With Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa falling within days of each other, it can be nerve-wracking for a politically correct gourmet to keep up with what to serve when ethnically diverse friends come for dinner during the holidays.
Tracking the dietary customs of Jewish holidays can be especially confusing for well-intentioned gentiles. One holiday dinner features hard-boiled eggs, horseradish and bread that didn't rise. Regular Friday night meals feature gelatinized ground whitefish, and then there's a holiday where nobody eats at all.
During Hanukkah there are no restricted foods, only old favorites. The favored dish is potato latkes. But after a few nights, this mixture of grated potatoes, eggs and flour begins to weigh heavily in the stomach and loses its appeal. That's when chicken soup and matzo balls (made from the aforementioned unleavened bread) pick up the slack. This Jewish staple is as revered for its healing powers as it is for its comforting taste and unique texture. If you are going to master any of the traditional dishes, it may as well be this one. After all, there's a long, cold winter ahead of you.
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CHICKEN SOUP (AND MATZO BALLS) FOR THE SOUL
(Makes approximately 10 cups)
This robust version of the traditional soup is a meal unto itself.
1 4-5 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces (use everything but the livers)
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into eighths
6 peeled carrots, cut into 3-inch pieces
4 celery stalks, cut into 3-inch pieces
16 cups of water
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
10 parsley stems, leaves removed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1. Roast the chicken, onions and carrots in a roasting pan at 400 degrees for 1 hour.
2. Bring a gallon (16 cups) of water to a boil in a stock pot. Transfer roasted contents and pan juices to stock pot and add remaining ingredients. When water returns to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours. Skim fat and foam occasionally.
3. Let cool, then strain stock through a cheesecloth-lined colander or a fine-screened strainer. Let stock settle, then skim remaining fat from the surface. Reserve for matzo balls. Pick chicken meat from the bones and add back to the stock. Cut celery and carrots into bite-sized pieces and add back to stock . Refrigerate until ready to serve (see step No. 5 below).
(Makes 12 matzo balls)
Gail Golden, a family friend who teaches Jewish cooking, says that "no self-respecting Jew messes with the recipe on the box of matzo meal." I've stayed true to the basics of this classic, but added a couple of simple twists and the "secret" ingredient of another friend's grandmother.
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
3/4 cup matzo meal (not to be confused with matzo mix)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup soda water
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1/4 cup fresh chopped dill, stems removed before measuring
1. In a medium-sized bowl, use a whisk to blend eggs and chicken fat, or oil, for 1 minute.
2. Fold in remaining ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Cover and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.
3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a brisk boil.
4. Wet your hands and form matzo mixture into small balls, approximately 1 inch diameter (note: they will expand by 100 percent). Drop them into water, reduce heat to a gentle boil, cover and let cook for 25 minutes.
5. To serve soup, skim any remaining fat solids off the top. Add two matzo balls per serving, then reheat for 5 minutes. Add (much needed) salt and pepper to taste.
Le Secret: Matzo balls are at their best when made just before serving.
The Adventure Club: Add a few turnips, parsnips and shallots to the soup stock in step No. 1. Serve these in the soup.
Note: Any leftover stock can be refrigerated for a few days, or frozen (without the chicken and vegetables) for months.
Music to Simmer By: The Klezmatics, "Semitism," Xenophile Records