This coming week will be my first Passover without my mother, so excuse me if I’m a bit farklempt. She left us this past September at age 93, and for the first time I am making her famous chicken soup without her.
For many years her soup was her province, a closely guarded secret. If Seder was at our house, she would simply appear with her 16-quart pot, and no one was the wiser. How does she do it?, we’d all exclaim between slurps. Such flavor, such comfort. No one could beat it.
In later years, as her hands became shakier and her memory a bit slower, we worked together, and finally the many secrets of this celestial brew were revealed.
Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking: YOUR mother’s soup is the best. Sorry. No, it’s not. My mother’s is the best on so many levels, and here’s why. She put the whole produce market into that soup!
How she would laugh when she would see chicken soup recipes from famous cookbook authors calling for two carrots and a stalk of celery. My mother used two POUNDS of carrots in that soup.
Most chicken soup recipes instruct you to add water to cover. No, no, no, said my mother. Two-thirds is plenty. The vegetables cook down and will be covered soon enough, because what you are looking for is that deep, dark, richly flavorful brew. Resist the temptation to add a cup of water to get another cup of soup, she advised.
Even if you’re not Jewish, you must use kosher chickens. The jury is still out on why they taste so much better. Is it the method of killing? The freshness? The salting? The blessing? Who knows, but there really is a difference. (Note: Kosher chickens are salted, so watch that shaker!)
Pack it in! Use as much chicken and vegetables as you can pack into your pot, or conversely, use as little water as possible, to produce the most intense flavor.
You must use fresh dill, and lots of it.
After cooking, reserve the carrots to be sliced into the soup later. Then squeeze the remaining vegetables well through a strainer for extra flavor. Purists will say, “But the best soup must be clear.” I say, give me a choice between clarity and flavor, and I’ll take flavor any day!
Lillian “Honey” Bart’s Famous Chicken Soup
While her exact ingredients would vary as the mood hits her, here is my mom’s recipe from a typical day.
2 chickens (3 1/2 to 4 pounds each) with giblets (no liver), quartered
2 pounds carrots (yes, 2 pounds, not 2 carrots)
2 large onions, cut in half
5 large ribs celery, cut in half
2 large parsnips
1 small sweet potato (6 ounces), cut in half
1 turnip (6 ounces), cut in half
1 rutabaga (6 ounces), cut in half
1 small celery root, cut in half (optional)
1/2 large green bell pepper, stemmed and seeded
1/2 large yellow pepper, stemmed and seeded
2 bunches dill, coarsely chopped (about 1½ cups)
1/2 bunch curly-leaf parsley (about ¼ cup)
3 cloves garlic
Kosher (coarse) salt and black pepper to taste
Chopped dill, for serving (optional)
Makes about 3 quarts
1. Place the chicken in a 12- to 16-quart stockpot and add water to barely cover. Bring just to the boiling point. Then reduce the heat to a simmer and skim off the foam that rises to the top. Add all the remaining ingredients (except the optional chopped dill) and only enough water to come within about two thirds of the height of the vegetables in the pot. (Most recipes will tell you to add water to cover. Do not do this! You want elixir of the gods or weak tea? As the soup cooks, the vegetables will sink and will be covered soon enough. Eight to 10 cups of water total is plenty for this highly flavorful brew.) Simmer, covered, until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 1/2 hours.
2. Remove the chicken and about half the carrots from the pot, and set them aside.
3. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh strainer into another pot or container, pressing on the vegetables to extract all the flavor. Scrape the underside of the strainer with a rubber spatula and add the pulp to the soup. Discard the fibrous vegetable membranes that remain in the strainer. If you’re fussy about clarity (and we’re not), you can strain it again through a fine tea strainer, but there goes some of the flavor. Cover the soup and refrigerate overnight.
4. When you are ready to serve the soup, scoop the congealed fat off the surface and discard it. Reheat, adding more dill if desired (and we do). Slice the reserved carrots and add them to the soup. Serve the soup with matzoh balls and mandlen (soup nuts) for Passover and lukshen (thin noodles) after the holiday.
–Judy Bart Kancigor
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family and the recently released Workman Short The Perfect Passover Cookbook: Family-Tested Recipes for Matzoh Ball Soup, Kugel, Haroset, and More, Plus 25 Desserts. A freelance food writer and columnist for the Orange County Register, Judy started Cooking Jewish as a family project. To find out more, go to http://cookingjewish.com.