Palestinian Chicken Soup With Meatballs

Every time I make this soup it reminds me of a common bond with my Jewish friends – chicken soup made with love. Chicken soup made on cold days, and on days when I had cold or flu as a youngster. And from my grandmother, who came from Jerusalem, the Christmas starter. It still is the Christmas starter dish on most of my family Christmases. This Christmas, we had it on Christmas Eve as the meal in itself. We sometimes have it on New Years’ day too, or at a dinner party with loved ones.

Chicken or turkey is used in this recipe, both are equally good. To make the chicken broth, you need any part of the chicken that has bones. It is the bones and joints that give the soup its special taste and good qualities (generally now considered to be anti-inflammatory). Ideally, use a whole chicken.

Put chicken or chicken parts in a pan. Add Thyme, marjoram, sage, allspice, cinnamon (or some cinnamon sticks), and salt. Just sprinkle these liberally on the fowl as if you are sprinkling salt onto chips, then rub all over the bird (and inside it if using a whole bird). Add as much water as you need to make soup, plus a bit extra to allow for evaporation. The water should at least cover all the meat. This is a very versatile recipe, so you can add more water later if needed. Heat till boiling, then simmer with the pan uncovered. You will get a yukky frothiness at the top. After 5 minutes, just skim most of that frothiness off the top and throw it away. Now you can leave the chicken or parts to cook in the water. Leave parts in for about half an hour. If cooking a whole bird, you may wish to cook it for half an hour then place it in the oven and continue cooking it at medium temperature till crispy light brown. After half an hour, add rice. Ideally this is pudding rice, the round sort. However, any rice will do. If you do not have rice, pearl barley will do. Add a volume of rice about a fifth to a fourth of the volume of water, depending on whether you prefer it runny or thicker.

While the rice mixture simmers further, you have time to make the meatballs. For meatballs, use half a kg of minced beef for up to four people, multiplying the amount by the number of people present. For half a kg, you add a sprinkling of salt as if you are salting your chips, half a teaspoon of cinnamon, a quarter teaspoon of allspice, and two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley (if not available, leave out of use 1 teaspoon dried). Mix with your hands, making a uniform paste out of it. Knead it or gather it together till uniform.

If you prefer the soup without meatballs, that is fine; just leave them out.

Cook the rice mixture for about 45 minutes or until the rice kernels are totally open, a bit like a popped bit of corn. If you have kept the chicken or pieces in it, you can take these out to use in a different dish, such as sandwiches, pie, or stew, or you can de-bone and skin the meat and put it back into the soup. There is too much meat in a whole fowl for this, so you may wish for example to use the breast or legs and back, saving the rest for something else.

Then turn the heat up till the soup is boiling. And now work quickly. Snip off one little meatball (about 2 cm in diameter) from the mince mixture, and roll it into a ball in your palms. Drop it in the soup. Snip off another, roll it, and drop it into a different area of the soup (not directly above the first). Repeat with the whole of the mince mixture and the whole surface of the soup. You may have to drop a new meatball onto a partially-cooked one, but that is OK. Just don’t drop it onto a still-red meatball, so they don’t stick together. After the last meatball is added, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Then sprinkle parsley all over the surface and stir into the soup.

The soup is now cooked. Shave fresh nutmeg onto it, or place in bowls and then shave nutmeg (or sprinkle nutmeg) onto the surface. Give each person half to a whole fresh lemon to squeeze onto their soup. The soup is only complete when lemon juice is added. Enjoy!

Alicia D. Walker

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