Matzo ball changeups: Flavorful variations on the Passover classic

Karen Nicolas adds dollops of butternut custard to matzo ball entree plate at Citron and Rose.
Karen Nicolas adds dollops of butternut custard to matzo ball entree plate at Citron and Rose. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: April 11, 2014

If the mark of a well-run kitchen is consistency, then my mother must be doing something right. Her matzo ball soup, just like her mother's and her grandmother's, has been made the same way for decades: with a poached whole chicken breast, halved carrots, and golden bubbles of chicken fat rising to the surface amid bobbing matzo balls, made with the recipe on the back of the Manischewitz box.

"I do almost the same thing every time," she told me. "My matzo balls are light and fluffy. I don't have sinkers."

Her recipe is a classic for a reason. Still, last Passover, I wanted to change up the seder mainstay. The rest of my menu was Mediterranean-inspired, and her Ashkenazi-inspired version of Jewish penicillin just didn't fit.

I wondered if an egg-lemon soup, like Greek avgolemono broth, would work instead. So, I pieced together a recipe - stepping up my stock with leeks, oregano, and lemon juice, and mixing fresh mint and parsley into my matzo balls before boiling. The result was a subtle, but flavorful, update on the classic.

In the course of my research, I found that I wasn't the only one willing to put tradition on the back burner. There were recipes for Vietnamese-inspired lemongrass matzo-ball soup, a Mexican version with jalapeños and mushrooms, and, at Zahav in Philadelphia, a smoked-cinnamon-and-ramp concoction with Middle Eastern roots.

It turns out, these humble dumplings are surprisingly versatile: Lace them with onions, mix them with mushrooms, or stuff them with chicken liver, and they'll hold up. There are enough variations to keep you in carbs throughout the eight-day bread-free festival.

One of the most radical takes on the dish comes from Cheu Noodle Bar in Center City. Chef Ben Puchowitz explained that his family cooked the same Passover dinner every year: matzo ball soup, sometimes with veal-stuffed kreplach and egg noodles, followed by brisket and mashed potatoes. "So brisket and matzo balls always went hand-in-hand for me," he said.

At Cheu, he combined the crucial elements of the meal into one dish - matzo ball soup with brisket - adding kimchi, sesame oil, and chilies for an Asian-fusion twist.

Puchowitz counsels that experimenting with matzo balls isn't foolproof. For example, he tried cooking them in dashi, a type of seaweed broth, and in beef broth, before going back to a chicken stock. Without that, "It just didn't taste like matzo balls," he said. "It didn't have the same nostalgia. It wasn't as flavorful either."

At Citron and Rose, a modern kosher restaurant in Merion, nostalgia has nothing to do with it. Chef Karen Nicolas hadn't cooked with matzo before taking the helm at the restaurant last year. "It kind of gave me an advantage to be able to do a different take on it," she said.

Getting tips from the restaurant's supervising rabbi, she transformed matzo balls into a hearty vegetarian entree, studded with mushrooms and served in a ragout of winter vegetables with a celery-root broth.

Nicolas said she had attempted pumpkin matzo balls (they didn't hold up well) and a mustard-infused recipe. The trick with adding mushrooms, she learned, is to reduce the amount of other liquid added, to keep the matzo balls light: "It's all a learning experience when you mess with traditional recipes," she said.

That hasn't stopped the team at the Avenue Deli in Lansdowne - a Jewish-Italian-fusion deli run by Italian American Laura Frangiosa and her Jewish husband, Josh Skaroff.

"I did actually make matzo balls with pork fat one time," Frangiosa said. "They were 'sacrilicious' - totally wrong and delicious."

For the deli's everyday menu, she pairs her herb-studded matzo balls with veal meatballs, escarole, and chunky mirepoix in a dish she calls Jewish wedding soup.

"It made perfect sense to me," she said. "We had Italian wedding soup every Easter - right before the ham and lasagna." She figured that marrying that classic with another seasonal favorite could only improve upon both dishes.

This isn't an exclusively local phenomenon. Todd Gray, coauthor with his wife Ellen Kassoff-Gray of The New Jewish Table (St. Martin's Press, 2013) and chef at the Equinox restaurant in Washington, likewise married into a Jewish family and ran with the culinary traditions.

"That was one of the first dishes I really dug into," he said of matzo ball soup. He wanted to see how the matzo balls would hold up to different, seasonal ingredients: fresh herbs, chicken liver, duck liver, or vegetables. "I put in foie gras at one point - and then I thought, that's going too far," he said.

"Now, my matzo ball soup is sort of my American interpretation of a Jewish classic, but also with a little infusion from a chef's hand."

His cookbook features a recipe for matzo balls laced with caramelized onions, and paired with poached torn chicken and a scattering of pappardelle and scallions.

Of course, traditions endure for a reason. Helen Nash, author of New Kosher Cuisine (Overlook, 2012), prefers to embellish her chicken soup recipe - such as with cubed potatoes, zucchini, and dill - not overhaul it.

"I don't want to destroy the flavor of the wonderful chicken soup," she said. "I'm much more of a purist."


Matzo-ball masters on how to lighten up those dumplings

When Ben Puchowitz started making matzo balls at Cheu Noodle Bar in Center City, one ingredient he was never short on was free advice. "My dad would always tell me, 'The key is: Don't work the eggs into the dough too much.' "

Over time, though, he developed his own technique for ultra-light, fluffy dumplings. The secret: He uses matzo-ball mix from a packet.

It turns out, there's more than one way to leaven a matzo ball. In fact, there are at least three.

Kosher cookbook author Helen Nash whips the egg whites until stiff, then folds in the yolks and matzo meal. Laura Frangiosa of the Avenue Deli in Lansdowne also swears by this technique.

Chef Todd Gray uses club soda for a similar result, with less work. "I think you need something sparkling for the leavening of it," he said.

Many matzo-ball mavens also advocate baking powder (which is, after all, the secret ingredient in Puchowitz's beloved matzo-ball mix).

While there's no right way to make a matzo ball, there may be wrong ways. Puchowitz admits he recently stopped following his dad's tips. "Lately," he said, "they've been coming out a little better."

- Samantha Melamed

Quinoa gets the kosher blessing

For those abiding by the Passover ban on grains, quinoa has been, debatably, a forbidden fruit.

Now, though, the debate is over: Quinoa is legal.

In December, a major kosher-supervision organization, Orthodox Union, reversed its ban on the superfood, after sending rabbis to South America to assess quinoa farms for any wheat or barley infiltration. The OU's new position aligns with Star-K, another kosher authority.

"I think it should have been liberated from Passover bondage a long time ago," said Rabbi Alan Ira Silver, director of supervision at Kosher Technical Konsultants in Philadelphia.

During Passover, grains - wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt - are deemed hametz, and banned unless cooked rapidly to avoid leavening. For Ashkenazi Jews (those of Eastern European descent), legumes and seeds are also forbidden.

"Quinoa is not related to any of these grains," Silver said. "It's, botanically, a member of the goosefoot family, which includes beets and spinach."

For kosher caterers, it's a new wrinkle. "Some people accept string beans; some don't," said Gary Rosenwald of Panache catering in Bensalem. "There's a lot of controversy." He does offer string beans for Passover, but hasn't yet added quinoa.

Silver advised ongoing caution: Look for quinoa labeled kosher for Passover, wash it thoroughly, and check it visually for any stray grain particles.

Silver, added that, for him, this is nothing new. "Would I use quinoa without these rabbis telling me it was OK? Yes. It took them all this time twiddling their thumbs to make a decision!"

- S.M.


Mushroom-Matzo-Ball Celery Root Soup

Makes 8 servings

Mushroom matzo balls: 

2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, sliced

Salt and pepper, to taste

4 whole eggs

1 cup matzo meal

1/4 cup seltzer

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

1 tablespoon sage, chopped

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Celery root soup: 

2 teaspoons margarine

1 cup onion, chopped

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 cup celery, chopped

1/4 cup white wine

11/2 pounds celery root, peeled and rough cut

5 cups water or chicken broth

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1. Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat and saute mushrooms until golden-brown and cooked through. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Allow mushrooms to cool completely, then finely mince them. Pat dry with a paper towel.

2. Whisk eggs and 1/4 cup olive oil until homogenous.

3. Add the mushrooms and remaining ingredients. Stir together until evenly combined but do not over-mix. Allow the mixture to chill for 1 hour.

4. Bring a large pot of water (or stock) to boil.

5. Portion each matzo ball using a tablespoon measure, then roll with your hands into spheres. Drop matzo balls into the boiling liquid. Reduce heat to a slow simmer, and cook covered for 40 minutes.

6. For celery-root soup, sweat onion, garlic, and celery in margarine until tender.

7. Add white wine and cook until evaporated.

8. Add remaining ingredients and slow-simmer until the celery root is tender.

9. In a blender, puree the soup ingredients until smooth. Add water, if necessary, to desired thickness.

10. Serve matzo balls in soup.

- From Citron and Rose chef Karen Nicolas

Note: Schmaltz or margarine may be substituted for olive oil in matzo balls; or, swap olive oil for margarine in soup.

Per serving: 265 calories; 10 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; 82 milligrams cholesterol; 2,939 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.


Not Exactly Aunt Lil's Matzo Ball Soup

Makes 6 main-course servings

For the matzo balls:

1/4 cup canola oil

2 cups chopped onions

11/4 teaspoons salt

4 large eggs

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/4 cup club soda

1 cup matzo meal

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

For the soup:

3-pound whole chicken

1 large yellow onion, quartered

2 celery ribs, chopped

1 medium turnip, chopped

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1 bunch parsley, washed, blotted dry

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs fresh thyme

12 black peppercorns

2 tablespoons salt

For the garnish:

1 cup diced carrots

1/2 cup diced celery

1/3 cup diced turnips

3 cups kosher-for-

Passover egg noodles (or omit)

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions

1. Heat canola oil in a medium saute pan over medium heat, stir in onions and 1/4 teaspoon salt, and cook 4 minutes. Lower heat to low and cook, stirring often, until onions turn amber, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain in colander and cool completely.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and butter. Whisk in club soda, then matzo meal, caramelized onions, remaining salt, and pepper. Mix with wooden spoon. Cover bowl and refrigerate for 1 hour.

3. Remove the gizzard and liver from the chicken; wash chicken under cold water and cut into 8 pieces. Place it in a large stock pot; add onions, celery, turnip, garlic, parsley, bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, and salt. Pour in water to cover the chicken. Bring to a simmer over high heat, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 11/2 hours.

4. About an hour before serving, bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boiling. Shape the matzo balls about 11/2 inches in diameter, rolling between your palms (moisten your hands with water first). Add the matzo balls to water and simmer 30 to 40 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain; keep warm.

5. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board. Strain broth into a bowl, discarding the vegetables; then return the broth to the pot and keep warm. Cut the chicken from the bones and pull the meat into bite-size pieces, shredding with your hands; set aside.

6. Add diced carrots, celery, and turnips to the broth and simmer 10 minutes. Add noodles and chicken and simmer until noodles are tender, about 7 minutes. Spoon 3 matzo balls into each bowl, add a generous spoonful of vegetables, noodles, and meat, and then ladle in broth. Sprinkle scallions onto each bowl. - From The New Jewish Table (St. Martin's Press)

Per serving: 834 calories; 35 grams fat; 359 milligrams cholesterol; 48.9 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams dietary fiber; 6 grams sugar; 77 grams protein; 3142 milligrams sodium.


Avgolematzo Soup

Makes 10 servings

5 eggs

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup matzo meal

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped

1/2 cup mint, stems removed, chopped

1/2 cup dill, chopped

3 leeks, diced

1 yellow onion, chopped

4 carrots, peeled and chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 quart vegetable or chicken stock or water

1/4 cup lemon juice

1. In a small bowl, beat 2 eggs and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. With a fork, stir in matzo meal, salt, and pepper. Stir in 2 tablespoons water. Take about half the herbs, give an extra chop to mince, and stir in, just until mixed. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium, and add leeks and onion. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently, then add carrots, celery and garlic, and cook about 5 minutes more. Then stir in broth plus three cups of water, and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. With moistened hands, roll matzo mixture into balls about 1 inch in diameter, and drop them into the boiling broth. Reduce heat, cover tightly, and simmer 30 minutes or until cooked through. Reduce to lowest heat.

4. In a small bowl, whisk remaining eggs and lemon juice together, then ladle in a cup of soup broth, whisking the whole time. Then pour into soup, whisking, and cook three minutes, taking care not to return soup to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in remaining herbs.

Per serving: 160 calories; 9 grams fat; 82 milligrams cholesterol; 15 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 3 grams sugars; 7 grams protein; 489 milligrams sodium.


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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