The secret is in the schmaltz; schmaltz, size, and minimal handling; that’s what makes a good matzoh ball!
Grandma Gussie (her real name was Basha Golda or Gladys; nobody really knows, but everybody called her Gussie) made the golf ball type. I don’t think it was intentional, but somehow Aunt Esther managed to learn the same technique. Every Passover dinner at Aunt Esther and Uncle Willy’s proved it out; at least it was consistent.
Nonnie’s version is lighter and fluffier. Those of us who discovered Manischewitz’s box of mix get better results. Very few take the time to use schmaltz (chicken fat) instead of the oil the box recipe calls for, but if you do, it’s worth the trouble.
To make the soup, start with a whole chicken, preferably a hen. If you want to be authentic, you must first go to the live poultry market on Delancey Street in New York, where the chickens are slaughtered under a rabbi’s supervision. As a child, I remember stepping down into a swirling mass of feathers that danced around my ankles and flitted up my legs as Grandma and I made our way to the plucking bench against the wall. There, the women sat with their stocking garters rolled down to their ankles, legs spread, elbows leaning on knees, chatting animatedly in Yiddish, clutching chicken feet firmly in one hand, plucking with the other.
I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew the room was filled with love. I would hear my name, Carole Jean, and invariably my cheek would get pinched, and I would hear: “Oy, she looks like a Shiksa (Non-Jew), kina hora, shayna medela.” and such while they smiled and made a fuss over me.
Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls
1 whole chicken 5 – 6 lbs. 3 sprigs parsley
1 medium onion cut into wedges 1 Tbsp. salt
2 large celery stalks cut up Fresh dill (or dried)
2 large carrots peeled and cut up 2 chicken bouillon cubes (optional)
Place whole chicken in a pot. Cover with water. Add veggies, salt, and parsley. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. From time to time make scores in the chicken; straight down the breast, leg joints, wing joints – basically “help” the broth permeate the chicken. After an hour or so, the chicken should be cooked, falling off the bone. Remove from pot to a large strainer, transferring broth to another large pot. Let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the carcass, set aside. Return skin, bones, and everything else to pot. Allow to simmer one more hour.
Here’s where it gets ridiculous: Strain the broth into pot, discarding the depleted vegetables, bones, skin. You now have clean, rich broth in which to place a new batch of onions, carrots, and celery which cook with the matzoh balls. Make the recipe on the box substituting the schmaltz for the oil. Where do you get the schmaltz? Skim from the top of the soup (the fat rises to the top). You can save the excess in the freezer for future use.
Grandma used to tie “soup greens” (fresh dill and parsley) with string, let it cook in the soup, and remove before serving. If she considered you special, you might get a chicken foot in your bowl along with a hard-boiled egg floating in it.
I had an emergency here in Costa Rica a while back. My friend, Lynn, got hit suddenly with a cold. I offered to make the soup, the Jewish Penicillin, and realized I didn’t have a chicken. Rather than take the time to go to the store, I pulled out a bag of chicken feet I happened to have. I didn’t tell her that part (I removed the feet before serving), and she felt instantly better after eating the matzoh ball soup.
Sometimes we have to improvise. The dogs got the feet. Happy dogs!