For the past 8 days many Jews, including my wife and me, have abstained from eating bread as part of our observance of the holiday of Passover. My go-to food during this time of year is the legendary Chicken Matzo Ball Soup. Actually, this is one of my go-to foods throughout the entire year. For me, there isn’t a holiday or season where chicken matzo ball soup doesn’t enhance the experience.
I’ve been on a quest for many years in pursuit of the world’s best chicken matzo ball soup. At least once a month I try out a new recipe or tweak the ingredients of an existing recipe in hopes of taking an already nearly perfect food to the nirvana level. Chicken Matzo Ball soup is really wonderful medium for artistic expression because it’s simple, yet the balance of the details matters tremendously. For example, the basic standard ingredients are simple: chicken, broth, matzo balls, carrots, celery, and spices. From these basic ingredients you have a platform upon which you can build a gastronomical masterpiece.
I experiment with different ways of cooking the chicken. I’m committed to adding ground peppercorns, although they’re missing in some of the recipes. Ground peppercorns give the soup a bite that brings it alive. Another trick I’ve learned is that I make the matzo balls with olive oil rather than regular vegetable oil because I find that it gives me a lighter and fluffier matzo ball.
I cook by feel. I add parsley, dill, salt, and ground peppercorns until I sense it’s right. I let it cook a while. Taste. Add whatever additional spice my instincts tell me to. It cooks some more. I taste. Tweak the spices. The process repeats itself time and time again. Throughout the entire cooking process, I keep the peppercorn grinder handy and use it liberally.
My lack of measurement and intuitive cooking style results in erratic outcomes that take me to one of two places. Either my wife says “This is best batch yet”, and I mentally crown myself as worldwide king of chicken matzo ball soup, or she says “this isn’t your best batch” at which point I do my best to hide my sense of failure while desperately trying to figure out where that batch went wrong.
Each time I set the empty pot on the stove in preparation for soup-making I receive the gift of possibility. The majority of my diet consists of remarkably predictable mass-produced restaurant food or prepared food. The quality is consistent. The taste, predictable. Unless someone screws up, there are no surprises. Scratch cooking doesn’t come with guarantees. It leaves open the possibility of greatness, the specter of mediocrity, or worse, culinary disaster. I find joy in this possibility of creation. Not all art involves watercolors and easels. Art exists where we find it, where we express ourselves, and where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We only need to set the scripts and recipes aside. The rewards of possibility arrive when someone sits at my table. They take the first spoonful expecting an ordinary bowl of chicken matzo ball soup. I watch as their eyebrows raise and they smile in response to the flavors passing over their tongue as they recognize an old friend dressed in a fresh set of clothes. Chicken Matzo Ball soup is no longer the same for them. It has forever changed. Art happened.