Passover 2011–the main event

This is a post about balls.

A controversial topic, to be sure. Some people grew up with them; some didn’t. When it comes to taste, some like them soft and giving, others firm and round. Some like them small, compact, easy on the tongue; some want them so big you couldn’t fit them in your mouth even if you tried. There are some people who don’t even like them at all, but–if we’re being truly honest–that’s something I just can’t identify with.

Traditionally, especially in the springtime, these balls are often consumed alongside a hunk of beef–though, again, some folks just don’t swing that way. But at least everyone can agree on how the whole thing gets started: a thick paste of eggs and ground matzo, shaped into spheres and simmered in salted water or broth.

Wait, what did you think I meant?

Dear readers, I apologize for my immaturity. I blame this on my father: his standby Passover joke is, “I didn’t know matzo had balls.” (Badum-tssss.)

But surrusly, folks. Chicken soup is the tonic of my childhood. There’s a reason American Jews call the stuff penicillin: it is truly the cure for whatever ails. That steaming, salty, life-giving broth…I go all warm and spongy inside just thinking about it. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American Jew who doesn’t associate the onset of sniffles with tucking into a great big bowl of what our people call penicillin. And then–and then!–add matzo balls. Hey presto, holiday in a bowl.

But, of course, this is Jew food. And no Jew food would be complete without an argument. There are two polar opposite camps when it comes to matzo balls: the dense, jaw-workout camp and the fluffy, soft-as-a-cloud camp. I grew up in a household dominated by chewy matzo balls–Dad likes ’em like hockey pucks, so we made ’em like hockey pucks. Me, I think the holy grail is a compromise: light and airy, but with just a bit of resistance against the teeth.

So when my friend Molly came up with the idea of making a Passover dinner for our friends–all the traditional foods, minus waiting with a grumbling stomach for hours while some older family member intones about God and Egypt and frogs falling from the sky–I saw my opportunity. I could discover my dream balls. Cue the Google search.

Turns out, according to a number of sources (including Mark Bittman, who’s never steered me wrong), the trick is beaten egg whites. Which, of course, is so brain-dead simple I could have figured it out. But, stubborn me, I didn’t want to just leave it at that. If I took the egg whites all the way to meringue-style peaks, the matzo balls would turn out too ethereal, no match for the side of a spoon. I didn’t want that. So I stopped short, just when the whites thickened and foamed. The result was a texture that I can really only describe as dead-on-balls accurate. (I know, I know.)

But, of course, there’s still one more consideration when it comes to matzo ball soup, and that’s…well, the soup. Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: there is no one right way to make chicken stock. There are a zillion different variations, and of course you’re going to swear up and down that your mom or grandma makes the best. I’m not about to wade into that fray. (Besides, my aunt makes the best chicken soup in the whole wide world, bar none, and I have yet to pry her recipe from the depths of her brain.)

So, with at least one vegetarian on the guest list for our Passover dinner on Saturday, and without a whole lot of inclination to wrestle a whole chicken into and out of a stockpot, I turned to the vegetable alternative. Most cooking-inclined folks I know collect all their various vegetable trimmings in a bag in the freezer and make stock when the bag is full. But I’m a believer in the deliberate stock approach, especially since my parents’ old Vegetarian Times cookbook has a recipe for the most slam-bang amazing vegetable broth I’ve ever tasted. What better excuse to go hog-wild at the farmer’s market?

I’ve always thought of the Vegetarian Times broth as a rather fallsy soup base. With a whole red onion, purple cabbage and a single juicy beet, the liquid gets stained the color of a rich red wine. But this time, I found a beautiful bunch of tiny golden beets and a delicate spring onion with greens, which inspired me to keep things light and swap green cabbage for the red. The result was a clear, sunny broth, as golden and glistening as my aunt’s vaunted chicken penicillin.

Forget any preconceived notions of vegetable broth as the weakling’s alternative; this is no deprivation-seasoned stone soup. It’s gorgeous, and it’s flavorful, and it’s just perfect for lapping at the circumference of a glossy dimpled matzo ball (or two, or three).

Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about the meat to go with those balls, either. That’s a whole ‘nother show. Tune in next time.

The Best Vegetable Broth You’ll Ever Taste (I stretched this to serve 12, but 8-10 is more like it)

Adapted from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook

1 large carrot

4-5 stalks of celery (with leaves)

1 large onion, cut in half but not peeled*

1 medium parsnip

1 small fennel bulb, cut in half (with fronds)

1/2 lb fresh spring peas, or 1 lb frozen

1 bunch parsley

1 small beet, or 5-6 teensy farmer’s market ones*

1/4 head of cabbage, roughly chopped*

6 whole cloves

10-12 whole black peppercorns

Pinch of crushed red chili (optional, but I really liked the extra breath of heat)

Plenty of salt to taste

3 quarts water

*Note: as I mentioned in the post, if you use a red onion, red beet and red cabbage, you’ll get a dark, richly colored broth. If you use a white or yellow onion, golden beet and regular green cabbage, you’ll end up with a clear golden broth.

Rinse any lingering dirt from the vegetables. Combine all ingredients in your largest stockpot–if you need to, cut the veggies into chunks to fit in the pot. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 2-3 hours, or until you’ve achieved broth status. Strain out the solids, and voila, a pot of gloriously aromatic vegetable broth.

Matzo Balls (makes 2-3 dozen, depending on how big you make them)

2 packets matzo ball mix

4 eggs, separated

1/4 cup oil (I used olive oil, but pretty much any cooking oil will work)

Pinch of salt

In a large bowl, combine egg whites and salt. Whisk vigorously until the whites are thick and foamy, but just short of stiff. In a smaller bowl, whisk together egg yolks and oil, then stir in matzo meal. (The result will be a crumbly mess, but that’s okay.) Gently fold the egg whites into the matzo meal mixture, trying to deflate them as little as possible. The mixture will still be fairly sandy and lumpy, but it should hold together. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, and preferably an hour or two.

To form the balls, lightly oil your hands and roll a small amount of batter gently between your palms, trying not to compress the mixture too much. (The size is up to you, but keep in mind that the matzo balls will double in size as they cook. No soccer balls, please.) Drop the balls into a simmering pot of broth or salted water, cover, and cook until they’re tender all the way through, 20 to 30 minutes. Serve hot, in a pool of broth, just like they did in old country.

1 Comment

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One response to “Passover 2011–the main event

  1. Audrey

    May I just comment to say that this vegetarian broth was so full-flavored and complex that I could drink mugs and mugs of it… and in many cases might even take it over chicken broth. (I will admit to loving the richness of chicken broth, though.)

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