Monday, December 29, 2008

Jewish Penicillin

It is quite possible that there is no other food more authentic to the American Jewish experience than matzoh ball soup. Merely saying the words conjures images of “bubbe” (the Yiddish term for grandmother) standing over a simmering pot of chicken broth.

I often meet non-Jews who have heard of matzoh ball soup but never experienced it. Indeed, they confess, they are puzzled by how a cracker can be made into a ball, and why in G-d’s name it would be served in soup. Those of us who grew up with it never really thought much about the incongruity of this notion because we understand the role of matzoh in our collective Jewish history and culture.

Matzoh is most closely linked to Passover, one of the most important holidays on the Hebrew calendar. The holiday comes from the story of Exodus, wherein the bible says that God inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would release the Israelites, who he had been holding in slavery. The tenth plague was the killing of firstborn sons, however, the Israelites were instructed to mark their homes with the blood of a spring lamb, and upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord “passed over” these homes and their sons were spared.

So how does Matzoh fit in here? The story goes that when Pharaoh freed the Israelites they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. As they traveled through the dessert with the unleavened dough in their knapsacks, the desert sun baked the dough into hard, flat bread now called matzoh.

In observance of our people's suffering in the desert and their exodus from slavery in Egypt, no leavened bread is eaten during Passover, and Matzoh is one of the primary symbols of the holiday.

We are a resourceful people, however, and modern Jewish cooks have found a thousand ways to make Passover’s lack of baked goods tolerable, including making matzoh into cakes and other goodies that pretty closely resemble leavened products. Sort of.

This usually requires lots of eggs, even more egg whites, a lot of beating and whisking...and a whole lot of luck. As any cook knows, soufflé-type baked goods are notoriously challenging and unpredictable. To complicate matters further, no flour can be used; only matzoh meal (ground matzoh) or matzoh cake meal (finely ground matzoh).

Which brings us back to matzoh balls. Since noodles are out of the question during Passover (as are dumplings), Eastern European Jews needed something to put in chicken soup. Hence, the mixture of matzoh meal, melted shortening (usually margarine, but more authentically, chicken fat) and eggs, formed into balls, poached in water, then cooked in chicken stock.

I’m sure you are wondering why I’m bringing up matzoh ball soup during the “Festival of Lights” (Hanukkah) instead of Passover. I actually made the soup about 10 days ago, at the behest of my son. Like most good Jewish boys, he has his mamma wrapped around his little finger, and when he came down with a nasty cold just a few days before his birthday, I asked him what he wanted to eat.

“Matzoh ball soup,” he said, without hesitation.

Generations of Jewish mothers have prescribed chicken soup (Jewish penicillin) for colds, a home remedy that has been passed from mother to daughter over centuries. Turns out they were right; scientists have identified an enzyme in chicken broth that has been proven to relieve congestion. Lesson here? “You should listen to your mother!!”

I could have gone to the deli and picked up an order of soup in a cardboard container, and it would have been tasty. After all, making it is time consuming. But my maternal instincts kicked in, and off to my nearest Hiller's store I went for the basic ingredients.

The soup is always best made with home-made chicken stock, but with a sick boy at home, I didn’t have time to stew a chicken or two (or better yet, the bones of a roasted chicken) so I used packaged chicken broth instead.

The recipe calls for seasoning the matzoh meal with just salt and pepper, but I always add parsley flakes, some shallot salt (from Penzey’s, it’s fantastic), a pinch or two each of marjoram, thyme, and rubbed sage and lots of freshly ground black and white pepper. Matzoh balls shouldn’t be spicy – Jewish food seldom is, and this is comfort food, after all – but I’ve eaten enough flavorless matzoh balls to know that some herbs and spices can make a big difference.

This is the chicken fat (also known as “schmaltz” but that’s covered in another blog) in its solid state at room temp. Available already rendered in little tubs at Hiller's. 

Now melted and ready to be mixed with the eggs and matzoh meal....

Mixing the eggs, water, maztoh meal, chicken fat and seasonings.

The mixture then rests in the refrigerator.

There is great debate (but of course) among Jewish cooks as to whether the matzoh balls should be firm and chewy, or soft and fluffy. My family was always of the “soft and fluffy” school of matzoh balls, so although the recipe calls for resting the dough for 30 minutes, I give it a full hour, often more. This is really what determines the texture; how much time the matzoh meal has to absorb the liquid in the mixture.

After the allotted time, use wet hands to shape the dough into 1” balls. I make mine a little bigger than that since the dough is a little fluffier after resting for over an hour.

The shaped balls are then carefully dropped into gently boiling water, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan before they float to the top.

They simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes, until they are fluffy and have increased in size by about 1/3 or more.

A bowl of finished matzo balls (foreground),
and more waiting for their turn in the stockpot (background).

While the matzoh balls are cooking, I cut up some carrots and celery and put it in a large saucepan with the chicken broth. By the time the matzoh balls were finished, the celery and carrots were tender and had given the packaged broth a sweet, freshly-made flavor.


…and joy.

(Oy! That hair!)

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Shiksa's Guide to Making Latkes

A Shiksa’s Guide to Making Latkes

Hanukkah--the holiday with as many spellings as Liz Taylor has last names--is early this year, meaning you've just barely finished the turkey leftovers and you're now staring at a 10 pound bag of potatoes and wondering what you did with that kosher caterer's business card.

Although this holiday has less religious significance than many other Jewish holidays it is, arguably, the most fun. We have spinning dreydels, chocolate coins wrapped in silver and gold, candles to light, gifts to open and, most importantly, pounds and pounds of potatoes and onions to shred and fry. And who doesn’t love a holiday that entails spending hours over skillets of hot canola?

So in order to prepare us all for this festive occasion, I thought I would share the proper technique for making latkes, with special instructions for the novice latke maker and any shiksas* among us who might find themselves in the unfortunate position of hosting this year’s festivities.

Please note:  It is important that you not skip any of these steps or you'll be the topic of conversation at next week's mahjong game, and it won't be pretty.

Latkes: Preparation, Recipe and Serving Method

Here are instructions and a recipe for real Jewish Latkes; the kind that stink up your house for weeks (especially if you make 90 of them for your family Hanukkah party and leave the next day for two weeks in Boca).

Just ten easy steps.  What, you have something else to do besides fry latkes for 14 people?


1) Argue for months (beginning around Rosh Hashana) over who is making the latkes this year. When you are chosen, casually mutter under your breath that yours are better, anyway.

2) Phone all of the other people involved (namely those who weren't chosen to make latkes and a few of your unsuspecting shiksa* girlfriends) and whine until they agree to come over to help you. (Your shiksa friends will only fall for this once, so choose wisely.)

3) Cover your stove and other work surfaces to protect them from hot oil (foil works well). In fact, draping your entire kitchen in Reynolds Wrap and having a Hazmat team at the ready would not be overkill. (Those guys that cleaned up after the BP spill in the gulf would be perfect.)

4) Put on your oldest "schmatta" (an old rag of an outfit) because the smell will never leave your clothing. Never. Ever. Trust me. Please.

5) Prepare, Prepare, Prepare: Open all the windows in the kitchen and turn on the exhaust fan. Close all bedroom doors and put rolled towels underneath. Turn off the furnace so the smell isn't circulated through the house. Buy an extra furnace filter to install after the holiday. Find the fire extinguisher and place it within easy reach, even though it's 20 years old, in need of recharging and you have no idea how to use it.

6) Fill several skillets with about 1/2 inch of oil, tisk-tisking as to "oy, so much fat!" the entire time and loudly debating the merits of sunflower/corn/canola oil with your latke-making partners and insisting that your choice of oil (whichever it is) is best, even if you used something different last year and you're only using canola this year because it was 2/$5 at Kroger last week.

7) Call your mother or grandmother 6 times while you are mixing the batter to make sure you have the proportions right and then cry until she comes over to help you. (Special note for shiksas: under NO circumstances call your Jewish mother-in-law for advice; this would be admitting weakness and it’s all down hill from there.)

8) Loudly yell "oy!" each time a tiny splatter of grease touches your skin and complain that your back hurts after the 3rd batch. (If you'd stand up straight like I told you, you wouldn't have this problem.) Take a motrin. At this point, those of us with shiksa blood begin drinking heavily. I find sparkling wine goes nicely with latke making, although grain alcohol straight from the bottle will do in a pinch. And surely it's no coincidence that "vodka" is the only word that rhymes with "latke".

9) Repeat until all potatoes are fried and your kitchen, clothing, hair and the dog smell like a White Castle restaurant at 2 am. (Only a shiksa would know from that smell.)

And now for step ten.

I'm pretty sure every single latke cook learned to make these crispy delights as a result of having been suckered into helping someone else make them and that no real recipe for them exists.  Now, pay attention because I'm only telling you this once.

10) This is really just one sure to read it all the way through; I wouldn't want you to be the subject of gossip in the locker room at the JCC next week. (It's bad enough they're already talking about you at mahj.)


Large russet potatoes (many pounds)
medium yellow onions (about a 1 to 5 ratio to potatoes)
eggs (a dozen or more)
matzo meal or flour (many handfuls)
salt (several large pinches per batch)
pepper (smidgens per batch...oy, so spicy!)
oil (more than you can imagine)

a) shred or grate potatoes and put in a bowl of cold water until all potatoes are shredded

b) grate onions and put in a separate bowl (a gas mask is helpful here)

c) beat a bunch of eggs and season them with salt and pepper

Then, using a separate large bowl

d) pull about four or five big handfuls of shredded potatoes from the water and squeeze the moisture back into the bowl of potatoes and water until they are pretty dry (alternately you can squeeze in cheesecloth) and dump into another large bowl

e) add a handful of or so of onion to the bowl

f) add a small handful of flour or matzo meal until the potatoes are very lightly coated, mixing with your hands

g) add enough egg to well moisten the potatoes; the mixture should be wet but not soupy

h) at this point experienced latke makers will take some of the potato starch that has settled to the bottom of the original bowl of potatoes and water and stir this into the mixture, as well

i) fill your palm with some of the potato mixture and pat it to compress it onto a large spoon or spatula; slide it gently into a skillet containing about 1/2 inch of hot (375) oil...cook until browned on one side; turn over and brown on the other side.  (If you're cooking for a crowd, you'll need multiple skillets going at once. In this case, I recommend holding off on the vodka until after the latkes are made. Four skillets of hot oil can strike fear in the heart of even the most experienced latke maker.)

j) drain on a rack or paper towels, transfer to baking sheets lined with brown paper (from grocery bags works great) and set aside. Reheat in a hot oven when ready to serve. Once they are cooled you can freeze them and use a paper bag lined cookie sheets to reheat. They reheat really well.

Serving Method: (What, you're shocked that there are twelves steps in the ten-step process? Silly girl, have I taught you nothing?)

11) Fill two platters with hot latkes; repeat as needed. (It is best for the latke chef to plan to remain standing for the duration of the meal.)

12) Serve with sugar free apple sauce and low fat sour cream and act surprised when your gentile guests find the incongruity of this puzzling.

Happy Hanukkah...Chanukah...whatever.

* unsuspecting Gentile woman

This material is the sole property of the writer and may not be copied or republished without permission.

Stop by, bring wine.

Preferably good wine. Food would be good, too.