Thursday, April 24, 2008

A Bowl of Nostalgia

Though I still have my day in Napa to document, I am going to take a quick hiatus from the NorCal posts and turn to Passover. I have a slew of leavening-free recipes and photos to share with you, and I wanted to share at least one before the holiday is technically over.

Matzoh ball soup is one of the few items of traditional Jewish food that have really caught on in North America. It’s ubiquitous and recognizable to people all over, regardless of how many Jews they actually know. Kreplach? Kugel? Tsimmes? If you don’t have Jewish friends, it’s likely that you haven’t seen, or even heard of this stuff, but matzoh ball soup has made a name for itself, and deservedly so.

Though much Jewish food gets a bad rap, there is no denying that there is a place for matzoh balls in almost everyone’s heart. If you’re sick, homesick, or in any way feeling nostalgic, it’s pretty likely that a steamy bowl of matzoh ball soup will relieve your aching heart.

I spoke with my Grandmother last weekend about the Seder I was hosting. She gave me a few words of wisdom about matzoh balls, namely that I should never trust the recipe on the back of the matzoh meal container, since it calls for far too few eggs. And seltzer, seltzer is the key to incredibly light matzoh balls.

I’ve made matzoh balls before, and I’ve used seltzer in making them, but they haven’t been stellar. They’ve been good, but I want that ethereal lightness and lingering salty taste that the matzoh balls of my youth possessed. There’s a pretty standard formula to matzoh balls: 2:1 ratio of matzoh meal to fat and seltzer. Then a couple of eggs, some salt and pepper and you’ve got yourself some matzoh balls. It’s really that simple.

Since the back of my matzoh meal box didn’t even have a recipe, I turned to a trusted source, where I found a recipe that looked pretty much like the one I used last year to some success.

But then I stumbled upon a recipe from Mark Bittman from the Best Recipes in the World. He suggests that, for incredibly light matzoh balls, to beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks and mix them in after all of the other ingredients were combined. Soft peaks mean that there are a lot of little air bubbles in the egg whites from the beating, which is what makes for lightness. It made logical sense, so I gave it a go.

I combined the two techniques and was rewarded with fluffy, light, gorgeous balls of deliciousness that managed to sit in the soup, soaking up just enough of its salty flavor, without becoming a sponge and sucking the bowl dry. The matzoh balls were light, tasty, and didn’t weigh the stomach down, nor did they fill you up before the brisket even made it to the table.

This is a classic recipe that is much more simple than you’d imagine it to be. So often we fear replicating the dishes of our youth, worried that the products will fall so far short of those our family miraculously composed all those years ago. Though you might need a recipe, at least at first, you’ll make it all your own, and you’ll be able to bring your love to the tradition that graves your table at holidays and year round. Yours might not be as great as Bubbie’s the first time you make them, but believe me, you’ll get there, or at least close to there. Eventually.

Matzoh Ball Soup

This classic recipe is something that I’m convinced everyone should attempt making at some point. It’s so simple, almost to the point of foolproof, really. This recipe produces super light matzoh balls, if you prefer a smaller, more leaden type matzoh ball (a “sinker”), then you’re probably best served to look elsewhere, thank you very much. The matzoh balls are served in a simple stock, with a few carrots and sprigs of dill thrown in for good measure. It’s a great recipe to have in your arsenal, be it Passover or not, be you Jewish or not.

The Stock

As far as the chicken soup goes, it’s just a basic stock. There are infinite interpretations and combinations, but what I did was this: I threw some chicken backs, necks and thighs into a large pot, added some vegetables (in this case carrots, parsnips, leek tops, a few cloves of garlic (skin removed) and two small onions, but you can use any combination you desire) and a few sprigs of thyme, a few peppercorns, some parsley and a bay leaf. After the pot has been assembled, the directions are the same, no matter what’s inside:

Fill the pot with water until the chicken and vegetables are just covered (for me, probably around 3-4 quarts of water). Bring the water to a boil. After about 20 minutes you’ll see scum forming at the top, skim that off and discard. Once skimmed, lower the heat so that the liquid is at a simmer. Cover and let simmer for about 2-4 hours. Drain the mixture through a sieve or colander back into a storage container or the pot. Discard the vegetables, herbs and chicken parts (I saved the thighs and shredded them up into the soup before I served it). Chill the stock in the fridge overnight. Before reheating, remove the layer of fat that has formed at the top of the container and throw that away.

The Matzoh Balls

A mish-mach of recipes from Smitten Kitchen and Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

1 cup matzoh meal
4 eggs, separated
4 T rendered chicken fat or vegetable oil
¼ c. grated onion
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons seltzer

Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a medium-sized bowl and setting aside the whites in a large bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients together with the yolks. Set mixture aside. With an electric mixer, beat the eggs until soft peaks form. You can test for soft peaks by stopping the mixer and lifting it out of the eggs. Two small peaks will form where the mixer has been lifted out and the tips will tip over, resembling an ocean wave. Those are soft peaks. Take the egg whites and spoon them into the bowl with the matzoh meal mixture. Gently fold in the whites until combined. Try your best to remove any clumps of matzoh meal in the mixture, since those will probably stay hard throughout cooking, which is not what you want. Be gentle though, since you want to preserve those tiny air bubbles in the egg whites to keep your matzoh balls light. Once incorporated, cover the mixture and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour, up to overnight.

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Remove the mixture from the fridge. Using very wet hands, gently form the mixture into balls about one inch in diameter.

After forming each ball, immediately ease it into the boiling water. Once all the matzoh balls are in, lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for about 35-40 minutes.

While the matzoh balls are cooking, heat the stock up over low heat. If you’d like, peel and finely chop some carrots and place into the heating stock. About 10-15 minutes of cooking time for the carrots should ensure they get soft without turning to mush.

Place a couple of matzoh balls in each bowl of soup. Ladle some of the stock over the matzoh balls, garnish with some fresh-snipped dill and parsley, and serve immediately.

Serves about 8 people generously

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