Treasure Island Days - Mom's Chicken Matzo Ball Soup
Treasure Island Days
My mother taught me noteworthy lessons over the years. However, below are the four that really resonated:
1) You’re always more productive waking up early to finish incomplete work, rather than staying up late when you’re tired
2) If you’re debating whether or not you should shower, you probably should shower
3) If no one organizes a birthday celebration for you, then organize it yourself
4) How to make a damn good matzo ball soup
To understand the extent of demand for my mother’s matzo ball soup, you must understand how it's made. “How do you get the matzo balls so light and fluffy?” “It’s the best matzo ball soup I’ve ever had!” If we were lucky, growing up we'd have it on a Friday night.
My mom always makes it for our extended family for Passover—where it is repeatedly lauded. Or if we were under the weather. She's made it for various occasions, and it's always highly requested. The takeaway is that everyone loves her soup.
Naturally, there is a science to making fluffy matzo balls. But my mother says it is one of the easiest things to make. This is where I very strongly beg to differ. The first time I made it on my own was when I was living in Treasure Island.
When I moved to DC in August 2011, I moved into a row house in the Dupont/Adams Morgan area. I was adamant about living with others, because I felt as though I lost that experience living solo as a RA my junior fall semester and senior year. Treasure Island, or as Will dubbed it, “The Clown House,” was an experience that defined my early 20s.
In early August 2011, mere months after graduating from Dickinson, I had one day to find a place to live. Through Craigslist, I met a fashion conscious from San Diego, who led me to one of my future roommates. We were quite different. But, together we visited the open house that ultimately became our Treasure Island.
The house was a four story, old Victorian with creaking wooden floor, black granite counter topped kitchen, grand piano in the living room, Foosball table in the kitchen, questionable fireplace, antique filled five bedroom house for rent. It was like walking into an enchanted haunted house. You never knew what you would find, from the seemingly endless, random Halloween supplies scattered about, to the picture of the chef on the toilet in the kitchen. At the open house, we told the landlord we had tenants to fill the house. It was ours. So now, we had this incredible Victorian row house, with no fellow roommates. We posted ads on Craigslist and spent several weekends meeting potential roommates. After too many meet ups, we finally had our core. Four girls and two guys in total.
Girl 1: From San Diego, California, worked at a health spa in DC
Guy 2: From Italy, attended the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies studying finance
Guy 3: From New Jersey, first year at George Washington Law School
Girl 4: From Austin, TX, wrote for ABC politics online in DC
Girl 5: From Paris, law student at Georgetown for a year in DC
The two girls from Austin and Paris became my confidants. After I started working at he House Radio TV Gallery in February 2012, quit my hostessing gig at Circa, and gained my weekends back, we started hanging out more. They became some of my closest friends.
The six of us were an eclectic group, to say the least. Everyone was a caricature of themselves. Nonetheless, we were great.
We threw Halloween parties, complete with horrid rummy bears. St. Patrick Day festivities, Ugly Sweater Christmas parties. Of course birthdays were all recognized to extreme degrees.
But, my favorite tradition were our Sunday night family dinners. We all cooked a dish from our upbringing or heritage. The girl from San Diego made a Persian rice dish. The guy from Italy made spaghetti carbonara, handmade gnocchi, and Neapolitan pizza. The guy from New Jersey with Argentinian roots made tortilla Española, fideau (noodle paella), and pan con tomate. From Texas: Tex-Mex tacos and steak. From Paris: smoked salmon pasta, tartines, and chocolate mousse. And I ventured to make matzo ball soup and latkes. I called my mother and took careful notes. However, despite her insistence it’s simple, I found it quite challenging. It was still during my early years of cooking, but I still equated making the soup to butchering an entire chicken.
I've made it with her again since then, but Treasure Island was the first time I attempted to make it alone. To my surprise, and delight, it turned out fantastic. Most importantly, she taught me not to over mix or over handle the matzo balls. She couldn’t seem to stress this enough. In fact, barely mix them. Chill the matzo balls in the fridge for no less than 20 minutes and no more than 30 minutes. Timing is key. When forming the matzo balls, do so briefly, careful not to warm the batter with the warmth of your hands. Just roughly form the balls and place them right in the pot, careful not to splatter the broth. She isn’t particular about what part of the chicken to use. However, when making the soup for a crowd, always use the entire chicken since it has more flavor and fat. I found it amusing, and slightly random, that she was so adamant about using celery salt. She argued that it makes her soup distinctly hers. It’s always best to have extra chicken stock on hand to add to the soup later on. And you always need homemade (or bakery quality) challah, torn at the table for dipping. That's my favorite. The bread is soft and absorbs the broth. The soup wasn’t as good as my mom’s, but I must admit, it was pretty close.
When Will came for his first Passover in the spring of 2013, he too became obsessed. Granted, it followed the gefilte fish I made him try. When we read—a very abbreviated—version of the Haggadah, he asserted I was more Jewish than I led on. I always told him, “I’m not that Jewish!” For my family, Jewish traditions were more cultural, and as my mother explained, an excuse to get the family together. I’ve never strongly identified myself by my religion. However, I do relate to being able to share and celebrate cultural traditions. And I think my mother’s matzo ball soup does just that.
Mom's Chicken Matzo Ball Soup
Serves: A crowd
- 2 whole large chicken breasts
- 1 large white potato
- 4 large celery stalks
- 4 large carrots
- 1 large onion
- 1 package of Manischewitz matzo ball and soup mix
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tbsp. canola oil
- 2 tbsp. dried parsley
- 1 tsp. celery salt
- Rinse and clean chicken breasts
- Boil a very large, covered pot for 30 minutes, with the chicken breasts
- After 30 minutes, reduce the heat to low-medium
- Dice onion, carrots, and celery, roughly 1/2-inch pieces
- Add vegetables
- Leave roughly 3 inches at top of the pot, to accommodate matzo balls, once the vegetables are added
- To make the matzo balls, combine eggs and the oil
- Gently fold in the matzo ball mix
- Combine very lightly with a fork
- Chill in the refrigerator for 20 to 30 minutes
- Bring pot of water back to a full boil
- Form about 10 matzo balls, gently forming a sphere, barely handling
- Carefully place in matzo balls, cook for 20 minutes
- Turn heat back to low and cook for at least 1 hour
- Add parsley, celery salt, pepper, and matzo ball seasoning mix
*Recipe adapted from my mom, Naomi Kaplan