Matzo Ball Soup: Monday Night Martha

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What's a goy like Martha know about making matzo balls?

Here at Monday Night Martha we've decided to find out. We've never made matzo ball soup before but we'd like to perfect our skills in time for Passover. For this cooking adventure, we've enlisted the help of a friend with 6 years of Hebrew school under his belt (though he has never made matzo balls, either).

Let's start with the basics. Matzo or matzah is a cracker-like food that comes in sheets which can be eaten on their own or broken up and made into dumplings for soup or mixed with egg for the fried matzo dish, matzo brei.

We were a little skeptical looking over this Martha recipe. It doesn't call for any onions or celery. Why, we know a Brooklyn couple that fell in love over a simple conversation about soup and celery. She was carrying celery. He asked, "What are you making?" She said, "soup." Then he said, "Celery is the true flavor of soup." She found this to be such a bona fide first-class statement she gave the fellow a second look and eventually let him into her wary hipster heart. No kidding.

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Martha's recipe doesn't call for celery. In fact aside from the matzo balls it includes just four ingredients: chicken stock, carrots, parsnips, and fresh dill.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves -- the first and most important step is making the matzo balls and if we screw this up it won't matter what the rest of the soup is like.

Martha says to whisk together three eggs with 3 tablespoons schmaltz. Martha doesn't use the Yiddish word "schmaltz," she just says rendered chicken fat. You can substitute with vegetable oil, or in some recipes, margarine. We wimp out and opt for the vegetable oil though we know the lack of schmaltz may make for an inferior matzo ball.

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Next we whisk in a cup of water and the matzo meal. We purchased whole matzo crackers at the store and then broke them down in the food processor to get the meal. It meant our meal was a little larger and chunkier than breadcrumbs but personally we liked the fact that it wasn't quite so uniform in texture.

When the water and egg and matzo and chicken fat (or vegetable oil) are combined the texture is not pretty. It looks very liquidy and, frankly, vomitous. Concern is expressed that this will not turn into a workable batter. But the Hebrew School cooking partner assures us this is the correct way. (Did we mention that he had never actually made matzo balls before?) Place the mixture in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, and the crackers will absorb most of the liquid.

The balls are shaped by hand and dropped into simmering chicken broth. You can wet your fingertips to keep the batter from sticking too much while shaping. The size of the balls is a matter of personal preference. We stuck with about 2 tablespoons of batter per matzo ball. Keep in mind the matzo balls will expand during the cooking process.

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Simmer for about 10 minutes, and then add 3 medium carrots and 2 medium parsnips peeled and sliced into half-inch rounds into the soup. Cook until vegetables are tender and matzos are cooked through, garnish with fresh dill.

Our cooking partner declares that the soup was good; the matzo balls had a nice density and texture and the slight sweetness of the carrots and parsnips was surprisingly good.

Like most comfort foods, matzo ball soup is one of those recipes that beg for improvisation. You can take the basic recipe, such as this one of Martha's, and riff on it. Garlic, celery, parsley, onion -- it's up to you.

The next time for us, celery will be present, and then of course the bigger question -- to schmaltz or not to schmaltz?

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