improved matzoh ball soup
Passover (Pesach) starts this Wednesday, and for once I thought I'd get you a recipe ahead of time. And there is, of course, no recipe more central to Pesach than matzoh ball soup. I've been making matzoh ball soup since I moved away from home. I started with my mother's recipe, only changing it to make it vegetarian. After years of making it myself, though, I've made a few improvements on the recipe, inspired by Serious Eats and Katchka.
First, the matzoh balls. We love the recipe from my mother, who flavors the matzoh balls with parsley, cumin, and garlic, making them more like spiced meatballs or falafel than the bland Eastern European bread dumplings that matzoh balls descended from. But mom's balls tend to be sinkers, rather dense and chewy. I wanted something lighter and softer. Then Serious Eats published an article showing how to vary matzoh ball texture based on the amount of fat, baking powder, and seltzer in the recipe.
I wanted balls that were a "7" on a scale of rock-to-cloud. After trying a couple of variations, I found that the one thing I needed to change was the amount, and type, of fat in the recipe. To the existing 3 Tbs of vegetable oil, I added another 3 Tbs of butter. Not only does the additional fat make the balls more tender, the solid fat of the butter stays in them and moistens them better than just adding more oil would. I did try going all-butter, but it was too much. If you're non-vegetarian and/or making these to go with a meat meal, use schmaltz instead of butter.
The second improvement comes from Bonnie Morales' cookbook Katchka. In it, she gives her grandmother's recipe for a super-simple vegetarian stock: garlic broth. After using this for a couple other soups, I made it the base of my new stock for matzoh ball soup. So, read on for Improved Matzoh Ball Soup.
Because these things go full circle, though, Mom is now using my improved recipe for the matzoh balls. And, so that you don't need to look at my older article, I'm going to do the full step-by-step below, with an eye towards doing this for a multi-course Passover meal. This recipe enough for 4-6 people, but the photos were taken when making 1 and a half recipes.
If you already know the basics of making it, you can skip to the recipe at the very bottom.
Making the Stock
As a very simple soup, matzoh ball soup depends heavily on having a good, homemade stock base. Stock-in-a-box simply won't cut it here. The standard recipe uses homemade chicken stock, so for a vegetarian version we need to put some extra effort into it. We're going to make Morales' garlic broth, and then boost it with some of the same vegetables (and trimmings from those vegetables) that will go into the final soup, later.
Soup-making tip: you can save a lot of time making stock and soup if you preheat any water you add in a kettle.
Take the two heads of garlic and cut them in half sideways, trying to go about midway through each clove, so that both halves of each head hold together (if possible). Put a large stockpot on the stove, with enough vegetable oil to slick the bottom (around 2 Tbs) and heat over medium heat until hot. Place all four garlic head halves cut-side down in the oil. Fry until the exposed clove halves are dark brown (but not black), 5-8 minutes.
Pour in 2 quarts of hot water and bring to a simmer. Turn down, and simmer, covered, for 15-20 minutes. If you simply simmer this for 45 minutes it actually makes a good broth for varniki or pelmeni, but we're making vegetable stock instead.
Next we're going to add the stock vegetables. Importantly, this includes the skins of the brown onions, which you need to give the stock some color. Other veggies, most notably the celery and parsley, can be the trimmings and stems you're not using in the final soup, if you have enough of them. You're also going to add some salt and spices here. As usual, start with the smallest amount of salt recommended and taste after the stock has cooked for a while. The cinnamon stick may seem strange, but try it -- it gives the stock a bit of an "exotic" flavor.
Add another quart of hot water and simmer for another 30-40 minutes. Strain into another pot, or back into the same pot, for making the soup. While the stock simmers, make the matzoh balls.
Making the Balls
This matzoh ball dough is meant to be spicy and flavorful. I know there's folks out there who like theirs delicate and tasting only of the soup, but when going vegetarian, it's far better to have something robust since you don't have any chicken to compliment it. The flavor profile here is something that's a crossover between Middle Eastern flavors and Eastern European ones.
Dump the matzoh meal in a medium-large bowl. Add the baking powder, salt, spices, and minced parsley and mix. Grate the onions and grate or press the garlic into the bowl, follow with the beaten eggs and melted butter, and mix. Finally, add the seltzer water, starting with just 1/4 cup, and gently mix. The dough should have the texture of a thick cake or brownie batter at this point. If it's still stiff, then add the other 1/4 cup of seltzer to loosen it up. If it's soupy, add 2-3 Tbs additional matzoh meal. Make sure the dough is 100% mixed down to the bottom of the bowl.
Cover in plastic and let rest for at least 1/2 hour, ideally in the fridge. Do not skip this resting step, which you need for the dough to work. While it rests, it will transform from a loose, sticky batter to a workable but still sticky dough. You can leave it for several hours, or overnight in the fridge.
Once they are rested, it's time to shape the balls. The ideal way to do this is with a cookie scoop; I use one that's 1.5" in diameter. Since the dough is quite sticky, have a bowl of warm water for dipping the scoop and wetting your hands. Scoop all the dough into 13-18 balls onto a wax-paper or parchment-lined sheet pan or tray, and then roll each ball with damp hands in order to make it nice and smooth. These balls will look quite small, but don't worry, they expand a lot.
At this point, you could cover the balls in plastic and keep them in the fridge up to a day. Don't freeze them, simply because they're hard to defrost. Once you start cooking them, though, you're committed to finishing the soup within hours.
The balls cannot be cooked in the soup itself, because they need to be cooked at a boil, or like other dumplings they will fall apart. However, to avoid flavor loss to the water, it's a good idea to cook them in stock. Since you don't want to waste the nice garlic broth on this, your options are to use some stock-in-a-box, water with bouillon cubes, or to use lightly salted water with bay leaf and a couple whole garlic cloves. Put this liquid in the largest, widest deep pot you have that has a well-fitting lid, ideally a 12" to 14" diameter soup pot or Dutch oven. Bring it to a boil.
Then, drop in the balls. With a 12" or greater pot, you should be able to fit all 13-18 of them, but with a narrower pot you'll need to do batches. You do not want to crowd them since they will all be doubling in size. The balls will sink to the bottom at first, but should start bobbing to the surface as the pot comes back to a boil. Cover, turn the heat down, and keep it at a gentle simmer for 35-45 minutes, until they are doubled in size and tender.
Contrary to some folk wisdom, you can periodically peek at the cooking matzoh balls. However, you don't want to lift the lid too often (more than, say, 2-4 times during cooking) lest they lose heat and fail to expand properly.
When the balls are done, keep them in the hot stock until ready to use. If that's going to be a while, put some very low heat on under the stock so that it doesn't cool off.
Putting It All Together
For final assembly, you're going to make a basic soup of well-cooked vegetables and then add the matzoh balls to it at serving time. Add the vegetables except for the parsley and green onions to the strained stock. Bring to a simmer, and cook for 25-30 minutes, until both the potatoes and carrots are quite tender, but not falling apart. At this point, the soup can be held, off-heat, for up to a couple of hours. If holding, re-heat it just before serving.
Grab several wide, deep bowls of at least 20oz capacity. Add two matzoh balls to each bowl. Fill the rest of the way with hot vegetable soup. Put some parsley sprigs and the sliced green onions or chives in each bowl. Serve.
Large stock pot, at least 6qt, preferably with lid
Deep, wide soup pot, preferably 12" or more in diameter, but at least 4" deep, with tight-fitting lid
1.5" cookie scoop (optional, but really helpful)
Large tray or cookie sheet
Large mixing bowl
Garlic press (optional)
The usual knives, peeler, and cutting board
Garlic Broth With Vegetables
2 Tbs Vegetable oil
2 large heads garlic
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
3/4 cup parsley stems, or just parsley
1 brown onion, with skin, cut into 4-8 large pieces
2-3 brown onion skins from the onions for the soup
2 waxy potatoes
3 stalks celery
2 bay leaves
Large sprig/branch thyme (optional)
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
Cut the garlic heads across their equators. Heat a large pot coated with oil at the bottom. Add the garlic, cut side down, and fry for 3 minutes, stirring occasionaly, until the garlic has browned and is very aromatic. Pour in the water and a little salt. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Add all of the vegetables above and simmer them for 40 min. Strain and reserve.
Improved Matzoh Balls
1 cup matzoh meal (plus 0-3 Tbs)
1/4 cup seltzer water
2 tbs melted butter (or schmaltz)
2 tbs vegetable oil
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh-ground pepper
2 large garlic cloves, pressed or grated
1/2 large onion, grated fine, about 1/2 cup
2 Tbs finely minced parsley
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp paprika (or other mild-medium chili powder)
2-4 quarts cheap stock for cooking (see above).
Mix all ingredients. Let sit for at least 1/2 hour (to overnight in fridge). Make 13-18 matzoh balls. Put them in the pot with the boiling cheap stock, and simmer, covered, for 35-45 minutes. Keep warm in the stock until ready to combine with the soup.
1 recipe garlic stock (above)
3-4 stalks celery, with leaves if possible, cut into 1" segments
1.5 to 2 lbs waxy potatoes, such as new potatoes, cut into 1-2" pieces
3-4 large carrots, around 3/4 lbs, peeled and cut into 1/2" slices
2 medium-large brown onions, cut into large pieces, like 8-10 per onion
Small bunch parsley, separated into bite-sized sprigs
3-4 green onions or a handful of chives, green parts sliced thin (optional)
Simmer the celery, potatoes, and carrots in the stock for 25-30 minutes, until tender. Add a little parsley and green onion to each bowl when serving.