Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!
Episode: “Birthday Parties”
The Set-up: To celebrate Jeffrey’s birthday Ina is cooking him a dinner of Jewish comfort food straight from his grandmother’s playbook.
0:43 – Is it weird that Jeffrey and I like to celebrate our birthdays the same way? A stroll through a charming town followed by dinner at home – just add chocolate cake and we’re golden.
1:32 – Ina drops Jeffrey off at Book Hampton to browse while she heads home to finish their dinner. Is that a copy of “Back to Basics” I spy?
2:16 – First up, Stuffed Cabbage. Hmmm.
3:25 – So, there are raisins and brown sugar in the tomato sauce? Not winning any points…
4:41 – This is a complex recipe, not only does it involve a meatloaf-esque filling, but there are also cabbage leaves to blanch. This is love exemplified.
5:07 – On a positive note, I can definitely appreciate Ina’s cabbage rolling technique. They’re like little green burritos!
6:19 – Ina says that the flavors are “sweet and sour” and again, I’ve never really been on board with that combination when it’s a savory dish. Oh dear, this is one of the few Barefoot Contessa recipes that I will never make. (Sorry, Ina, you’re still perfect in my book!)
9:35 – We visit with Jeffrey for a moment as he relives past birthday surprises that Ina has organized. He married well, Ina would be the perfect surprise organizer.
10:23 – Back with Ina to make Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls and she’s in competition with Jeffrey’s grandmother for Grand Champion of Chicken Soup.
11:16 – We get a quick over view of Ina’s process for Homemade Chicken Stock, which involved three whole chickens. She is not messing around with this soup.
12:20 – Matzo ball time and I am watching this carefully for tips… Pro Tip#1: beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form and fold into the mixture; Pro Tip #2: use just 1 cup of Matzo meal.
13:35 – I’m curious about the in-between steps of forming the matzo balls and actually cooking them – it seemed like Ina chilled them again…?
14:28 – The matzo balls look gorgeous, golden, and fluffy with a little bit of a rustic appearance. Yum!
17:45 – Now to finish the soup with the traditional carrots, celery, and shredded chicken.
18:02 – Ina is still challenging Jeffrey’s grandmother – is there a beef that never got squashed? Why the competition? It’s quite a mystery…
19:14 – Now for the fresh herbs – dill and parsley – they seem to be resisting a little. Darn those unruly, tangled herbs!
20:43 – Ina recommends saving the stems of herbs to use when making stock. I love it when she gets all Home Ec.
21:37 – Dinner time! Ina is ladling up bowls of the Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls and Jeffrey appears on cue.
22:11 – Ina appears to have won the Battle of the (Matzo) Balls, now let’s see how the Stuffed Cabbages go over…
22:19 – Ina is watching Jeffrey like a hawk as he takes the first bite. The consummate diplomat, he manages to compliment his lovely wife and honor his grandmother. Well played, sir.
25:50 – Ask Ina time. Question #1: Amy from Wisconsin wants a cutout sugar cookie recipe. Ina suggests this one: Classic Cookie Glaze.
26:16 – Question #2: Steve from Illinois needs advice on baking cakes ahead of time. Ina says – bake them, cool them completely on a rack, wrap in plastic and store in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Frost them the day of the party.
28:14 – Question #4: Chris from New York needs ideas for an easy, elegant birthday celebration for his partner. Ina’s recommendation: a picnic in Central Park catered from a specialty food store.
29:30 – And now Ina is off to entertain her birthday boy…
really want to make Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls, but there is no way I’m boiling three chickens. There must be an easier way!
Note to self: start a stock bag in the freezer.
Cooking someone's favorite food for their birthday - such a sweet way to show them they're loved!
Ina's Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls is a classic Jewish dish and I've eaten several versions both in restaurants and in private homes, but never attempted to make it myself. I should offer the disclaimer that with zero Jewish heritage to my name it’s nearly guaranteed that my adaptation (noted below) isn’t authentic or Kosher. You’ve been warned!
Matzo Ball Mixing: All the recipes I consulted emphasized maintaining a light, fluffy texture to the matzo mixture and ultimately to the cooked matzo ball, which is essentially a dumpling. The process of mixing reminded me a lot of making meatballs, crab cakes, etc. with one exception: instead of flavoring and binding crab meat the matzo meal is the main event. Definitely whip the egg whites thoroughly until they’re firm and then fold them gently into the matzo meal.
Matzo Ball Prep: The finished matzo mixture is really sticky, even after chilling in the refrigerator, so an ice cream scoop will be really helpful in forming the matzo balls. I’d also recommend chilling the formed balls on a baking sheet overnight to allow time for the mixture to absorb more of the liquid and become firmer.
Matzo Ball Cooking: Wet hands will keep the chilled matzo balls from sticking as you remove them from the baking sheet and place them in the hot stock to cook. Resist the urge to over crowd the pot – cook in batches if you need to – and since they’re relatively delicate when uncooked wait until they’ve been in the stock a few minutes before gently stirring. The matzo balls will float easily when they’re done, but check one by cutting it in half. If the interior still resembles dense, damp dough, the matzo balls need more cooking time.
Small Kitchen Friendly?
Not the original recipe, but my alternate version (below) is a bit more manageable. I used a large stock pot, two medium mixing bowls, a baking sheet, a medium cutting board, a chef’s knife, and an electric hand-mixer. I also used a wooden spatula, rubber spatula, small ice cream scoop, measuring cups and spoons. Parchment paper and plastic wrap will also be helpful.
The soup is so flavorful with beautifully clear broth and tender shreds of chicken. To me matzo meal tastes a lot like crushed up saltine or oyster crackers, so the finished dumplings are perfect compliment to the soup. This recipe definitely takes some work and a fair amount of time, but the results are worth it!
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls (yield: 10 servings)
Chicken Soup Ingredients:
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for chicken
1/2 cup leeks, chopped
1/2 cup yellow onions, diced
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for chicken
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for chicken
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
3 cups carrots, peeled and large diced
2 cups celery, large diced
12 cups chicken stock
3 chicken breasts, skin on bone-in
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Chicken Soup Instructions:
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and place the chicken breasts skin side up on the sheet. Coat the skin with olive oil (1/2 teaspoon each) and sprinkle generously with kosher salt and black pepper.
Roast at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, or until an instant read thermometer registers 160 degrees. Allow the chicken to rest on the baking sheet until cool enough to handle. Reserve some of the chicken drippings for the matzo balls.
Meanwhile, in a large pot sauté the leeks, yellow onions, and shallots in 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, and 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme.
Add the large diced carrots and onions to the pot and sauté 4-5 minutes more. Add the chicken stock to the vegetables and stir to combine.
Remove the skin from the cooled, but still warm chicken breasts and pull the meat into bite-sized shreds. Stir the chicken into the soup and simmer over very low heat for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot with the simmered matzo balls.
Matzo Ball Ingredients:
4 extra-large eggs, separated
6 1/2 cups chicken stock, divided
1/4 cup rendered chicken fat or butter, melted
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for egg whites
1 cup Streit’s matzo meal
Matzo Ball Instructions:
Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in one medium mixing bowl and the whites in another. Whisk together the egg yolks, 1/2 cup chicken stock, chicken fat, parsley, and salt. Stir in the matzo meal.
Next, use an electric mixer on high speed to whip the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the matzo mixture until just combined. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes, or until the mixture is thick.
Use a small ice cream scoop to portion the matzo into 18-20 balls the size of ping-pong balls and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Wet hands will help to handle the sticky mixture. Chill covered, preferably overnight. Drop them into 6 cups simmering chicken stock and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until fully cooked and puffed, turning once. Remove and serve hot - 2 per person - with a ladleful of the chicken soup and a sprinkle of fresh parsley.