The Most Comforting Chicken Soup (With or Without Matzo Balls)

I’ve made chicken soup approximately one thousand times in my life, but the best bowl I can remember…

…was one I had last week. It was the first night of Hanukkah, and I was looking for a good matzo ball soup recipe to serve alongside my latkes. In these situations, as much as I wish I could, I don’t pull out a stained and splattered recipe card handed down by my dad’s Bubby (it doesn’t exist) and I don’t call my Presbyterian, 100% not-Jewish mom, even though her matzo ball soup, made from a box mix, is unfailingly satisfying. No. Mostly, I turn to Leah Koenig, author of Jewish Cooking, The Little Book of Jewish Feasts, and my most well-loved favorite, Modern Jewish Cooking. She dependably has what I’m looking for, along with a reassuring, comforting tone I appreciate all year long, not just on Jewish holidays.

Her chicken soup, whoa! It is so so good. As she writes in the recipe’s introduction, “With its tender hunks of meat, meltingly soft vegetables, and a broth that could cure the toughest cold (there’s a reason why it’s called “Jewish penicillin”)…it is the epitome of Jewish comfort food.” It’s also ridiculously easy — especially if you just make the soup without the matzo balls, which I plan to do on repeat this winter — amounting to adding the ingredients to a pot, covering with water, and simmering. The swirling chicken fat and those vegetables, especially that fennel, infuse the broth with such a familiar homey-ness, I plan on telling anyone who tastes it that it’s an old family recipe.

Classic Chicken Soup
If you aren’t making matzo balls, Koenig suggests adding egg noodles or rice (or nothing) instead.
Serves 6 to 8

3- to 3 1/2-lb whole chicken
3 large carrots, halved
3 stalks celery, with leaves, halved crosswise
2 yellow onions, halved through the root
1 medium fennel bulb, quartered and cored
1 bay leaf
6 garlic cloves, smashed
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh parsley, with stems, plus roughly chopped parsley for serving
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Matzo Balls (optional, recipe follows)

Place the chicken, carrots, celery, onions, fennel, bay leaf, garlic and parsley stems in a large soup pot and cover with cold water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn the heat to low. Gently simmer, partially covered, skimming off any foam that accumulates, until the chicken is very tender and falling off the bone, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. You want the soup to roll along at the gentlest simmer. If it starts to bubble too vigorously, nudge the heat down a little.

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and transfer to a cutting board. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Return the strained broth to the pot; discard the parsley stems and bay leaf. Using your fingers, remove the meat from the bones and roughly chop. Slice the vegetables into bite-size pieces and return them to the pot along with the chicken meat. Season with salt and pepper.

Divide into bowls and top with chopped parsley. Add 2 to 3 matzo balls per bowl if using.

Matzo Balls
From Modern Jewish Cooking, by Leah Koenig.

4 eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or chicken fat)
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup matzo meal
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons seltzer water

Stir together the eggs, vegetable oil, salt, matzo meal, parsley, and seltzer in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Turn the heat to medium low and keep at a simmer while you form the matzo balls.

Moisten your hands with water. Scoop out a rounded 1 tablespoon of matzo ball batter and roll it into a 1-inch ball. (They will expand when you simmer, mine above were slightly too big I think.) Drop into simmering water, and repeat with the remaining batter. You should end up with about 15 matzo balls. Cover the pot and simmer until the matzo balls are tender and puffed, 30 to 35 minutes. (If you cut one in half, it should be pale in color throughout.)

Remove the matzo balls from the pot with a slotted spoon, and add to your soup bowls. They can also be cooled to room temperature, then stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Rewarm them in your soup before serving.

P.S. More soup recipes, and when in doubt: spicy chicken pieces.

(Top soup photo by Sang An.)