The Husband is Jewish, and I am his shiksa bride. As young marrieds, we ignored both traditions equally. But when we had children, we began celebrating Jewish and Christian holidays alike, so that as the kids matured they could naturally gravitate to the rituals that moved them the most.
Though I grew up in New York, I’d never attended a Passover seder until I met my future husband. I really enjoyed the meal, but the Passover service seemed so complicated that I felt a tad overwhelmed when it was time to produce my own seder. For that matter, even the meal – with its many platters of symbolic dishes – seemed pretty daunting.
I knew I’d probably never attempt homemade gefilte fish, but I figured I might be able to produce a respectable matzo ball soup. At the time (now a generation ago) I owned no Jewish cookbooks, and there was no Internet. So what did I do? I called my mother-in-law. And what did she tell me? To make the recipe on the back of the matzo meal box.
And? Except for the fact that I made the balls too big and they blew up to the size of tennis balls and took forever to cook, I felt pretty proud of my soup. It was tasty.
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Since then I’ve produced many matzo ball soups, and not always on Passover. My son, for one, loves it all year. At the birthday dinner parties he used to throw for himself as a teenager (guess who cooked) matzo ball soup was always on the menu. Over time, I’ve refined the recipe from the back of the box.
Like other cooks before me, I swapped out the vegetable oil in favor of schmaltz (chicken fat), which amps the flavor. I also began poaching the matzo balls not in water, but in broth. These techniques made for a notably dense matzo ball – sinkers, not floaters, as The Husband’s Aunt Yetta used to say. But my family liked them that way.
However, for the purpose of this column, I wanted to dream up a matzo ball that is lower in fat and calories, but that doesn’t sacrifice any flavor. The schmaltz was the first ingredient to go. Yes, of course, it’s delicious, but it’s also pure saturated fat. Not healthy. So it was back to vegetable oil.
Then I kissed off the whole eggs in favor of egg whites, which are leaner. I tried to make up for the flavor that went missing along with the schmaltz by adding broth to the batter, but the resulting matzo ball was as dense as a lead ball. What to do? I could have lost the broth in favor of seltzer, which would have made the matzo balls much lighter, but I was afraid it would dull the flavor.
Instead, I added some baking powder, which did indeed make them more buoyant. Isn’t baking powder, a leavener, a no-no during Passover, which bans all leavened bread? Not if you use baking powder that’s been certified kosher for Passover. Then I poached the matzo balls for much longer than recommended, which helped to cook them all the way through, and made them less dense.
The soup part of this recipe is thick with spring vegetables – fava beans, asparagus, leeks, mushrooms and peas. If you want to get fancy (and you can find them), use fresh, seasonal morel mushrooms instead of the buttons. Just make sure you wash them well.
Considered as a whole – matzo balls and vegetables – this soup could stand alone as a hearty, one-pot dinner. If it strikes you as too hearty for the first course of a seder, simply add more chicken broth to thin it.