A Bowl of Gail Simmons’ Matzo Ball Soup Will Cure What Ails You
‘Top Chef’ judge Gail Simmons combined two favorite family recipes to get this unconventional and ultra-satisfying take on matzo ball soup.
Growing up, Gail Simmons not only ate matzo ball soup during Passover, but also during Hanukkah, at many Friday night Shabbat dinners and when she was feeling under the weather. Her grandma Snazzy’s recipe for the soup, with its classic chicken soup base, was both hearty and nourishing.
“It is the soup of my ancestors that my grandmother made for every occasion,” says Simmons, a culinary school graduate and Top Chef judge. “There’s tons of collagen and lean protein in the soup from the chicken and the chicken stock, so it’s very restorative. There’s a reason that we all eat it when we’re sick from a physical standpoint. It really is the ultimate comfort food, and every culture has variations on it.”
When she wrote Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating, released in 2017, including a version of her grandmother’s soup was a no-brainer. However, she wanted to amp up the traditional dish, so she took a cue from another family favorite: her mother-in-law Noreen’s barley, lemon and chicken soup.
“I used to just make the two recipes separately [but] I realized there’s so much overlap between them, and one day I kind of put it together,” says Simmons. “When I put them together, I realized it’s like the perfect mishmosh.”
Her resulting Fully Loaded Matzo Ball Soup (recipe below), from its root vegetable and barley-fortified chicken soup base to the dill-flecked matzo balls, has now become a favorite of her household. True to a classic mishmosh, it gives purpose to every last scrap of chicken and vegetable that goes into it—and it’s versatile enough for home cooks everywhere to adapt it to their own tastes.
Traditionally, a mishmosh was “created to use all the waste and make the most out of ingredients for people who didn’t have a lot,” she says. “Making chicken stock from the bones and vegetable scraps—this is a frugal, humble dish that uses every part and there’s very little waste.”
Though Simmons’ fully loaded mishmosh soup bucks tradition in many ways, it’s just as hearty and resourceful as the classic. Here are her tips and advice for preparing it.
Simmons’ matzo ball mishmosh recipe begins with its most restorative element: the stock.
“It’s a very classic Ashkenazi chicken soup [from] Jews that came from Eastern Europe to the Americas,” she says. “It’s a really flavorful stock that is basically made from a whole chicken that [is broken] down and poached in the stock.”
At the start, the entire chicken is placed in a stock pot with water and vegetables, including carrots, onion and garlic. As the stock cooks and extracts the chicken’s aroma and flavor, you’ll remove the breast meat, thighs and other dark meat in stages to shred. This will eventually be added to the finished soup, but you’ll return all the bones to the stock pot to extract every last ounce of goodness before finally straining them out.
Though homemade stock and freshly poached chicken will provide an extra measure of flavor and satisfaction, this first step of the recipe is also the most time consuming. To expedite the process, Simmons often buys stock instead.
“If you’re not up for making your own stock, you can use a box stock and just poach the chicken in there,” she says. To speed the process up even more, Simmons suggests that you bypass poaching a raw chicken and instead opt for a rotisserie one. Just shred the meat off the bones and skip directly ahead to making the matzo balls.
“This is an involved recipe and there are many shortcuts you can take—it’s not all or nothing,” says Simmons. But “I think that the sum of the parts, if you really do the whole recipe from scratch, is so much better. As with any cooking, it’s about time and practice.”
If there’s one thing in this recipe that Simmons is adamant you make from scratch, it’s the matzo balls. Infused with dill and “light as air,” you’ll have to make a concerted effort not to immediately eat them all. You likely already have many of the ingredients you need in your pantry, so skip the ubiquitous pre-made mix, which is “just all the dry ingredients” anyway, so you can have full control over the final flavor.
Matzo balls “are very polarizing,” Simmons says. “People have bad experiences with matzo balls and they make associations with matzo balls that they’re these giant, heavy, dense things that are like a brick at the bottom of the bowl. My matzo balls are super light and fluffy.”
Achieving Simmons’ version of the classic Jewish dumpling is no more difficult than making a batch of cookies. The recipe calls for matzo meal, baking powder, salt and fresh dill with eggs, schmaltz (rendered fat) and club soda (for “levity”). If you don’t have schmaltz on hand, which will provide a richer flavor to the finished matzo ball, clarified butter will do just fine (though if you do make this substitution the soup will no longer be kosher).
“The key is to not make them too massive and to make sure that we cook them through,” says Simmons. The matzo meal “expands by like triple” once the balls go into the water, so be aware of this during the shaping process. Aside from that, just be sure to give them plenty of time to rest in the fridge prior to cooking.
“I always say to people who are intimidated by making their own balls to try my recipe,” she says. “My ideal matzo ball is not hard to make. It just takes a little love.”
With the stock, chicken and matzo balls covered, now’s the time to pack the soup full of veggies. Simmons goes for root vegetables that are classic in chicken soup, like carrots, parsnips and onions, as well as plenty of leek, celery and garlic. Really, you can add in whatever other veggies you have on hand—the only thing Simmons would avoid at all costs are tomatoes as they will change the flavor of the dish too much. “If you’re playing with veggies, don’t play with the tomato,” she says. “This is not a tomato-based soup in any way.”
The addition of barley is where Simmons’ matzo ball soup really begins to set itself apart from the standard.
“A lot of people put noodles in their soup, of course, like chicken noodle soup,” says Simmons. “It’s very traditional to put things like kasha in your soup. Kasha [buckwheat] is a very nutty, rustic whole grain that is often used in very old-world Jewish cooking. I like kasha, but I don’t love it, so I chose to use whole pearl barley in this recipe.”
The barley takes a little less time to cook than kasha, but it still soaks up the flavor of the stock
Before ladling out this matzo ball soup, Simmons likes to top it with a couple bright finishing touches. Though her recipe already uses dill, she says a garnish of parsley or tarragon is also a great option. These herbs combined with a squeeze of lemon juice, is “the little finish that lifts the whole thing up.”
Borrowing one last element from the barley chicken stew her mother-in-law taught her how to make two decades ago, Simmons dusts a bit of Parmesan cheese over the top of each bowl.
“You can leave it out to be kosher,” she says.“But if it’s not for a special holiday and you are not kosher, it adds just a little bit of body and umami that really builds on that comforting flavor. ”
Chicken & Stock:
- 1 (4- to 5-pound) Whole chicken, thighs and breasts separated
- 4 medium Carrots, coarsely chopped
- 4 medium Celery ribs, coarsely chopped
- 2 medium Yellow onions, cut into wedges
- 1 head Garlic, halved crosswise
- 8 sprigs Fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 Tbsp Black peppercorns
- 4 large Eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup Schmaltz or clarified butter (info to follow below), melted
- 3 Tbsp Club soda
- 2 Tbsp Fresh dill finely chopped
- 1 cup Matzo meal
- 1/2 tsp Baking powder
- Kosher salt
- 3 Tbsp Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium Carrots, cut on the bias into 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 medium Parsnips, cut on the bias into 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 Celery ribs, cut on the bias into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 large Leek, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
- 1 Garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 cup Pearl barley, rinsed
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup Finely chopped fresh dill, plus more for serving
- 2 Tbsp Fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 cup Finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
For the Chicken & Stock:
Add all the chicken and stock to a large stockpot. Add 3 1/2 quarts water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook until the chicken breasts are cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Transfer breasts to a plate. Let cool slightly, then remove the meat from the bones and set aside. Return the bones to the stock. Continue to simmer, skimming foam from the surface occasionally, until the liquid is reduced by one-third, about 2 hours. Meanwhile, shred the breast meat and refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.
Strain the stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl; discard the solids. Pick through and shred the dark meat, then refrigerate with the breast meat. You should have about 4 cups of meat and 10 cups of stock. (The stock and chicken can be made ahead and refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 1 month.)
For the Matzo Balls:
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, schmaltz, club soda and dill. Stir in the matzo meal, baking powder and 2 teaspoons salt. Refrigerate uncovered, at least 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Bring a large Dutch oven or wide, heavy pot of well-salted water to a boil. Scoop out the matzo ball mixture, one tablespoon at a time and, using wet hands, gently roll into balls. Add the matzo balls to the boiling water, then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cover and simmer until the matzo balls are plump, cooked through, and begin to sink to the bottom of the pot, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from the heat. The matzo balls can be kept in the pot of warm water, covered, until ready to serve. While the matzo balls are simmering, prepare the soup.
For the Soup:
In a 6- to 8-quart Dutch oven or wide, heavy pot with lid, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the carrots and parsnips and cook until starting to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the celery, leek and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until all vegetables are softened, 5 to 8 minutes more. Add the barley, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a generous pinch or two of pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the barley begins to toast, about 1 minute. Add 8 cups of the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the barley is tender, about 30 minutes.
Add 2 cups shredded white and/or dark chicken meat to the soup and simmer to warm through, about 2 minutes, (reserve the remaining chicken to use in salads, pastas, or other dishes). Stir in the dill and lemon juice. remove from the heat and adjust the seasoning to taste.
Ladle the soup into bowls. Using a slotted spoon, transfer a few matzo balls into each bowl. Top with more dill and a sprinkle of Parmesan, if desired.
The soup can be made up to three days ahead. During this time, the barley will continue to absorb liquid, making the soup very thick. Add more stock or water when reheating to return it to desired consistency, adjusting the seasoning to taste.
Notes: Back in my grandma’s day (and even when my mom was younger), Jewish home cooks used schmaltz (the Yiddish word for rendered chicken, duck, or goose fat) as a staple ingredient for frying latkes, making chopped liver and matzo ball soup, and spreading onto bread (move over butter!). Many Jewish cooks still say it’s the key to the most flavorful matzo ball soup you can make. I use schmaltz in my matzo balls when I can find it, but sub easy-to-make clarified butter when it is not available.
Clarified butter is butter with both its milk proteins and water removed (which together make up about 20 percent of its contents), changing it from emulsified fat to pure butterfat. To clarify butter, simply melt it in a small saucepan over low heat until it comes to an active simmer. Cook until the foam that forms on top (these are the milk proteins) breaks up and sinks to the bottom of the pan, and the bubbling subsides. Remove the pan from the heat, then skim off any remaining foam and strain through a cheesecloth or coffee filter into a bowl. Keep clarified butter in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.
Serves 6 to 8
Adapted from Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating by Gail Simmons. Copyright © 2017 by GMS Media, Inc. Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.