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.)


Kreplach keep family tradition alive

Note to Readers from your host Bobbie Lewis: Got questions on any our food stories? Just ask us by adding a comment below. Our earlier story on pickles already has drawn questions—and answers.

I remember my grandmother’s kreplach, little pasta dumplings filled with beef and onions. They could turn an ordinary bowl of chicken soup into something ambrosial. They were something way beyond my mother’s limited cooking talents, so we enjoyed them only on infrequent trips from Philadelphia, where we lived, to Brooklyn, where my grandparents lived. I’m determined to remedy this deficit. I recently learned how to make kreplach from my friend Ruth Marcus, who invited me to her house for her family’s annual kreplach-making marathon.

(Kreplach, by the way, a Yiddish word, is plural. The singular is “krepl” — but no one ever eats just one!)

Every culture has something similar

Almost every culture has something similar to kreplach. You’re probably familiar with Italian ravioli, Polish pierogi and Chinese wontons. There’s also buuz (Mongolian), manti (Turkish), momo (Nepali), pelmeni (Russian) and many more ethnic permutations. Kreplach are usually triangular. Some say the three sides represent Judiasm’s three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but I think that’s what we generously call a “bubba meise” – an old wives’ tale.

Ruth, on the other hand, is an inspiration. Every year for more than 35 years, she has been gathering her family – first her own three children, now her daughter and the three granddaughters who live nearby – to make hundreds of kreplach in a single afternoon.

Transmitting family recipes—and values

Ruth is living proof that cooking with children and grandchildren is one of the best ways to transmit family values and lore. She grew up in Baltimore, eating kreplach made by her grandmother, Lillian Miller. Now she uses the recipe from Lillian – known to Ruth’s children and grandchildren as Mema – along with several family objects that have taken on almost ritual significance.

There’s a tablecloth Mema gave to Ruth as a shower gift, now used only for rolling out kreplach. There’s Mema’s old wooden rolling pin, and a pretty china plate that once belonged to Mema, where the kreplach rest before going into the pot.

As toddlers, granddaughters Isabel Johnson, 7, and Olivia Johnson, 5, played with small portions of kreplach dough while the grownups worked. Ruth gently teases them about how they used to sit in their highchairs and say, “Roll it, roll it, roll it.”

Now Isabel is experienced enough to roll and cut the dough, and Olivia can portion out bits of ground beef for the filling. Both can fold the square pieces of dough into triangles and crimp the edges. Ruth’s oldest grandchild, Sydney Marcus, 18, goes to college in Colorado but timed her summer visit back home to Michigan to coincide with Kreplach Day.

Ruth and the girls knead, roll and cut the dough, and fill, fold and crimp the dumplings. Ruth’s daughter, Lauren Marcus Johnson, mans the stove; each burner holds a big pot of boiling water. Ruth’s husband, David, is in charge of packaging: 12 kreplach go into a zip-closed sandwich bag, then the filled sandwich bags go into a gallon-sized freezer bag.

A few small bags will go to friends, but most will be frozen and enjoyed later at the Marcus’ Sabbath and festival dinners. They’ll start eating this year’s batch at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September and finish the last kreplach next spring before Passover, when everything made with flour has to be tossed or locked away.

The secret ingredients

There’s more to kreplach than flour, egg, water, beef, parsley and onion. “What are the secret ingredients?” asks Ruth. “Love!” says Isabel. “And telling the stories.”

The little girls never met Mema, their great-great-grandmother. But they can tell the story about how she came to America from a farm in a little village in Russia. Mema was 8 and her sister was 4. Her father had already left. Her mother hired a wagon to take them to the train, and Mema’s little legs dangled off the back of the wagon. She waved goodbye to her grandmother and grandfather, knowing she would never see them again.

Ruth says the one pound of meat in this recipe will make between 80 and 100 kreplach. “You can stop when you have used up the dough, or you can make another batch of dough. It never comes out even! If you have a little meat left over, shape and cook a hamburger!”

Shorba Birang: Recalling tastes of Afghanistan and a lifesaving trek

Who can forget the many harrowing scenes in Khaled Hosseini’s novel about Afghanistan, The Kite Runner. One I will never forget is how the protagonist, Amir, and his father, along with a dozen or so others, escape from Afghanistan by hiding in an empty oil tanker. When the truck reaches Pakistan, they find that one of the boys traveling in the tank has died because of the suffocating fumes.

Parwin Anwar, who now lives in suburban Detroit and teaches English as a second language in public schools, has an equally dramatic story of escape from a disintegrating society.

I met Parwin in May at the installation dinner for WISDOM–Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue in Metro Detroit and the authors of the book Friendship & Faith. Both of us were new board members. She told me she had come from Afghanistan in 1985, but I didn’t know the details of her story until a month later, when she invited me into her home to watch her cook some traditional Afghani foods.

Leaving home

Parwin and her husband, Qadir, university graduates, had been living a comfortable life in Kabul. Parwin taught Pashto, one of the main languages of the country, in a high school. Qadir worked in a bank.

In 1978 the government was taken over by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which was vehemently anti-religious, anti-elite and anti-intelligentsia: three strikes against the Anwars. Less than two years later, the Soviet army invaded. The Anwars, devoutly religious supporters of the anti-Communist Mujahideen, knew they were in danger. They resolved to leave and seek refuge in the United States.

Parwin’s uncle, a professor of engineering, had lived in Michigan for more than 30 years. Her father joined him in 1983. “He had been working for the United Nations in Sudan, and after the Communists came to power, we told him it wasn’t safe for him to come back to Afghanistan because he had ties to the previous government,” said Parwin.

The Anwars had two children, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, and Parwin was six months pregnant.

A 150-mile trek

In a group of 17 that included an elderly couple, six teenagers and three children, they left Kabul and walked 150 miles to Pakistan.

“We had to leave everything behind. We couldn’t take anything or tell anyone we were leaving. We didn’t even say goodbye to our family,” she said.

It was late July and very hot. No one in the group had good walking shoes. Everyone wore traditional clothing, complete with bangle bracelets and henna for the women. Their cover story, in case they were stopped at a checkpoint, was that they were going to a nearby village to attend a wedding.

The group had a horse and two donkeys, one of which was used to carry their meager belongings. Because of her pregnancy, Parwin sometimes rode the horse, but mostly she walked, eight to 12 hours a day. The men carried the children on their backs.

“We took some cooked food with us but after a few hours in the heat, everything was spoiled. We used up our water quickly too. Whenever we came to a river, we drank and filled up every bottle we could. Sometimes villagers gave us food and water, but most days we had very little,” she said.

The power of prayer

They came to a tall mountain, but there was no road around it. “We had to crawl up the mountain,” said Parwin. Some members of the group lost their toenails in the climb. Parwin fell several times. Once she was getting off the horse and her dress caught on the saddle. She fell and suffered a deep scratch the length of her torso. More than once they heard the Soviet army bombarding a village nearby.

“I was so tired and in so much pain,” she said. “One day we stopped in a village and I wanted to give up. I told everyone else I would stay there. But my son – he was only 5 years old – said he would walk behind me so he could catch me if I fell. So I kept going. Every night I was so sure I was going to have the baby that night. I prayed every night, and the next morning I would be fresh. That’s the power of faith and prayer.”

It took them five days to reach Pakistan. Everyone in the group survived.

In Pakistan the Anwars stayed with family so they didn’t have to go to a refugee camp. After eight months they were granted refugee status and came to the United States. Parwin’s younger daughter was born in Pakistan. She had a fourth child, a son, in Michigan.

New life in America

The 10-year Soviet occupation resulted in the deaths of between 850,000 and 1,500,000 Afghan civilians. About 6 million fled to Pakistan and Iran. By the end of 2011, there were about 300,000 Afghanis in the United States. The largest communities are in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.

Parwin cooks many foods from her homeland. Dinner often includes a vegetable soup, made with with rice or noodles, that’s fragrant with herbs and spices. Parwin usually mixes parsley, cilantro and dill together and freezes the mix in small quantities – the size of a large ice cube –  until she needs them. She does the same with a mixture of turmeric, garlic and fresh ginger.

Parwin often makes this soup during Ramadan. Here’s how to make it. Just be aware that Parwin never measures anything, she just knows what works! These quantities are my estimates. Don’t worry about it too much. One of the joys of making soup is that whatever you throw in a pot will probably taste good!

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Detroit SOUP: A grassroots recipe for nourishing community

It’s a cheap dinner out!
It’s a fundraiser!
It’s a community builder!
It’s democracy in action!
It’s a Champion of Change recognized by the White House!
Actually, Detroit SOUP is all of the above!

Detroit SOUP  is a tremendously successful grassroots enterprise that started in 2010 in Detroit’s Mexicantown area (that’s part of the city’s wonderfully diverse southwest side). Kate Daughdrill and Jessica Hernandez got a small group of friends together for soup dinners in a loft above a bakery and gave the funds they took at the door back to the community.

Detroit SOUP: Recycling one of Detroit’s treasures

Their idea took off!

So, Detroit SOUP moved to a permanent home in Detroit’s New Center area. If you’re passing through Michigan, Detroit SOUP is now located near our landmark Fisher Building in the former home of Detroit’s once-famous Jam Handy studios. Like so much in the Motor City, this is recycling at its best. Long vacant, Jam Handy once was on the cutting edge of commercial filmmaking. The studio produced the 1944 cartoon version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as well as countless commercials and industrial-training films.

When is the next Detroit SOUP event? Coming right up July 14! (Click the Detroit SOUP photo, at right, to get all the details.)

What happens? Volunteers plan and carry out monthly dinners for more than 200 guests, who pay $5 to sit at long communal tables made of old doors and boards and enjoy a dinner of soup, bread and salad (all the food is donated). During the meal, diners hear up to four short proposals from people who need a little financial boost to get a community project or artistic endeavor off the ground. Everyone present votes on the proposal they like best, and the winner gets a little grant for his or her project.

WHITE HOUSE HONORS: Detroit SOUP has been so successful at bringing people together and promoting community betterment that its director, Amy Kaherl, was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change in the “crowdsourcing” category.

Detroit SOUP:
An idea that’s easy to imitate

It’s such a cool idea—and one that is easy for other communities to copy. In fact, Detroit SOUP didn’t invent it. They got the idea from InCUBATE in Chicago, a group dedicated to exploring new approaches to arts administration and funding. InCUBATE started Sunday Soup dinners in 2007. (Sunday Soup returned to Chicago last year after taking a two-year break.) The Sunday Soup idea has been implemented in nearly 90 communities around the world–mostly in the U.S. but also in Canada, Europe, Australia and Japan.

One of the winning projects at DetroitSOUP was Spaulding Court in Detroit. My son-in-law, Jon Koller, heads a nonprofit organization that is renovating this dilapidated 100-year-old townhouse community. And then Friends of Spaulding Court copied the DetroitSOUP idea. For several years they ran a similar fundraising soup dinner called Soup at Spaulding. (Heading to Detroit and want to find Spaulding Court? It’s off 12th Street, aka Rosa Parks, a few blocks north of the old Tiger Stadium site.)

During its three short years, Detroit SOUP has given back more than $27,000 to Detroit. The micro-grants have gone to a wide array of projects, including Veronika Scott’s Empowerment Plan, which produces coats that can be turned into sleeping bags for the homeless, and a high school group’s screen printed apparel project.

Detroit SOUP: Connecting the community

“Never in my wildest imagination did I think SOUP would grow to become a staple to the flow of the city,” said Amy Kaherl, who grew up and went to college in Michigan and then studied theology and popular culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasedena, Calif.

“SOUP has a natural way of connecting people. We are meeting to have a shared experience. People can bump elbows sitting next to one another on the floor, stand a little less awkwardly in line together, and talk about what project they think would best benefit from their $5. We have watched friendships made, jobs found, resources shared, projects find new collaborators, and even a couple meet and marry.”

Amy says SOUP gives her a way to study connection and meaning in our everyday experiences.  Take a look at this little clip from NBC Nightly News , where Amy says, “It’s a chance to draw people together, share ideas over a simple meal like soup, salad and bread and hear how people really want to help continue to revitalize the city. I love just being a connecting point for people.”

Try this soup recipe

Read the Spirit writer Terry Gallagher wrote a recent series in the Our Values department about his family’s Soup-a-thon. For 13 weeks every fall, the Gallaghers cook up a big pot of soup and invite friends to join them for a soup dinner. Here’s one of the recipes Terry provided then for a simple kidney bean soup. It comes from the More-With-Less Cookbook, commissioned in 1976 by the Mennonite Central Committee as a way of encouraging church members to use food resources wisely and to encourage the philosophy that if residents of North America use less, they can increase the food resources available elsewhere in the world.

Let us hear from you!

Do you think a program like DetroitSOUP would work in your community? Why or why not?

Do you have a good “more-with-less” soup recipe or a good soup story to share?

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)