One of the foods I most long for from my childhood bopping around Jewish delicatessens in New York and Los Angeles is the humble bowl of matzo ball soup: a mountain of tender dumplings surrounded by rich stock and not much else.
As a child I would nibble each tender spoonful, carefully whittling down my knaidel (as "matzo ball" is called in Yiddish). I felt comforted and loved, not from my grandmother's kitchen, but by those fascinating, mostly ancient servers who dished it up. Over 20 years ago, my darling nanny and I attempted to make this soup at home. How'd we do with this highly regarded (and oh-so-controversial) dish? Did I change up the original recipe?
After many bowls slurped down among family and friends, my beloved nanny and I did attempt matzo ball soup in my family's kitchen. Sky (we preferred to call her "Ski" for some silly reason) was then a graduate student and budding photographer with Jewish/Italian heritage, and she's now a successful artist and serves as the chair at the art department in San Luis Obispo, CA. Sky taught me a lot about seeing the world through a creative lens as well as how to make a great fresh pasta and Alfredo sauce. But what she didn't pass on was a knack for great matzo balls.
We pressed and padded our matzo/egg mixture so tight, we wound up with lead sinkers that would later blow up in the tummy — a gut bomb was born. Despite our culinary failure (although it beat the "minute steak" grey leather results of another aunty's kitchen mishap in which we cooked a flank steak for about an hour), I am so grateful for the time spent with this magical, cool, "older girl" whom I adored so much. We laughed a lot together, went for bike rides, cooked big meals and I deeply admired her black and white jeans with flame patterns all over them. That's right, her pants were on fire! Sky wound up having a profound influence on my life. She always encouraged me to eat well, cook homemade food and photograph it all — the advice stuck.
This recipe is easy enough and can be adapted to accommodate any extra favorite vegetables or flavors. Obviously, you can make this same thing with chicken stock and soup. I'm vegetarian and was thrilled with the results of this humble, special dish perfect for a cozy evening with friends, nannies and aunties! No sinkers here, to be sure! Just light, fluffy matzo balls in a flavorful broth.
Vegetarian Matzo Ball Soup
For the matzo balls:
2 cups matzo meal (I prefer to buy unsalted crackers and pulse in the food processor)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon truffle salt (if you don't have truffle salt, it's okay, just use regular)
2 tablespoons melted butter (you could use shmaltz, if you are not vegetarian)
1/4 cup seltzer water
For the soup:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, roughly diced
4 small carrots or 2 large, roughly chopped
3 celery stalks, roughly chopped
1/2 cup sherry or white wine
2 quarts Imagine "No Chicken" broth or homemade vegetable stock
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried dill
Fresh dill for garnish
Pulse the matzo crackers in a food processor until an imperfect powder is formed. A few bigger pieces are fine. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the matzo meal, baking soda and salt. Stir to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, butter and seltzer water. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir until evenly incorporated. Refrigerate mixture for about an hour (or up to 6 hours).
Heat a large stockpot of water and bring to a boil. Wet your hands a little and round matzo mixture the size of golf balls. Handle the mixture as little as possible. The lighter the touch, the lighter the matzo ball! The matzo balls will expand as you cook them.
When all matzo balls are formed and water is boiling, carefully drop each one into the boiling water. Cover and do not lift the lid for 25 minutes. (Another matzo tradition is to never check on the dumplings while they're cooking or that will cause them to be tough and heavy.) After 25 minutes, cut one ball in half and make sure it is cooked. I cooked mine for about 5 minutes more, in total 30 minutes with one lifting of the lid.
In another soup pot, get your stock going. Heat the olive oil on medium and saute the onions, carrot and celery for about 10 minutes, until vegetables are beginning to soften. Add sherry (or white wine) and cook for another 2 minutes. Add vegetable stock, garlic, bay leaves, dill and simmer for about 30 minutes longer. Taste and adjust seasonings according to your taste.
Add matzo balls to the stock about 15 minutes before you're ready to serve, gently warming the soup (the matzo balls will absorb some of the great stock flavor, so don't skimp on this step). Garnish with fresh dill sprigs.
Originally published December 2011.
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)