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Shabbat Meals: Learning To Cook the Classics

It was not until I married my late husband, 54 years ago, that I began to be seriously interested in the preparation and presentation of food. Until then I knew very little about food ? almost nothing

I was born in Poland and when the war broke out I was only 4 1/2 years old. I have no recollection of what we ate at home before the war started. During the war we lived in Russian labor camps, moving from place to place where we hardly saw any vegetables, fruits, meat or fish, eggs or cheese. It was mostly a ration diet of subsistence level.

Coming to the United States as a teenager I still was not particularly interested in food. Just getting acclimatized to a new country, a new culture and a new lifestyle was challenging enough.

Then I met my husband who was European as well. He loved good food and was appreciative, encouraging and complimentary of my efforts to learn how to cook. He provided the incentive for me to experiment with new dishes. In those years, women often defined themselves by how they managed a nice home and cooking was part of that.

Not knowing anything about cooking was, in a way, a blessing. I had to start from scratch to familiarize myself with cookery language, ingredients, utensils, herbs, spices and technique.

I bought cookbooks and I took cooking classes where I learned to make soufflé, clafoutis, frittatas and other elegant dishes ? even though I couldn?t taste many of them because I kept kosher. I started to gain some kitchen confidence but my cooking experiments were mostly trial and error.

Recipes for traditional Eastern European foods like gefilte fish, chopped chicken liver, stuffed cabbage, kugel and hamentaschen were the most difficult for me to create. The cooking lessons I took didn?t focus on Jewish food and the Jewish cookbooks of the time weren?t detailed enough for a novice cook.

I could not learn from my mother because she did not cook before the war. She worked in a family business and had someone cook for the family. So the search for traditional recipes began among my family and some older friends who remembered what they ate before the war.

Chicken soup was one of those dishes that I was particularly obsessed with learning. My husband loved the flavor and I loved its versatility. You can transform it to anything you like by adding rice and dill, orzo and dill, matzo balls, shredded spinach and garlic, shredded leeks. By and large you can be as creative as you like by adding any combination of shredded or cubed vegetables.

You can also make it more substantial by adding the boiled chicken, from the stock, shredded or cubed. It is one of those dishes that is quite easy to make but you have to be patient.

My aim was to make a fat free, flavorful, crystal clear, light-not a grey soup. Over time, I learned that little things are so helpful; such as buying the right chicken and selecting the right pot. Keeping the temperature high at the beginning and then reducing it right away to a simmer, skimming off the scum, is also important. I learned through trial and error when to add the vegetables and herbs, cooking it for the right amount of time and of course finally degreasing it all.

The result is well worth the effort. Now I always have the stock on hand for Friday night and holiday dinners, dinners in general and in the freezer for emergencies.

Chicken Stock

Makes 10 servings

My favorite way of using this nutritious and aromatic broth is to pair it with matzo balls, vegetables, pasta, rice or any combinations of the above.

6 pounds stewing chicken, quartered
1 carrot, peeled and quartered
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 flat-leaf parsley sprigs

1) Rinse the chicken well and discard excess fat. Place the chicken in a large saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add 4 ice cubes, lower the heat, and skim the foamy residue as it rises to the surface.

2) Add the carrot, onion, and parsley. Simmer the soup, partially covered, for 2 hours.

3) With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken and vegetables from the soup. Discard the vegetables. (You can use the chicken later in a soup or salad.)

4) Wet a double layer of paper towels with cold water and squeeze dry. Place the wet towels in the freezer for a few minutes, then line a strainer with them. Place the strainer over a clean saucepan. Ladle the soup slowly into the towel-lined strainer. The grease will adhere to the towels and you will have crystal-clear, fat-free chicken soup.


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