I grew up without a regular religious routine. I know that may seem strange and shocking to many of you, but it seemed like the freedom to explore religion in general to me. As I went to different cultural and religious ceremonies throughout the years, I became curious about the differences…and similarities. I’m not here to debate which religion is the best or most right. I don’t have all the answers. I do, however, have my own opinions based on learning and experience. I will say that all religions have at least one thing about them that strikes me as being true.
That being said, part of learning about culture, heritage, and religion is experiencing the traditional foods. This has always been, of course, my favorite part. You really learn a lot when you examine the food that defines a group of people. The history that is passed down with a recipe is often overlooked in the wake of tradition. However, using what was available to feed those you care about, has always been the basis of family.
My Step-Dad’s family is Jewish. I grew up enjoying latkes, kugel, bagels, and matzo ball soup. Eventually I moved to San Francisco. After growing up in a small town, the big city was exciting! So many amazing restaurants to try! Most of my favorite places were, and still are, little hole-in-the-wall dives. Literally. There are so many buildings crammed into that one area that they usually share walls and seem like one big building from block to block. The spaces run lengthwise from the street back and always feel narrow. But, that’s part of the charm. You can find the really authentic food at the small places too. There was a Jewish deli that I would visit as often as I could get to that neighborhood, and I always had to get a knish. Just thinking about them makes my mouth water.
Every once in a while, I would visit the more upscale, and expensive, eateries. Blissfully savoring each morsel, trying to lock each flavor into my memory. Yes, they really were that good. I really learned to appreciate food then. Not just for sustenance, but as the creation of a memory. I think that’s why I love cooking and baking so much. Creating taste sensations that strikes an emotion. OK…now, I’m thinking of the scenes in ‘Ratatouille’ where Remy shows his brother how different flavors mixed together an create something magical. That’s how it feels when someone loves something you have made. Though, it’s not easy to come up with a truly unique recipe all the time, taking an existing recipe and making it unique is pretty fun! Sometimes, I find shortcuts to make my life easier, without sacrificing quality, or substitutions that take the recipe to a whole new level. Especially healthier options!
Once I found the kosher aisle in the grocery, I realized that I could easily make chicken soup at home and use the handy-dandy matzo ball mix to make the star of the dish! Life just got easier…and more delicious! Eventually, I had a child of my own, and one time we ended up with a massive cold we kept passing around like a hot potato. In my fevered need to make us chicken soup, I also found that some stores have pre-chopped vegetables. When you are sick yourself, it’s like finding the proverbial pot of gold! If your vegetables are still raw, I suggest sautéing then in a little oil before adding the broth. These days, I use pre-cut frozen veggies (usually my own celery, carrots, onions, and garlic) and those handy cartons of broth. There are also some excellent concentrates, but even a powdered chicken broth will work. It really depends on your preference and budget. Really, you can eat very well on a skimpy income. I also add a chicken breast or two (you actually don’t need a lot) to the broth while it boils. Both the chicken and the broth will be enhanced by this process. Sounds pretty easy so far right? Frozen veggies, chicken, and broth in a pot and heat to boiling. Let the chicken cook in the liquid the whole time. Seriously. You really can’t overcook it in the liquid, but do make sure the broth covers it completely. I use Manischewitz for the matzo ball mix. Not only because it is a long-time trusted name in the Jewish community, but also because they sell the matzo ball mix without the powdered broth packet. I make my own soup, so I’d rather have double the matzo mix than a packet I won’t be using. Follow the directions on the box for making the matzo balls. The size is, really, up to you. I tend to make mine small; about 1″ around. This allows them to cook easier as they have a bit more room to move around in the liquid. Whatever size you choose, make them as even as possible so that they all finish at the same time. When the soup is finished cooking, I turn the heat off and remove the chicken into a separate bowl. Then, I take two sturdy, metal, serving forks and shred the chicken meat into tiny slivers. Add the meat back into the pot and stir. Voila! Dinner is ready!
After Thanksgiving (twice,) I knew we would be wanting a lighter meal, and remembered how much we love chicken and matzo ball soup. I always end up making a lot of soup, plus we had leftover pie, so we invited my SIL and her family over for dinner. I have to admit to being a little sneaky here. I just told her that I was making chicken soup. I wasn’t sure how they would react to trying something that sounded so different, and didn’t want the kids to decide ahead of time that they weren’t going to like it. So, I emphasized the pie and didn’t elaborate on the soup. If you have never tried this dish before, they are like dumplings, only lighter and fluffier, as well as seasoned a little more. By the time they got to our house, thanks to a dawdling three-year-old, we were all starving and dug right in! Imagine their faces when even their pickiest eaters loved it! It really is true: you’ll never know what you like, until you try!