It’s the Schmaltz!

Chicken Soup Ingredients

Chicken Soup Ingredients

The secret is in the schmaltz; schmaltz, size, and minimal handling; that’s what makes a good matzoh ball!

Grandma Gussie (her real name was Basha Golda or Gladys; nobody really knows, but everybody called her Gussie) made the golf ball type. I don’t think it was intentional, but somehow Aunt Esther managed to learn the same technique. Every Passover dinner at Aunt Esther and Uncle Willy’s proved it out; at least it was consistent.

Nonnie’s version is lighter and fluffier. Those of us who discovered Manischewitz’s box of mix get better results. Very few take the time to use schmaltz (chicken fat) instead of the oil the box recipe calls for, but if you do, it’s worth the trouble.

To make the soup, start with a whole chicken, preferably a hen. If you want to be authentic, you must first go to the live poultry market on Delancey Street in New York, where the chickens are slaughtered under a rabbi’s supervision. As a child, I remember stepping down into a swirling mass of feathers that danced around my ankles and flitted up my legs as Grandma and I made our way to the plucking bench against the wall. There, the women sat with their stocking garters rolled down to their ankles, legs spread, elbows leaning on knees, chatting animatedly in Yiddish, clutching chicken feet firmly in one hand, plucking with the other.

I didn’t understand what they were saying, but I knew the room was filled with love. I would hear my name, Carole Jean, and invariably my cheek would get pinched, and I would hear: “Oy, she looks like a Shiksa (Non-Jew), kina hora, shayna medela.” and such while they smiled and made a fuss over me.

Fluffy Matzoh Balls

Fluffy Matzoh Balls


Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls


1 whole chicken 5 – 6 lbs.                               3 sprigs parsley

1 medium onion cut into wedges                   1 Tbsp. salt

2 large celery stalks cut up                             Fresh dill (or dried)

2 large carrots peeled and cut up                  2 chicken bouillon cubes (optional)


Place whole chicken in a pot. Cover with water. Add veggies, salt, and parsley. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer. From time to time make scores in the chicken; straight down the breast, leg joints, wing joints  – basically “help” the broth permeate the chicken. After an hour or so, the chicken should be cooked, falling off the bone. Remove from pot to a large strainer, transferring broth to another large pot. Let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the carcass, set aside. Return skin, bones, and everything else to pot. Allow to simmer one more hour.

Here’s where it gets ridiculous: Strain the broth into pot, discarding the depleted vegetables, bones, skin. You now have clean, rich broth in which to place a new batch of onions, carrots, and celery which cook with the matzoh balls. Make the recipe on the box substituting the schmaltz for the oil. Where do you get the schmaltz? Skim from the top of the soup (the fat rises to the top). You can save the excess in the freezer for future use.

Grandma used to tie “soup greens” (fresh dill and parsley) with string, let it cook in the soup, and remove before serving.  If she considered you special, you might get a chicken foot in your bowl along with a hard-boiled egg floating in it.

I had an emergency here in Costa Rica a while back. My friend, Lynn, got hit suddenly with a cold. I offered to make the soup, the Jewish Penicillin, and realized I didn’t have a chicken. Rather than take the time to go to the store, I pulled out a bag of chicken feet I happened to have. I didn’t tell her that part (I removed the feet before serving), and she felt instantly better after eating the matzoh ball soup.

Emergency Chicken Soup

Emergency Chicken Soup

Sometimes we have to improvise. The dogs got the feet. Happy dogs!


17 thoughts on “It’s the Schmaltz!

  1. Sooo interesting! Even though – I’m not sure I could look at chicken feet cooking in my soup. But really interesting history and memories for you. And if I ever get REALLY sick, I’ll know who to call! 🙂 lol


  2. Oy, this is a good story, makes me remember my Bubbi cooking for Passover.
    It IS the schmaltz, I have always told my daughter that (she doesn’t make chicken soup though). I put a spritz of soda water in the matzo ball mix. Lots of love in this story! xxx


  3. Assss right! feets to eat…! Funny though, my dog Lopez could eat a chicken down to the feet, feathers and all, but he never ate dem chicken fingers… left ’em for the soup every time. Paul


  4. wow–so it’s all “in the feet”, then, and here I thought it was all about the SHOES!!!
    Loved your article, as usual, Carole….thanks for the cooking lesson!!!! though I’ll likely not use those ugly-looking feet, just the bod!


  5. WOW! What a great story! Your grandma sounds like she was a real bubala! Thanks for tip on the schmaltz! I use club soda in my matzoh balls..


  6. I think I’ll leave the soup making to your Mom. I got lucky and had her Matzoh Ball Chicken soup for lunch this afternoon. Hopefully I’ll get some of yours.


  7. Pingback: Review – Penicillin | Barking up the Muse Tree

  8. chicken feet…., I saw some in the old main mercado in downtown San Jose today. Normally I would not have given them a second thought, but for the sack CJ just happened to have in her fridge. its either a brooklyn specific issue or there is a really good story behind how they got in your fridge to begin with. :0)


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