I am all for getting creative in the kitchen. But sometimes, you just don't want to mess around with a classic. Take chicken soup. Whether you call it "goldene yoich" (golden broth in Yiddish), "Jewish Penicillin," or just plain old soup, not much can top the basic, soul-satisfying combination of tender chicken, carrots, celery, and onions swimming in soothing broth.
Besides, people tend to get a little particular about what foods they expect to see on the Passover table. So when the holiday rolls around, I make sure to give my friends and family what they want: pure, unadulterated, intoxicatingly fragrant chicken soup. When it comes to the matzo balls, however, I feel much more comfortable experimenting. Made from little more than eggs, matzo meal, and a little seltzer for lift, they make the perfect blank canvas for adding flavor.
Often, I will chop a bunch of springy herbs like parsley or dill and fold them into the matzo ball batter. But this year, I had mushrooms on the brain — particularly a handful of beautiful shiitakes I spotted at my local food coop.
Working on a whim, I softened some shallots in oil then added the mushrooms, which I chopped very fine, followed by some dried thyme to heighten the flavor. I stirred that whole mixture into the matzo balls before dropping them into a simmering pot of water to cook.
Biting into a "tester," I was delighted to find that the mushroom's earthy flavor shone through without overpowering the matzo balls. They were also beautifully speckled, like the savory equivalent to chocolate chip ice cream. Swimming in a bowl of classic chicken soup, they added just the right amount of excitement to my favorite Passover dish.
Chicken Soup with Shallot-Shiitake Matzo Balls
Serves 6 to 8
1 whole chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds)
3 large carrots, peeled and chopped in half
3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped in half
2 onions, peeled and halved lengthwise through the root
1 bay leaf
4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh parsley (with stems), plus more chopped fresh parsley for serving
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 batch Shallot Shiitake Matzo Balls, recipe follows
Lemon wedges for serving, optional
Place chicken, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, garlic, and 1/4 cup parsley in a large soup pot. Cover the ingredients with 1 inch of cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to low and gently simmer, partially covered, skimming off the foam that accumulates as needed. Cook until chicken is very tender and falling off the bone, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and transfer to a cutting board. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve, and add it back to the pot. Discard the parsley and bay leaf. Using your fingers, remove the skin and discard it, then remove the meat from the bones. Roughly chop the meat. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and add them back to the pot with the chicken meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, place 1 or 2 matzo balls into a soup bowl and top with soup and chopped fresh parsley. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing, if desired.
Shallot-Shiitake Matzo Balls
Makes 16 to 18 matzo balls
4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
Coarse kosher salt
1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and finely chopped, about 1 1/2 cups
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup matzo meal
3 tablespoons seltzer water
Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium pan set over medium heat. Add the shallots and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms soften and brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the thyme and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and transfer mixture to a bowl to speed up the cooling process. Let cool until cool to the touch.
Once cooled, mix the mushroom mixture together with the eggs, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon salt, matzo meal, and seltzer in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium-low and keep at a simmer. Moisten your hands with water; scoop out a heaping tablespoon of matzo ball batter and roll it into a 1-inch ball. Drop the ball into the boiling water, and repeat with remaining batter. Cover the pot, and let simmer until matzo balls are tender and puffed, 30 to 35 minutes. (If you cut one in half, it should be pale in color throughout.)
Remove matzo balls from pot with a slotted spoon and let sit on a plate until ready to use.
To make sure both components of this dish are ready around the same time, get the soup pot simmering, then begin making your matzo balls. You can also make the matzo balls ahead and freeze them, following the directions in this recipe.