Food Porn #2.
Food is one of those things that define a culture or a nation or an ethnic group or a family.
For Jews, it's chicken soup. Some of us eat it every Sabbath night; some of us eat it only on holidays such as Rosh HaShanah and Thanksgiving. Some of us gave it up with the rest of the meat family, and search for substitutes. And for many of us, it's the taste of mom, or grandma. It's a fact that everyone's mother or grandmother made the best chicken soup ever. I know my mother does.
And it goes across boundaries - I'm Ashkenazi. My grandparents and great-grandparents came from Russia, Poland, Romania, and the soup my mother makes and my mother-in-law makes and I make comes from those cold and hungry lands. A friend of mine comes from Yemen, which was also a hungry land, but not cold, so her people made do with spices. Her chicken soup, which is her mother's, is rich and full of the flavor of hwage.
This is Passover, the holiday of food traditions like no other in our calendar, as we deal with restrictions beyond those of normal kashrut. We still have the normal ones, of course - only meat from kosher animals, slaughtered correctly and soaked and salted to get rid of the blood (our grandmothers did that last themselves; today we buy it already kashered), and only from the front of the cow or lamb because, in the US, we've forgotten how to remove the sciatic nerve that would make the rear portion kosher. Milk and eggs also only from kosher animals, and milk never to be mixed with meat in any way, shape or form. Fish must possess both fins and scales, and the scales are clearly defined. All processed goods must be certified kosher. All unprocessed foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are permitted. This is for the year.
For Passover, the rules are stricter because there can be no leaven in our lives. Leaven, chometz, is defined as food made with the five grains - wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt - that, when mixed with water and allowed to sit, will ferment and rise. And it's everywhere - it's in our pots and utensils, on our tables and rugs, in our pockets, in our stovetops and fridges and ovens. This state of affairs is perfectly fine and good for fifty-one weeks out of the year. On the 52nd, we must banish it by boiling, by burning, by covering, by hiding and by replacing. Like many people, I keep a reasonable set of utensils *just* for Passover, which I store away for the rest of the year.
But it gets harder. I am Ashkenazi, as is my husband. For at least a thousand years, and perhaps longer, Ashkenazi Jews have taken on an additional stricture, and avoid rice and beans and seeds - including coriander and mustard. Since the discovery of the New World, we've added corn to that list, but not potatoes. These are called kitniyos, and Sephardim laugh at us. But we don't have spend time checking each grain of rice three times before the holiday, so it's not so bad.
Thank God for potatoes.
So, the challenge in this week is to make interesting and appetizing meals, including up to five each festive dinners and lunches, plus the remaining everyday meals, without noodles, pasta, peas, beans or rice. Also, some groups (not mine) avoid the use of "broken matzah" - matzah meal and the crushed pieces call farfel, or any thing that might require soaked or wet matzah, for fear some particle of flour was not cooked and will therefore rise. This limits them still further. Although, the cakes made from eggs, sugar and potato starch can be lovely.
Other groups avoid all processed foods, and boil their sugar to make a syrup, and some even will avoid any cooking fat other than home rendered chicken fat. This is because when their grandparents or great-grandparents did this, there were no processed foods kosher for Passover, oil was suspect and sugar was untrustworthy.
And many others take advantage of all the stuff that is available, including taco and pizza mixes and really disgusting cold cereals (sugar and matzah cake meal. Yum.)
I steer a middle course. I have to avoid kitniyos, but I'm making matzah balls and such - one of my favorite dishes is a Greek pie made with ground beef and spinach and potatoes on a matzah crust. However, I don't tend to use many processed vegetables and mixes during the year, so I'm not changing now. My goal is to cook as close to normal as possible, given everything.
So. Chicken soup.
It's changed over the years, of course. When grandma was young, she would go to the butcher, pick out a live bird and it would be slaughtered and plucked for her, and she'd take it home and kasher it. The bird would not be young, because young birds weren't growing as large as they do now. Also, they were expensive and money she didn't have. She bought a tough old hen. This hen would cook for hours, getting more and more tender as it produced a broth flavored with whatever root vegetables Grandma could get. And when it was finished, she got a flavorful soup and a main course, because those tough old hens had taste. This would be Shabbos dinner, and the fat from the soup would be used to flavor the kugel served with the chicken.
By the time Mom was making her soup, it was for special occasions, because it was a job. And already the chickens were younger and more tender. This made the roasts and the baked chicken nicer, but it meant that the meat coming out of the soup wasn't so good. My grandmother would coat hers in duck sauce to give it flavor, and mom would attempt chicken salad from hers, but it never tasted right. All the flavor was in the soup.
My soup, the one I made for my s'dorim, was my mom's soup, except it was mine. I had a choice - I can buy pullets, which are old enough to be boiled and still taste good, or I could use bones. Bones still have flavor and it's okay to toss those. If I have time and inclination, I can take some chickens and bone them out and use the meat in one dish and the bones in the soup. I've done that, and felt very virtuous.
I didn’t have time to be virtuous this year, and I didn't have the other dish planned. I bought the bones already stripped of meat. I snapped off one neck to use as my zoroa for the seder plate, and the rest of the three pounds I bought went into the stock pot. I let them brown a bit before I added a little water so they shouldn't burn.
The secret to any chicken soup is the vegetables. There is a lot you can do with plain broth, and I've often made a fast stock out of leftover bones when I needed it for a hash or something, but I wasn't making broth. I was making chicken soup. That means celery - at least half a stalk, leaves and all. That means onions, peeled and left whole. That means a pound of carrots, peeled and chunked, and a whole peeled turnip and a couple of peeled parsnips. And then it means a bunch of parsley and a bunch of dill, and I added bay leaves because it's me and I add bay leaves. My mom doesn't. And I poured pitcher after pitcher of water over these things until the turnip floated, and then I turned the heat up and covered the stock pot.
I had other things to do, like make gefilte fish and pot roast, and to go to the laundromat to pick up my laundry, but the soup could take care of itself. And it did. When I got back, bearing laundry, my house smelled of holidays, like the pride my mother put in her chicken soup. It overwhelmed the other cooking smells.
I filled a two gallon container with that soup, which was rich and golden, and not very clear, the way a good chicken soup should be, and put it in my fridge. Not much fat would rise from it because it was made from bones, and it never gelled, but when I heated part of it up for the first seder, it proved to be exactly what I wanted. My mother, alive and well in New Jersey, was looking over my shoulder as I cooked it, I'm sure. And she didn't approve of the bay leaves and she would have used chicken parts, but she liked it when she came the second night.
I served it for lunch one final time this afternoon, garnished with matzah pieces because I can't use noodles and there was only one matzah ball left. We had two small bowls each, my husband and me, and I put the rest, now only a quart, into a container and froze it. Sometime in the next few months, I'll thaw it and, even with noodles, we'll taste Passover again.