Passover comes late this year. Usually, Passover and Easter fall close together. The timing of the Christian holiday is, in fact, based on the Jewish one.
In the western church (Catholics and Protestants), Easter is observed on the Sunday following the full moon that comes on or after the spring equinox (March 21). So Easter can happen anywhere between March 22 and April 25, usually on the Sunday following the beginning of Passover.
But the Jewish calendar is a lunar once and sometimes an extra lunar cycle slips in there and a situation develops like this year, Passover comes almost a month later than Easter.
Which makes a great opportunity for folks who are usually busy with a different holiday to enjoy some Passover specialties this year. The primary thing that separates Passover food from the rest of the year is the total absence of leavening, commemorating Moses’ leading the Jews out of Egypt.
Before Passover begins, in a kosher home, all baked goods and leavening are removed from the house and it’s cleaned from top to bottom to remove even the smallest speck of yeast or leavening, which is probably the origin of spring cleaning.
At the center of Passover food is matzo, an unleavened flatbread that through millennia of ingenuity, has become capable of many kitchen miracles.
Eaten alone or with a meal, smeared with chopped liver for a snack or re-invented as matzo brie for breakfast, it serves many purposes. Not least is when it’s ground into matzo meal and made into matzo ball soup. Jewish cooks long ago raised chicken soup to an art form and matzo ball soup is the highest expression of that art.
There are as many ways to make matzo ball soup as there are Jewish grandmothers but two recipes follow that show both ends of the spectrum. One is detailed and involves making and fortifying homemade chicken broth. The other is quick and easy and will give homemade soup in less than an hour. Both are good. One may be better.
Two additional hints from Barbara Elmore of State Road, “Whip your egg whites until stiff and fold them in with the matzoh just before forming to drop into the soup. Also, never let the soup boil at any time, only simmer.”
Matzo and matzo meal are both sold at Lowe’s Foods in the ethnic foods aisle and may be available in other markets locally. The first, more involved recipe will also provide you with some schmaltz, or chicken fat, the secret to Jewish cooking.
Don’t hesitate to try your hand at matzo ball soup even if your family has never tried it and doesn’t take well to new things. They’ll think the matzo balls are dumplings. Maybe even after you tell them otherwise. It’s a win-win. Everybody likes chicken and dumplings.
Matzo Ball Soup (like Bubbie used to make)
Serves 6 to 8
For the fortified chicken stock:
1 whole chicken
12 cloves garlic, divided
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh sage
64 ounces unsalted chicken stock
1 tbsp. whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp. whole coriander
1 yellow onion, large diced
1 bay leaf
1 cup loosely packed fresh dill
For the matzo balls:
2 medium carrots, washed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 ribs of celery, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups cooked shredded chicken
4 eggs, lightly beaten
5 tbsp. chicken fat
½ tsp. salt
2 tbsp. chicken stock
1 cup matzo meal
2 tbsp. seltzer
A handful of chopped fresh dill sprigs to garnish
Make the fortified chicken stock: Preheat the oven to 425° F. Stuff the cavity of the chicken with 4 smashed cloves of garlic, 1/2 lemon, 6 sprigs of fresh thyme, and 2 sprigs of fresh sage. Rub the outside of the chicken with olive oil, and season aggressively with salt. Place the chicken in a large Dutch oven or roasting pan, and cook for approximately 45 minutes, until the skin is golden and the dark meat is fully cooked. Set the chicken aside until it is cool enough to handle.
Fill a large pot with the stock, water, peppercorns, coriander, onion, bay leaf, and 8 crushed cloves of garlic. Break the chicken down into pieces, making sure to capture and reserve all the fat and juices that are released. Discard the skin, reserve all of the meat, and place all bones and inedible bits into the large pot with the stock. Store the chicken meat in the refrigerator. You will need approximately 2 cups of shredded chicken for the soup, and any remaining chicken can be eaten as a snack or put to another use. Collect all fat and drippings from the roasted chicken and store it in the refrigerator. Set the stock pot over high heat. When the stock is boiling, reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer. Cook for 50 minutes. Add the dill and cook for 10 additional minutes. Strain the stock. Please note, the stock can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
Make the matzo balls: Add the reinforced stock to a large pot and set it over high heat. Set aside 2 tablespoons of chicken stock for the matzo balls. When the stock begins to simmer, turn the heat down to low. Add the carrots, celery, and shredded chicken. While the carrots and celery are cooking in the stock, make the matzo balls.
Combine the lightly beaten eggs with the chicken fat. If you stored the chicken fat in the refrigerator and it has congealed, make sure to warm it until it becomes a liquid again before mixing it with the eggs. Add the salt and chicken stock. Add the matzo meal and mix with a rubber spatula until just combined. Add the seltzer and mix to combine. Store this mixture in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Set a large pot of water over high heat until it boils. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. When the matzo mixture has been in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, you can lightly salt the boiling water, shape the matzo mixture into balls that are slightly bigger than a ping pong ball, and add them to the simmering water. Cook the matzo balls for 45 to 50 minutes. Transfer the matzo balls to the chicken soup pot, garnish with fresh dill, and serve.
Quick Matzo Ball Soup
The amount of actual chicken in matzo ball soup varies. There can be a lot or there can be none, with the soup completely dependant on the chicken broth for its intense flavor and, of course, anything in between.
1 pkg. (4.5 oz) matzo ball mix
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp. salt
64 oz. reduced-sodium chicken broth
3 large carrots, sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
¼ tsp. black pepper, or to taste
Prepare the matzo ball mix according to the package directions. (For most packages, mix the matzo meal with 4 beaten eggs and 1/2 cup oil, stir and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Do not over-mix.)
Set a large pot of water to boil. Once it boils, add the salt to the boiling water. Using wet hands, gently form the matzo ball mixture into 1-inch balls and carefully drop them into the water. Cover the pot and cook them for 30 minutes (reduce the heat, if necessary, to keep it at a low boil).
After adding the matzo balls to the boiling water, bring the broth to a boil in a separate large pot. Add the carrots and celery and simmer them for 15 minutes. Add cooked chicken. When the matzo balls are cooked, using a slotted spoon, carefully remove them from the salted water and add them to the pot with the vegetables. (At this point you can serve the soup immediately or refrigerate it for up to 3 days). Add the dill and black pepper and serve it hot, making sure to put a matzo ball and some vegetables into each bowl.
4 large eggs
1 tsp. salt, or to taste
3/4 stick (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter
Crumble matzos into a large sieve placed over a bowl to catch crumbs, then hold sieve under running cold water until matzos are moist and softened but not completely disintegrated, about 15 seconds. Transfer to bowl with crumbs, then add eggs and salt and mix gently with a fork. Heat butter in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides. Add matzo mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until eggs are scrambled and matzo has begun to crisp, about 3 minutes.