Chicken Soup Redux

Song and Spirit Institute for Peace is a marvelous organization based in Berkley, Mich., not far from my home. One of its founders and directors, Steve Klaper, is a neighbor. In a previous life, when I worked in corporate communications, he did a lot of graphic design work for me. Now Steve, a Jewish cantor, his wife, Mary Gilhouly, and co-founder Brother Al Mascia, a Franciscan friar, run an interfaith organization that offers not only religious (and inter-religious) services but also a wide variety of community services. Steve sent this piece out to his email list on March 31.

It began (like many scathingly brilliant ideas) as a short conversation in the hallway at Song and Spirit. Brother Al was carrying a large can of powdered chicken bouillon and stopped for a moment to talk about a new initiative he had in mind.

“Chicken soup for the hungry!” he said with great enthusiasm.

He continued, “A fellow I used to work with downtown found a recipe that uses canned chicken and chicken bouillon and we just have to add water, noodles and a little seasonings and we’re good to go.”

Hmmm… he’d lost us at “canned chicken’”…

“Don’t we have friends at area synagogues who might want to pitch in to make ‘real’ chicken soup? Who better to make chicken soup than our Jewish friends! All the Temples have such active Social Action committees and Teen Youth Groups – maybe they’d like to pitch in?”

Temples to the rescue

Within hours, we had firm commitments from two area temples with whom we had worked on many other projects. Both were delighted to find volunteers of all ages who wanted to participate in making homemade soups of all kinds to help their neighbors in need.

So nearly every week – for more than four months now – Song and Spirit picks up 5-gallon containers of hot, homemade soup made by volunteers at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy and Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park. (A third temple is coming on board soon!)

Serving as the hands of God

Outreach Coordinator Greg Allen works tirelessly with Brother Al to deliver the huge, heavy pots to area shelters struggling to find enough to feed lunch to the many in our area who are in need.

And Greg never ceases to be amazed at the sincere gratitude of those he serves.

“You know,” he said after returning from a soup run on a frigid, winter afternoon, “all they had to offer for lunch today at the shelter was a single hotdog on a bun, and then we came in with five gallons of piping hot soup. Honestly, I don’t know who was more excited, the people who got to serve the soup or the people who got to eat it.”

He paused, thinking, “Then again, maybe it was ME!”

What’s so important about having an Outreach program at the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace? We allow everyday people the opportunity to act as the hands of God – and they become people who make a difference in the world.

From the editor:
This week’s recipe is something I call Cheater’s Chicken Soup, because you don’t start from scratch, which can be expensive. Making soup from powdered bouillon is disgusting (as Steve notes above). This is a cheap and easy way to get home-made flavor without sacrificing a chicken.

It’s not a normal recipe because you have to start by roasting a chicken, which you can enjoy for dinner. You’ll make the soup another day. So this is more of a method than a recipe – but it makes a great soup! One chicken carcass will make enough soup for two. Want more? Freeze the chicken carcass until you have a few of them; with three chicken carcasses, and three chickens’ worth of “juice,” you can make more than a half-gallon of soup!

Add some cooked egg noodles and maybe some of the carrot you cooked with the soup before serving.

Note: you can cook this soup a long time. Once I put it on the simmer burner at 6 p.m., planning to finish it at 9 when I returned from a meeting. Well, my husband and I both totally forgot about it until the next morning, so it had simmered more than 12 hours. No harm done – the soup was very flavorful!

Cure the winter blahs with chicken soup

In these gray and cold winter months, what could be better than a nice, hot bowl of chicken soup?

It’s guaranteed to warm you up, both physically and spiritually. It’s not for nothing that it’s called “Jewish penicillin” and that all those books full of pithy statements about positive living–and there are hundreds of them–are called Chicken Soup for the Soul.

Chicken soup really can help cure the common cold! Researchers have found that chicken soup reduces upper-respiratory inflammation, according to a study published in 2000 in the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians. Nasal inflammation is what causes stuffy head and runny nose.

The inflammation is caused by an increase in white blood cells that rush to the site of a viral infection and try, usually unsuccessfully, to kill off the virus. The Nebraska study found that fewer white blood cells were present in people who had eaten chicken soup. Another benefit: Just by being a hot liquid, chicken soup will loosen congestion and keep you hydrated.

Hold a chicken soup cook-off!

If you’re looking for a fun wintertime activity, consider a chicken soup cook-off. You can do this socially with a group of friends or co-workers–have everyone bring a different chicken soup to a potluck–or you can run a cook-off through your congregation or organization as a fundraiser.

Temple Shir Shalom in suburban Detroit recently held a Chicken Soup Cook-off as a charity benefit. They invited ordinary household cooks as well as restaurateurs and caterers to enter a  pot of their best chicken soup in one of three categories: chicken noodle soup, matzo ball soup and creative/contemporary chicken soup.

More than 500 people paid an entry fee to sample the soups and vote for a People’s Choice winner. A panel of professional foodies also named winners for each of the three categories in both a professional division and a home cooks division.

The judges rated the soups for taste, texture, flavor and overall impression.

Personally, the chicken soup I make most often is what I call “Cheater’s Chicken Soup” because it’s a free by-product when I cook chicken.

Make “Cheater’s Chicken Soup”

I often make roast chicken, using either whole or cut-up birds, for our Friday night Shabbat dinner. When the chicken comes out of the roasting pan, I pour off the “juice” and then deglaze the pan by adding a cup or so of water and swirling it around to loosen all the nice brown bits. This goes into the same container with the “juice.” If I’m not going to use it within a few days, I freeze it.

Whenever I make a whole roast chicken, I save and freeze the carcass.

When I have at least one carcass and a couple of chickens’ worth of “juice,” it’s time to make soup! I defrost the carcass and the chicken juice (scrape off any chicken fat that has risen to the surface) and put it all in a large soup pot.

I add a large, unpeeled onion cut in quarters (the onion peel helps give the soup a little color), a stalk of celery and a carrot cut in chunks, a half-dozen whole black peppercorns and a few teaspoons of dried dill (or fresh dill from my garden if it’s summertime).

I cook this covered for several hours, then cool and strain through cheesecloth, keeping the carrot chunks to serve with the soup. I add salt to taste when I reheat it. I confess I sometimes add a little powdered chicken stock if the soup tastes weak–but the result is way better than soup made entirely from powder.

I often add noodles or matzo balls before serving.

The Chicken Soup Cook-off winner!

Today’s recipe is a little more complex, but I’m sure the effort is worth it.

This recipe was the winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Temple Shir Shalom Chicken Soup Cook-off. It comes from Elwin Greenwald, who owns a wonderful take-out joint called Elwin & Co. in Berkley, Michigan.

It’s named for his grandmother. “My Bubbie Gratzielle left Poland for Sorrento. Italy, and brought her recipe with her to America!” he told the Detroit Free Press, which printed the recipe. The photo below, which appeared in the Free Press, is by Elwin Greenwald.

It’s not Passover without matzoh balls!

It usually happens in early- to mid-March. I’m in my local supermarket, quietly doing my normal shopping, and there it is—a display of Passover foods. Immediately my heart starts to beat a little faster and I feel an impending sense of doom.

Why should the anticipation of Passover—one of the most joyous celebrations in the Hebrew calendar and a time for family togetherness second only to Thanksgiving—cause me such tzuris (a great Yiddish term meaning troubles or woes)?

I’ll tell you why: For those of us who keep kosher, Passover is a whole other dimension!

Eat matzoh for seven days!

It all starts with the Book of Exodus 12:15: Seven days shall you eat flatbread. The very first day you shall expunge leaven from your houses, for whosoever eats leavened bread, that person shall be cut off from Israel from the first day to the seventh day.

From this simple command we developed a system of religious practices that include:

  • cleaning your house thoroughly, from top to bottom, to rid it of anything that might contain any trace of anything leavened.
  • making sure any packaged or processed foods are not only kosher but “certified kosher-for-Passover,” with no ingredients that are leavened or that could become leavened.
  • packing away all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans and small appliances you use all year round and replacing them with “Passover” dishes and utensils that you use only during the eight-day festival (it’s still seven days in Israel, eight days everywhere else). Often these are stored in the basement or garage and the changeover involves much schlepping. And when you keep kosher, you need separate sets of everything for milk and meat. Unless you go vegetarian, this means two sets of Passover dishes, utensils and pots.

Those of us who host the festive seder meal on one or both of the first two nights of Passover usually have many guests, requiring a mammoth amount of cooking. But the cooking can’t start until all the “regular” dishes have been put away and the Passover dishes brought out.

Spring cleaning on steroids

And we can’t bring out the Passover dishes until we’ve thoroughly cleaned every room where we’ve had food during the year. In the kitchen, we have to scour every nook and cranny, including the refrigerator, freezer, oven, stovetop, microwave, cabinets and countertops. It’s spring cleaning on steroids! Once the kitchen is “kashered” (made kosher) for Passover, we can no longer eat “regular” food there, so we have to carefully plan our menus for the week leading up to the holiday. Although fruits and vegetables, kosher meat, fish, eggs and many dairy products do not require special Passover certification, it still takes effort to keep the “Passover” separate from the “regular.”

So there’s no cooking and freezing for the big meal weeks in advance like we can do for other holidays. Usually the kitchen isn’t Passover-ready until a day or two before the holiday starts, and then there’s a frenzy of cooking and baking in the few days leading up to the seder.

As I write this, my stomach starts to clench, along with my jaw.

Even in households where the husband is super-supportive, the wife is the chief executive officer of Passover prep, making the to-do lists and issuing orders to anyone else unfortunate enough to live there. Most of us women start the holiday exhausted.

Many years ago I worked for a hospice that served an interfaith population and was encouraging “cultural competency” among the staff. As Passover approached, I wrote a piece for the employee newsletter about what the care staff might expect to see in a Jewish home as Passover approached.

The staff rabbi thought it was funny because it showed such a female perspective. I wrote about cleaning and food, nothing about the wonderful spiritual aspects of the holiday. “Hmph,” I thought, “only the men have the luxury to think about the spiritual aspects of this holiday!” And furthermore, I thought, his wife was probably as overwhelmed as I was!

A time to celebrate at last!

But once the food has been cooked and the family and friends gather around the festive table, we are able to relax. Then Passover changes from a dire burden to my favorite holiday of the year. Then I can enjoy the seder, which is a retelling of the reason for the festival: We were slaves in Egypt, and God brought us forth with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and now we are free.

The quintessential Passover food, besides matzoh itself, is matzoh balls, also known as knaydlach (just one is a knaydl)—which is Yiddish so you can spell it any way you want in English: knaidlach, kneydlach, kneidlach. They are so good we eat them year-round, something that can be said about very few kosher-for-Passover foods.

Here is my recipe for matzoh balls, but let me give you a caveat. You need to get a feel for the mixture before you let it rest. It can’t be too loose or your matzoh balls will fall apart. It can’t be too hard, or your matzoh balls will be rubbery instead of fluffy.

If the mixture seems a little too soupy after you’ve added the matzoh meal, sprinkle in a few teaspoons more, but realize that the mixture will thicken quite a bit as it rests. When you first make up the mixture, it should not be stiff enough to form balls.

I recommend starting with the stated amounts for the ingredients. When you’ve made matzoh balls a few times, you’ll be able to tell if the consistency feels right or needs adjustment.

One more note: rendered chicken fat makes the best matzoh balls, but I realize that few of us have chicken fat on hand these days. You can use solid vegetable shortening or margarine instead.

You can make the matzoh balls any size you like. I like them large, one per person, and this recipe will make about eight large balls. If you want to serve two per person, just make them smaller.

This recipe can easily be halved if there are just a few of you, or doubled to serve a crowd.

Enjoy the matzoh balls in a steaming bowl of chicken soup. (The photo with the recipe is by Hot Hungarian Chef via Flickr Creative Commons.)