Cooking Light (March 2012)
This probably won't be a shock to you, coming from two boys reared in the South. But until this week, we've never had matzo ball soup.
We've seen it on menus countless times, in delis and restaurants in D.C. and New York. But for us it's been one of those dishes relegated to pop culture (Carrie Bradshaw ducking into a deli to order a bowl, after getting caught in a downpour) and appearances in food writing that we like (in one of our all-time favorite Frank Bruni reviews in the New York Times, he went to eat matzo ball soup at the Second Avenue Deli with Nora Ephron, Ed Koch, and Laura Shapiro).
And Chicken-Matzo Ball Soup is a staple of food magazines this time of year. In March, Cooking Light features this recipe, while in April Bon Appétit touts a take on the dish using matzo gnocchi. And in breaking matzo news, today's New York Times has a big Passover seder feature that includes matzo ball soup.
We've seen recipes like these for years, but we'd always passed them up. It's high time that we get our matzo on, don't you agree?
So we made this soup, which we'll tell you about in a moment, but we didn't have anything to compare it to. Were the matzo balls good? Did they have the right texture? Does the broth have enough flavor? We could judge the dish on its own, but we wanted to compare it to other matzo ball soups.
We needed some experts.
We started with our friend Ilana, who grew up in a Jewish family in Queens. Ilana told us about the sinkers-versus-floaters debate when it comes to the matzo balls themselves. Her preference? Light and fluffy matzo balls. (She also shared a great piece from Epicurious about testing matzo ball recipes.)
Our friend Andrew also weighed in, sharing matzo wisdom from his mom. Her two pieces of advice: Less handling means fluffier matzo balls; and cooking the matzo balls in chicken broth makes them much heavier than if you cook them in water and reheat them from room temperature in broth.
And our friend Rivka (who writes the awesome blog Not Derby Pie) chimed in, too, saying she also prefers an airier matzo ball, and sharing that her mother adds seltzer to the batter to help keep them light. This Cooking Light recipe employs that same method.
Ok, so we had some good advice in hand. What we needed, though, was an actual taste to compare to. So we hit some delis, visiting two D.C. establishments that serve matzo ball soup, and picked up some take out for dinner.
The first soup was from a bagel place near our house:
As you can see, this version has egg noodles, with a tiny bit of carrot. There are extremely small pieces of chicken, so there's chicken flavor, but not much meat. The matzo ball itself is one big dumpling. It's airy, but a bit like there's a big piece of soggy bread in the middle of the bowl. We love dunking bread in soups, so we're not complaining about the texture. The broth was thin and nearly tasteless -- it takes like cheap canned broth. It's perfectly edible, but it's just not good. The cost, incidentally, was $4.99 plus tax.
The second soup came from a kosher deli near our offices:
There are some notable differences here: big chunks of chicken (which were honestly bland and a bit dry), with fat pieces of carrot and celery. Like the bagel shop soup, there's one big matzo ball, but this one wasn't nearly as good -- doughy and puffy and devoid of taste. The broth suffered the same problems as the bagel shop. It needs a serious dose of flavor. The price? $5.99 plus tax.
So how do these stack up against the soup from Cooking Light? Without a doubt, this homemade matzo ball soup absolutely blows the deli versions away.
We opted for the six-hour-plus version of this recipe, in which you make your stock using roasted chicken wings and vegetables. We hadn't intentionally meant to do this. Before going to the store, we read the cooking time (1 hour, 52 minutes) and jotted down the ingredients we needed, not realizing that the broth was a four-hour affair. Realizing our mistake (and chiding ourselves for not following our own rule of reading the full recipe before going to the supermarket), we decided to make the broth one night after work, and then make the soup on the weekend.
The matzo balls themselves don't have much to them -- just matzo meal, club soda, vegetable oil, eggs and fresh dill. (Some people, including Second Avenue Deli owner Jack Lebewohl, are adamant that oil should never be used in matzo balls, and that you should use schmaltz instead. We're just following Cooking Light here.) Anyway, you quickly mix these ingredients together, and then let the dough chill. Meanwhile, the chicken leg quarters, carrot, celery and onion become the base broth. Once chilled, the dough is rolled into small 1/2-inch balls, which are dropped into the soup at the end of the cooking time, along with fresh herbs.
Our final matzo balls were solid -- definitely in the sinker category. Against the spoon, they felt firm, but in the mouth, they were soft and just a little chewy. What's the Yiddish word for al dente?
We really enjoyed them. We preferred them to the airier versions in the other soups we sampled. And for what it's worth, we enjoyed having lots of little matzo balls in the bowl, instead of one big dumpling.
The chicken in this recipe is tender and flavorful, and the vegetables and fresh herbs are a nice addition at the end, making everything seem very light and fresh.
But it's the broth that we really think sells this dish. The savory chicken flavor is intense, dark and rich. It's worth every minute of the four hours it takes to make. In fact, if we had one quibble with this recipe, it's that we think the instructions, as executed in our kitchen, produced too little broth. We wanted a soupier soup. So we've included a note about that below.
But that's a quibble. The fact is, this is just about the best chicken soup we've ever made, matzo or not.
- Sinkers vs. Floaters (Epicurious)
Chicken-Matzo Ball Soup
Cooking Light (March 2012), adapted from AndrewZimmern.com
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Nutritional information available at CookingLight.com
Notes from Zach and Clay of The Bitten Word
- If you decide to make your own broth (which we highly recommend, although the magazine says you can use store-bought chicken broth), we think you should tweak this recipe so that it produces slightly more broth. In the direction to reduce the broth to 6 cups, we would recommend reducing it to only 7 cups.
YIELD: Serves 6 (serving size: about 1 1/4 cups)
HANDS-ON: 35 Minutes
TOTAL: 1 Hour, 52 Minutes
COURSE: Main Dishes
3 pounds chicken wings
2 large carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, cut into wedges
3 quarts cold water
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup club soda
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 large eggs
2/3 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
3 chicken leg quarters, skinned
1 cup diagonally sliced carrot
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup vertically sliced onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
To prepare stock, preheat oven to 425°. Spread chicken wings and next 3 ingredients (through onion wedges) in a single layer on a large baking sheet; bake at 425° for 40 minutes or until golden. Scrape chicken wing mixture and pan drippings into a large Dutch oven. Add 3 quarts cold water and next 3 ingredients (through bay leaf); bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, and simmer very gently for 2 1/2 hours, skimming surface as necessary. Strain mixture through a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth over a bowl; discard solids. Wipe pan with paper towels. Return stock to pan; bring to a boil. Cook until reduced to 6 cups.
To prepare soup, combine club soda, oil, and eggs in a medium bowl, stirring well. Stir in matzo meal, dill, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper; chill 30 minutes. Shape dough into 24 (1/2-inch) balls.
Combine reduced stock and chicken leg quarters in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat, and cook 30 minutes or until chicken is done, skimming surface as necessary. Remove chicken from pan; cool slightly. Shred chicken with 2 forks; discard bones. Add matzo balls, 1 cup sliced carrot, and 1 cup sliced celery to stock in pan; bring to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes. Stir in vertically sliced onion; cook 5 minutes or until matzo balls are thoroughly cooked. Remove from heat; stir in shredded chicken, remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt, remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 2 tablespoons parsley, and chives.