More specifically, making my favorite soup, from scratch of course.
And in the coming months right after this one, when it’s pitch black by six o’clock; the wind is cold and blowing hard, and flip flops are definitely not the best footwear for the season, I’ll be putting together lots of other savory broths, too.
My preferred soup is chicken with matzo balls, and there are more than a few reasons why it’s The Chosen One.
Nostalgia is the biggest explanation.
My mom made this soup for as long as I can remember, probably because it was both cheap and uber-simple. She’d buy a whole chicken on sale, cut it up, and then dump the meat with enough water to cover the poultry by an inch or so. The chicken would cook until it was nearly off the bone; after that, she’d add one chopped onion, some carrots cut in a circular shape, and a few stalks of chopped celery. Final steps were putting in table salt and pepper and bringing the pot to a boil. After simmering for an hour or so, she’d pull the chicken out, serving it separately on a platter, and keep the broth and veggies in its pot.
For a few years when she’d serve this dish, I would dump nearly an entire sleeve of saltines into my bowl, turning dinner into something I called gruel. (Now that I think about it, this was also around the time I was memorizing songs from the stage play Oliver!, the not entirely unhappy story about orphan Oliver Twist. This staging is also where Monkee heartthrob Davy Jones got his first big break, but I digress.)
Like most of my cooking, I’ve now made this soup better by “jollying up” the recipe, which consequently makes it my own.
First, I buy the chicken already cut, going to a real butcher to get exactly what I want—four meaty thighs and one large half breast, all with skin and bone still on. I put those pieces in my mom’s Dutch oven, along with bottled water, and bring to a gentle boil, then simmer, all the while removing the pieces of white glob that migrate to the top.
The chicken is done in half an hour, so I remove it (something mom should have done to prevent overcooking), but keep the broth on low. At this time, I’ll also add a heaping teaspoon or two of Better than Bouillon chicken flavor, but if I don’t have any of that around, a few Knorr bouillon chicken cubes will do. After the meat has cooled, I discard the skin and bones, and chop the meat into bite-size pieces.
I’ve also started my veggie mix around now.
In a large skillet, I take two or three large loose carrots (never ever buy baby carrots, as they dry out more easily, and in fact, aren’t miniature carrots at all, but remnants from bigger carrots that machines make pretty and smooth and polished), peel them and then cut them matchstick style. This medley also has one large chopped white or yellow onion (whatever is around) and two or three celery sticks, cut julienne style with a good handful of roughly chopped celery leaves thrown in. I stir this mix for a couple of minutes in a tablespoon or so of good olive oil, then dump it into my broth. Then I turn the heat up to a low boil and let everything cook for about 15 minutes. Next, I turn off the burner and nope, I haven’t put the chicken pieces back in yet.
Oh, the matzo balls.
My mom would occasionally make them with her soup, but she didn’t know the tricks to making them light and fluffy. They weren’t exactly hockey pucks, but they weren’t exactly melt-in-your-mouth dumplings, either.
Lucky for me, I’ve received some guidance in this arena.
I only use name brand matzo meal—Manischewitz or Streit’s—and I get the meal, not the mix. I follow the directions to a tee except for these things: I use egg whites, not the entire egg, and instead of broth or water to moisten the matzo, I add club soda. These two tips help make the finished product light. But the most important piece of advice I’ve received is this: when shaping the matzo balls, handle them gently and as little as possible. After the dumplings are assembled, I bring my soup back up to a rolling boil.
The raw matzo balls are then dropped into the broth, one at a time. (If you’d like, you can also add a handful of Manischewitz egg noodles now, but even that’s bit much for this carb loving clown.) After the matzo balls are done—they’ll expand to about three times their original size—I lower the temperature and put the cut up chicken back in, heating the meat through. Lastly, I add my herbs and seasonings, anywhere from a tablespoon to about one-quarter cup of fresh dill and Italian parsley, kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
Now, turn the soup off and let it set up for a few minutes before ladling it out. Because this soup also freezes well, I sometimes divide the leftovers up in a few individual size containers for later lunches.
I have a lot of other favored soups.
There’s a recipe for the official United States Senate Navy Bean, cut out from a long-ago newspaper and found in my mom’s old recipe box, and a dried split pea made with short ribs instead of a ham hock, typed by someone whose name I don’t recognize, and also discovered in the same box. I’m always looking for new soup ideas, too: I’ve done Ina Garten’s wild cream of mushroom soup (amazingly good and amazingly labor intensive), and recently, I made an easy cream of celery soup that I’m thinking of serving as the first course for our Christmas Eve supper. In the next few weeks, I’ll be trying a beef soup that calls for two pounds of meat on a bone—allowed to simmer for a full four hours before any other ingredients are added.
Beyond their yumminess, I make soups for many reasons.
One, being a foodie, I actually enjoy the preparation, and then, getting to see what I’ve created in a relatively short amount of time. But many soups are also high fiber and low fat; provide a great introduction of flavorful vegetables to children, and fill one up without a lot of empty calories. And for those who might not know, chicken soup has its own benefits: the traditional recipe acts as an anti-inflammatory agent and also helps clear out mucus, which makes it an invaluable menu choice during cold and flu season.
And lastly, admit it: during the chilliest months of the year, there’s really no better smell than a made-with-love, homemade soup simmering on the stove.
What about you? What are your favorite soups, and why? I look forward to your stories and comments!