Esther’s Chicken Fricassee

Meatballs with sauce and boiled potatoesEsther Adler, my mother-in-law, gave birth to three sons in less than three years (yikes!) and a daughter three years later. All four kids had hearty appetites, and all four turned out to be fairly strapping individuals. I’ll confess that I’ve often wondered how in the world she managed to feed them. This recipe is one answer.

Esther’s wonderful chicken fricassee was a relatively rare treat. She served it only about once a month, because that’s how long it took to assemble the parts. Every Friday night she’d cook two chickens, roasting one and making soup out of the other, while putting aside the packet of giblets that accompanied each bird. After four weeks of this routine, she’d have enough giblets to make fricassee (as well as enough livers to make chopped liver). Esther thought of her fricassee as a shidahrein (Yiddish for “shake into”) recipe, meaning that it is put together by feel, and not by strict measurement.

Both of my husband’s parents grew up on the chicken fricassee cooked for them by their mothers. As Susan R. Friedland, author of Shabbat Shalom, has noted, “For the Jewish housewife, fricassee was the ultimate thrifty dish: every part of the bird was used.” (This genius for spinning straw into gold reminds me of the similar wonders worked by African American cooks. In fact, Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking contains a recipe for Chicken Fricassee with Meatballs that is very much like Esther’s. It’s genesis? “One day when there was just a little chicken and even less ground beef in the house, Aunt Vestula decreed that the two should be cooked together to make a meal large enough for the family.”) Why this dish is called a fricassee, however, is a mystery. It has nothing to do with the fricassees created by the French.

But fricassee/ shmicassee, Esther’s kids loved this dish because it was so tasty and so substantial. She’d put a big basket of fresh challah nearby, and they’d sop up the gravy. Truthfully it is almost a meal in itself, although, Esther treated it like the merest appetizer to the matzo ball soup, roast chicken, and dessert that usually followed. It’s a miracle that none of her brood weighs 300 pounds. Other Jewish families apparently made more of their fricassees, serving them as entrees with rice, noodles, potatoes, or couscous.

Serves 6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 chicken necks, trimmed and cut crosswise into 4 or 5 pieces
1 pound chicken gizzards, trimmed
6 chicken wings
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 large egg
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large casserole over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the necks, gizzards, and wings. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring often, until the chicken has lost all traces of pink, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the ground beef, matzo meal, egg, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt in a large bowl. Pour in 1/2 cup cold water, mix well, and form into small meatballs about the size of a walnut. You should have about 3 dozen.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and pour into the chicken parts mixture. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Add the paprika and season with salt and pepper.

Mix the flour with the remaining teaspoon of salt and the 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Add the meatballs and roll until coated on all sides. Shake off the excess flour.

Drop the meatballs into the simmering liquid in the casserole. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the chicken is falling off the bones and the broth is slightly thickened and concentrated, about 2 hours. Serve with potatoes or boiled noodles.

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