Matzo Ball Soup with Zell Schulman

A keeper of Jewish penicillin culture shows us how it’s done.

On a snowy February morning, as she prepped ingredients for a matzo ball–making demonstration in her kitchen at The Kenwood, Zell Schulman talked about her favorite childhood dishes, or rather, lack of them. “I was lucky I ate,” she says. “They called me skinnymalink.”


Photograph By Dustin Powell Sparks

Looking at her résumé, you’d never guess that Schulman began life as a fussy eater. A member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, her education has included lessons at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris as well as classes with Simone Beck (co-author, with Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle, of Mastering the Art of French Cooking). She is the author of four cookbooks herself, including Passover Seders Made Simple and Planning Perfect Parties, and has been the guest on local TV food segments from New York to Cincinnati to Los Angeles. In January, Schulman filed her final column for The American Israelite, the oldest Jewish weekly in America, where she has been a food writer for the last 20 years.

Schulman was born in Covington in 1928, and graduated from Dixie Heights High School, “the only Jewish student out of six hundred,” she says, which probably isn’t a surprising claim. What is unexpected is the source of her culinary prowess: her father. “He was a wonderful cook,” says Schulman. “When my father emigrated from Russia, his first job in New York was at a restaurant.” Schulman notes that even after she married her husband, Mel, her father wasn’t shy about stopping by their apartment to dispense culinary advice. “He’d lift pot lids and say, ‘This needs salt.’”

Schulman, who turned 88 in February, is equal parts doting bubbie and socially conscious dynamo (she spent years teaching inner-city kids to swim in her Amberley Village backyard pool), with a dollop of Southern belle. Before the first crumb of matzo meal is mixed, coats are whisked away, chocolate cake is proffered, and lemonade is poured. Due to a snow day, my 9-year-old daughter has tagged along. During a break, Schulman sets before her a plate of lunch: cold chicken, hardboiled egg, and grape tomatoes with a (small) side of kindly admonishment: “You have to put your book away while you eat.” Still policing palates, politely, one lunch plate at a time.


Photograph By Aaron M. Conway / Styling By Louis Rub

Grandmother Jacob’s Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
12 to 14 servings

As Schulman puts it in Passover Seders Made Simple: “Chicken soup is known the world over as Jewish penicillin. This recipe has been in my mother’s family since I was a small child. Whenever I make chicken soup, I use only kosher chickens because they’re free of additives and give better flavor to the soup. Ask the butcher to cut the chicken into 8 pieces and to include giblets. I always make extra for the freezer because you never know when you’ll catch cold. The soup and chicken can be frozen separately for later use.”

Chicken Soup
1 4–5 lb stewing chicken (with giblets), cut into 8 pieces
3 whole cloves
1 large onion, peeled
1 large parsnip, peeled
Several sprigs fresh parsley
2 ribs celery, with leaves on
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp ground white pepper
Matzo balls (see recipe below)

1. Rinse the chicken pieces in cold water. Make sure all the pinheads (ends of feathers) are removed. Place the chicken in a large stockpot along with the giblets. Do not put the heart or the liver in the pot. Add enough cold water to cover the chicken, about 12 cups. Cover and bring to a boil. Skim the foam as it rises to the surface. Turn the heat down low to simmer.

2. Stick the cloves into the whole onion. Add this to the pot with the parsnip, parsley, celery, salt, and pepper. Cover the pot and simmer slowly for 2 to 3 hours.

3. Use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken and giblets to a large bowl. Save the chicken for another use (chicken salad!). Discard the onion, celery, parsley, and parsnip. Pour the broth through a sieve or fine strainer and discard any solids. Cover and refrigerate the broth and chicken overnight. To serve, remove the congealed fat from the top of the soup. Pour the soup into a large pot and warm over medium heat. Add the matzo balls. Warm for 15 minutes and serve.

Matzo Balls
Makes 12 large or 18 small matzo balls
This foolproof recipe belonged to my husband’s Great Aunt Lizzie from Baltimore. She was an absolutely fantastic cook. If you like matzo balls that are light, melt in your mouth, and float, you’ll love these.

3 large eggs, separated
pinch of ground white pepper
¼ tsp salt
8 tsp ground cinnamon
¾ c matzo meal

1. In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks, pepper, salt, and cinnamon.

2. In a small bowl, using a portable mixer, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Using a rubber spatula, fold them gently into the egg yolk mixture.

3. Gently fold in the matzo meal ¼ cup at a time; it should be absorbed but still hold air and not become thick. You may not need the entire amount. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

4. Partially fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Remove the matzo ball mixture from the refrigerator. Moisten your hands with cold water, then form ¼ to ½ cup of the mixture into a ball and drop it into the boiling water. When all the matzo balls are in the pot, reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes.

5. Remove the matzo balls to a large bowl with a slotted spoon. When cool, add them to the chicken soup.

Note: Matzo balls can be made 1 or 2 days ahead and kept in the refrigerator. For a little color, I add ¼ teaspoon chopped fresh parsley to the egg yolk mixture.

Adapted from Passover Seders Made Simple by Zell Schulman, Wiley Publishing, © 2001


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