and roll it into balls and drop them (one at a time) into the boiling soup. How big should they be? I prefer medium. My granddaughter likes them huge. Some people make them really small. I find if they are really big, they don’t cook all the way through in the right amount of time. They should cook and start to float in five minutes or less.
Some folks like to chop up the chicken and return it to the soup. I sometimes do, sometimes I just serve the pieces. It makes a nice meal. This is when you will appreciate having used boneless, skinless chicken. You can, if you prefer, extract the chicken and make chicken salad. When I was even poorer, I made chicken salad as a separate meal the next day.
Serve very hot. The soup’s legendary curative powers are stronger when it’s piping hot.
Do not serve this soup before a large dinner. No one will eat dinner. I once served a clear version of this soup with Kneidlach before the turkey on Thanksgiving. I had an entire dinner left over, but not a drop of soup remained.