For Passover, taste a culture
Around this time every year, I contemplate what I will make for a weekend brunch as I flip through various culinary magazines. Along with the standard menus of glazed ham, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with hollandaise, spinach and artichoke strata, and lemon lavender scones, there are the Passover menus. Rich with honey, dried fruits, and bitter herbs and spices, these dishes always draw me in and offer a glimpse into a different way of life.
To me, this is one of the most exciting and wonderful aspects of cooking and exploring new foods and recipes. Preparing a meal from another culture provides a window into its customs and allows us to literally taste some aspect of that culture.
Passover is celebrated as a commemoration of God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery by the Egyptians. God told them he would bring a series of plagues upon the people of Egypt if they did not grant freedom to the enslaved Children of Israel. The final and most devastating of these plagues would result in the death of all first-born Egyptians. The Israelites were told to mark their doors with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb, and the God would pass over those homes and spare the life of their firstborn, hence the name of the holiday. When the Pharaoh finally consented to give the Israelites their freedom, they fled so fast that there wasn’t time for their daily bread to finish rising.
The Seder meal is a culinary retelling of the Israelites’ flight from slavery, and marks the beginning of the eight-day Passover holiday, which begins this year on April 22. The ritual also fulfills the mandate of Exodus 13:8, that the story of the Israelites’ salvation be told to their sons.
Unleavened bread, known as matzoh, is another essential part of the Seder meal and many others as well. Indeed, for many Jews, matzoh ball soup is the ultimate comfort food. When I was in my late teens, I was a prep cook at The Sangamo Club. Every year at Passover time they would serve matzoh ball soup and it was something I looked forward to each season. I asked David Radwine, the club’s retired general manager, for the secret to the recipe. “The schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) is key,” he told me, “and the club soda helps keep the matzoh balls light.”
This year, I’m looking forward to making some of the sumptuous Passover recipes featured in those magazines, and embracing the traditions of my neighbor. In that spirit, Radwine graciously shared his mother’s recipe for Traditional Matzoh Ball Soup, which I will most certainly be making for dinner in the very near future.
Matzoh Ball Soup
• Chicken Stock
• 1 4-5-lb. chicken, cut into 8 pieces
• 1 pound chicken wings, necks, and/or backs
• 2 large yellow onions, unpeeled, quartered
• 6 celery stalks, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 4 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 large parsnip, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces
• 1 large shallot, quartered
• 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
• 6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
• 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Matzo Ball Mixture
• 3 large eggs, beaten to blend
• ¾ cup matzo meal
• ¼ cup schmaltz (chicken fat), melted
• 3 tablespoons club soda
• 1¼ teaspoon kosher salt
• 2 small carrots, peeled, sliced ¼-inch thick on a diagonal
• Kosher salt
• 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh dill
• Coarsely ground fresh black pepper
Make the chicken stock:
Bring all ingredients and 12 cups cold water to a boil in a very large (at least 12-qt.) stockpot. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until chicken breasts are cooked through, about 20 minutes.
Transfer breasts to a plate (remaining chicken parts are strictly for stock). Let breasts cool slightly, then remove meat and return bones to stock. Shred meat. Let cool, tightly wrap, and chill.
Continue to simmer stock, skimming surface occasionally, until reduced by one-third, about 2 hours. Strain chicken stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large saucepan (or airtight container, if not using right away); discard solids. You should have about 8 cups. Stock can be made 2 days ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Keep reserved chicken meat chilled.
Prepare the Matzoh Ball Mixture:
Mix eggs, matzoh meal, schmaltz, club soda and salt in a medium bowl (mixture will resemble wet sand; it will firm up as it rests). Cover and chill at least 2 hours. Mixture can be made 1 day ahead. Keep chilled.
To make the soup:
Bring chicken stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Add carrots; season with salt. Reduce heat and simmer until carrots are tender, 5-7 minutes. Remove from heat, add reserved breast meat and cover. Set soup aside.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Scoop out 2-tablespoon portions matzo ball mixture and, using wet hands, gently roll into balls.
Add matzo balls to water and reduce heat so water is at a gentle simmer (too much bouncing around will break them up). Cover pot and cook matzoh balls until cooked through and starting to sink, 20-25 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer matzo balls to bowls. Ladle soup over, top with dill, and season with pepper.
Ashley Meyer started her culinary career at the Sangamo Club, where she worked as a prep cook while home from college during the holiday season. Because she was attending school at Lincoln University in New Zealand, she always had plenty of work available during summer break, which ran from November to February (New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed).