Thinking Outside the Matzah Ball Box

When the Israelites rushed out of Egypt, Pharaoh’s men on their heels, they hurriedly bundled their belongings, food included, to carry as much as they could on their backs and donkeys. Seeking to nourish themselves throughout their desert journey to the Promised Land, they rolled together unleavened bread crumbs, eggs and oil to create a round, nutritious finger food. They heated these in water jugs, along with chicken bone scraps, to preserve them and give them flavor. And that’s how matzah ball soup was born.

At least that’s how the matzah ball legend should read. The round dumpling traditionally made of matzah meal, eggs, and some kind of fat is so entrenched in Jewish tradition that its history seems to date back to the Torah itself. The icon of Jewish pop culture, the staple of deli menus, the culinary gem of bubbies worldwide, matzah ball soup is the unofficial symbol of Jewish cuisine, the soup of the one God.

But like many dishes generally regarded as “Jewish foods,” like gefilte fish and cholent, matzah ball soup originated in Eastern Europe. The Yiddish word for matzah balls, “knaidelach,” comes from the German word for dumpling, “knödel.” The matzah ball may very well have been the vanguard Jewish food of its time, an adaptation of the gentile dumpling suited to Passover restrictions and pantries, invented by the Martha Stewart of the shtetl, her (or his?) name now lost in obscurity.

Since then few Jewish chefs, professional and amateur, have dared to tamper with the matzah ball. In that sense, the matzah ball is the “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish food. The most popular recipe for many home cooks today may very well be the one on the matzah meal box. But with the growing sophistication and cross-fertilization of many types of cuisines, that’s changing.

“I think traditional cooks are breaking out; they’re more sophisticated,” said Adeena Sussman, a recipe developer, food writer and cooking instructor based in New York. “Everyone is traveling more and interested in ethnic cuisine. There are a lot of kosher Web sites where you can get kosher gourmet products. Actually, I think Jews who keep Passover strictly are those who are seeking the most innovative ideas because they are those who follow the laws for eight days and are trying to keep their families well-fed and interested for eight days.”

One of the most popular maverick matzah ball soup recipes has been Susie Fishbein’s tri-color matzah ball soup, as featured years ago in her popular “Kosher by Design Entertains” cookbook (Mesorah Publications, 2005) and on “The Today Show” with Katie Couric. The recipe calls for a green maztah ball made with pureed spinach, a yellow matzah ball made with turmeric and a red matzah ball made with tomato paste. 

“It was a funky spin on something traditional, and that’s what I do,” said Fishbein from her home in New Jersey. She sought a matzah ball soup that wasn’t only flavorful, but visually appealing and healthful, especially for the children. “I’ve had mothers come up to me in shul and say ‘I only make the green ones, and they’re called ‘Shrek matzah balls,’ and my boys love them.’”

Matzah balls are like a “blank canvas,” ripe with possibilities for adding flavor and color. Last year Sussman developed a “dill-infused chicken soup with herbed matzah ball gnocchi” recipe featuring matzah balls shaped like the Italian potato dumpling and rolled with spinach, parsley and dill. Green herbs are intuitive additives, because they often compliment the flavor of the chicken soup and also reflect the spirit of spring. Sussman recommends ground chicken, ground beef and horseradish as other nontraditional additives.

But not every ingredient works. “There were definitely things that were not winners,” said Fishbein, recalling her own experimentation. “Blueberry matzah balls are hideous. Carrot matzah balls covered with carrot juice were hideous.”

Like the Torah, matzah balls are open to a variety of interpretations and subject to intense debate. Surprisingly, some of Southern California’s top chefs believe the matzah ball is sacred. 

“I don’t want to recreate the matzah ball; I think it tastes fine how it is, as long as it has a light texture,” said Suzanne Tracht, executive chef at LA’s Jar chophouse on Beverly Boulevard. “They shouldn’t be too hard. You shouldn’t use them for weapons….The most important part of the matzah ball, since it’s basically a dumpling, is the broth — that’s where it comes out.”

Every year, Tracht holds a Passover seder at her restaurant, and this year she’s making a consommé with lemongrass, galangal and ginger. “We make it so intense that we clarify the broth, as well, so that it has a more rich and intense flavor.”

Todd Aarons, executive chef at the gourmet kosher restaurant Tierra Sur at the Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard puts his “stock” in the broth, as well. “I’m a purist. I would play around with the broth first, and I’d probably keep the matzah ball intact.” For his own matzah ball soup, Aarons likes to use duck and chicken bones for a deeper flavor. “When I eat it, though, it doesn’t remind me of my mom’s, which is okay.”

He became convinced of the powerful absorption properties of the matzah ball after his Yemenite wife served regular matzah balls with her Yemenite soup, traditionally made with chicken, beef and exotic herbs, including hawaij, a Yemenite spice mix consisting of cumin, coriander, pepper, cardamom, cloves and turmeric. He likens matzah balls to bread used for dipping. “Every culture has a chicken soup. You can explore all different kinds of chicken soup and throw a matzah ball in, and it would work.”

In fact, the matzah ball is the only Ashkenazi food that has been warmly embraced by Sephardic traditions, especially in Israel. “Sephardic cooking is much more popular in Israel now than Ashkenazi cooking — Israel is a warm country, the ingredients are more suitable for Middle Eastern food,” said Janna Gur, editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading gastronomic magazine, Al HaShulchan, and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food” (Schocken, 2008). “Many recipes make the crossover to Ashkenazi households, but not vice versa, except for matzah ball soup.”

Another (chicken or beef?) bone of contention among chefs and cooks relates to texture: dense or light and fluffy?

Cookbook author and food writer Judy Zeidler, also a bubbe of seven, prefers fluffy matzah balls, hands down. “When I got married, my mother-in-law always made sinkers — matzah balls so hard they sink to the bottom of the pot. I grew up with my mother’s matzah balls. Like clouds, they floated to the top of the soup. My husband thought they were ridiculous, but he thought they were so much easier to eat and so much more flavorful.”

To make matzah balls as fluffy as her mother’s, she recommends separating the yolk and whites and then folding the yolk and matzah meal into egg whites beaten into soft peaks. Seltzer is recommended instead of water to increase fluffiness, and chilling matzah balls plays an important part in determining texture.

“Chilling will make it much easier to roll so you can manipulate them,” said Fishbein. “If you can roll them right at the outset you have a lot of matzah meal in them, and they probably won’t be very fluffy.”

Sussman is the only one interviewed for this article who prefers dense matzah balls, or, as she likes to call them, “matzah balls al dente”, an Italian term to describe pasta that is firm but not overcooked.

But home cooks shouldn’t feel discouraged if they can’t think out of the matzah meal box. “My mother used to make matzah balls from scratch,” said Sussman, “but one year we actually tried the mix and found that it worked quite well and started making them from the mix, not because we couldn’t make it from scratch, but because we liked them.”

When Everything Goes to Pot

In America, the land of excess calories, boiled chicken has a bad reputation. People much prefer their chicken fried, barbecued or sautéed.

But although they may joke about boiled chicken because of its anemic skin and bland personality, on erev Yom Kippur, it graces many a table.

Despite the jokes, my husband and I love this tender poultry almost as much as we love each other. Picture us standing side by side in front of the stove pulling lusciously moist — but barely cooled — chicken breasts from rich golden broth. We peel off weak skin and drop it into the trash. We return large chunks of chicken to the soup. With greasy fingers, we snack on the most tender morsels, the bits sticking to bones.

As much as I adore the taste of boiled chicken fresh from broth, I can’t bear the sight of it on a dinner plate. Next to side dishes, boiled chicken parts look pale, pathetic and shriveled. The best way to eat boiled chicken, before Yom Kippur or anytime, is in the precious broth that gushes from chunky vegetables, chopped herbs and chicken after they’ve steeped together for hours.

I recommend adding rice to the soup. Like boiled chicken, boiled rice is an erev Yom Kippur tradition. Scholars speculate that rice may have become a chosen food on the eve of atonement because its white color is associated with purity.

The custom of eating boiled chicken on Yom Kippur Eve is connected to the kaparos redemption ceremony, a ritual in which a person symbolically transfers sins by holding a fowl in his or her right hand and swinging it three times while reciting: “This is my change; this is my redemption. This rooster or hen shall be killed, while I shall be admitted and allowed a long, happy and peaceful life.” The fowl is never wasted; it is cooked and eaten by the person’s family or given to the poor.

The kaparos ritual is not mentioned in the Talmud. Evidence indicates that it may have begun among Jews of Babylonia. Kaparos is referred to by ninth-century scholars and became widespread in the 10th century. Today, kaparos is still practiced by some religious Jews, however, many of them use coins instead of fowl.

Ironically, even Jews with no knowledge of the kaparos ritual partake in boiled chicken on erev Yom Kippur, possibly by force of habit no longer linked to its origin. I think people instinctively gravitate to this traditional dish because there’s nothing like a homemade bowl of steaming chicken soup, glistening with goodness. Chicken soup is not only healthful, but contributes to a smooth fast because it is satisfying, nourishing and light. Brimming with vegetables and herbs, it is an entire meal in a bowl, especially if you include a carbohydrate. Salt can be reduced or eliminated to minimize thirst the following day.

Before fasting, it is tempting to indulge in delicacies, and plenty of them, to stuff yourself before deprivation. But overeating not only undermines atonement, but often causes indigestion. Junk foods, whether they be sweet or savory, lack the nutrients to fortify the body for hours of prayer and introspection.

Jews the world over are famous for chicken soup recipes, probably because they shun insipid, watery soups. Sephardic Jews in many Middle Eastern countries savor Shorbah, a chicken soup featuring cardamom and so much finely boiled rice that the broth appears creamed. In the Ashkenazi world, the broth is brimming with matzah balls, lokshen (noodles), even kreplach.

Chicken soup is one of God’s divine gifts. If you take a deep breath as the broth simmers, the scent filling the kitchen is as close to heaven as anyone on earth will get. More sustaining than the heartwarming stories in the widely read “Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul,” one sip of broth nourishes both body and spirit.

While some people may worry that a mere bowl of soup, no matter how filling, cannot provide enough energy on an ordinary day, let alone the most demanding one of the year, this humble entree need not stand alone.

Jewish holiday meals, erev Yom Kippur included, traditionally begin with a fish course. Among Askhenazic Jews, gefilte fish is customary and can be homemade — or purchased frozen or in jars. However, Sephardic cuisine offers more alternatives. Nearly every Sephardic country features a signature fish dish. Delicious recipes, such as Egyptian ground fish balls with tomato and cumin and Syrian baked fish fillets with tahini sauce, abound in Jewish cookbooks.

After the fish appetizer, I suggest serving generous amounts of challah with the main soup course. There’s nothing like the marriage of chicken soup and challah; it’s the ultimate comfort food combination. Whenever I’m sick or in need of solace, I eat the two together. No matter what, it makes me feel better.

Since the chicken soup recipe below is Ashkenazic style, it compliments pickled beets and cucumber salad, dishes typical of Central and Eastern Europe. Cap the meal off with something simple, such as baked apples. The entire menu can be prepared two days in advance, relieving stress for people who are serving dinner and rushing to Kol Nidre services.

The Ultimate Chicken Soup

3 split chicken breasts (6 pieces)

including bones

6 carrots, diced

6 celery stalks, diced

2 large onions, diced

3 parsnips, diced

1 can artichoke hearts, drained

and flaked; remove hairy centers

1 large zucchini, diced

1 large summer (yellow) squash, diced

1¼4 pound string beans,

cut into 1-inch pieces

3 chicken bouillon cubes,

plus one (4 in all)

Salt to taste (optional)

1¼4 teaspoon white pepper (optional)

3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped

1¼3 cup raw rice

1. Place all ingredients, except rice and one bouillon cube, into a large pot. Add enough water to cover ingredients by 3 inches. (Water level should be at least 3 inches below top of pot to avoid bubbling over.) Place lid on pot. Boil on a medium flame for about two hours, stirring occasionally to check that broth doesn’t boil away. Soup is ready when broth yellows and chicken falls off bones. Add salt, if needed.

2. Cool soup to room temperature. Remove and discard skin and bones from breasts. Cut chicken into bite-sized pieces and return to broth. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Skim and discard chicken fat that has risen to the top.

3. Prepare rice according to package instructions.

4. Boil fourth bouillon cube in 2 cups of water, stirring until it dissolves.

5. Cool rice to room temperature. Add bouillon water. Cover pot for 30 minutes. Rice will swell and absorb the water. If water remains, drain rice in a sieve.

6. Place rice in soup. Heat and serve immediately or refrigerate and serve the following day. Soup freezes well.

Yield: 8 servings.

Quick Cucumber Salad

1 English (seedless) cucumber

1/4 cup dill, stems removed

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 cup white vinegar

1. Cut cucumber horizontally into circles so thin, they are translucent. Place in a large, nonmetallic mixing bowl.

2. Mince dill fine and add to cucumbers.

3. In another bowl, add sugar to vinegar, stirring until dissolved. Add to cucumbers.

4. Gently toss ingredients until well blended. Cover and refrigerate for 24-48 hours. Serve cold or at room temperature. Yield: 8 servings.

Pickled Beet Salad

6 medium-sized beets, peeled and

sliced into 1¼4-inch circles

1 1¼2 cups dry vermouth

1 1¼2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

2 garlic cloves, peeled

1 large onion, peeled, sliced, and

separated into rings

1 bay leaf

2 teaspoons pickling spice

10 peppercorns

1 teaspoons salt

1. Place all ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil and lower flame. Simmer for 1 1¼4 hours, or until beets are soft when pierced with a knife point.

2. Cool to room temperature. Remove to a nonmetallic bowl and cover. Refrigerate for 24-72 hours before serving cold or at room temperature. Yield: 8 servings.

The Market Approach to Soup

Here are some ways — more reliable than playing the stock market — to make your chicken stock or broth as rich as the liquid gold known since the time of Maimonides as a magical elixir, and more recently as Jewish penicillin.

Basic Stock: Similar to balanced stock portfolios, high flavor yields from a wide variety of sources. To make rich soup stock, place diced carrots, celery, onions and your favorite vegetables with chicken, or even turkey, parts.

Cover ingredients with 2 inches of water and boil for at least one hour, being careful that broth does not boil away. Cool to room temperature. Line a colander with wet cheesecloth. Pour broth through to filter out solids. Instead of water, start your soup with this golden nectar. When you prepare soup from stock rather than water, the broth is deeper and more decadent, too.

Future Stock: Get ahead of the game by making quantities of chicken stock and freezing them in batches for future soups. Defrost stock before adding additional ingredients to pot.

Quick Stock: When pressed for time, add a couple of bouillon cubes to the water, chicken and ingredients. Or instead of water, use canned chicken broth. Either way, season soup with less salt because bouillon and canned broth are salty.

Double Earnings: After consuming a chicken for dinner, either freeze the carcass for a future soup or make soup immediately by placing the carcass in a pot with fresh chicken, onion and vegetables.

Stock Split: While cleaning a chicken to roast for dinner, throw necks, backs, gizzards and wing tips into a plastic bag and freeze for future soup. Do not save chicken livers, because they become bitter when boiled extensively.

Stock Merger: For depth of color and flavor, add beef bones to chicken soup. Better yet, roast bones at 350 F for 15 minutes, and then steep with soup ingredients.

Liquid Assets: Save broth each time you steam or boil vegetables. Freeze and collect enough broth to add in place of water when you make soup. Although in weak solution, vegetable broth adds more flavor and nutrients than water.

Stock Market: Almost any vegetable is tasty in chicken soup, although broccoli florets completely fall apart. When making chicken soup, search your refrigerator for lettuce or other fresh vegetables that are past their prime. Use cooked vegetables, too, even if they were sautéed or made with sauces. Yesterday’s noodles, starchy beans, pasta, potatoes, couscous and corn are welcome, but should be added at the end. Divine chicken soup springs from inspiration and is completely foolproof. Everything you add to the pot contributes a seasoning spin. Some combinations will taste so outrageous, you’ll wish you could recreate them — if only you had those exact leftovers again. — Linda Morel, Jewish Telegraphic Agency