This is a big weekend for matzo ball soup.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, starts Sunday night, and chef Pati Jinich wants all the matzo-ball makers out there to understand: The soup doesn’t care whether you prefer floaters or sinkers.
“It turns out that matzo balls are insanely capricious,” Jinich says. “One Friday, they’re like, you can have me fluffy. And the other week is like, this is what you’ll get.”
Matzo ball soup is a classic recipe straight from Eastern Europe — typically chicken stock, root vegetables and dumplings made from the crumbs of unleavened bread.
But the recipe that Jinich serves at her home near Washington, D.C., took a detour. Like her Eastern European, Jewish grandparents, it skipped Ellis Island and reached the New World through Mexico. Which is why Jinich’s matzo ball soup sits on a bed of steamed mushrooms, jalapeños and onions. It’s “not traditional, but it is a recipe my grandmother used to make in Mexico,” she says.
Flipping through Jinich’s cookbook, Mexican Today, it’s easy to see these recipes as something other than purely Mexican. There are variations on pizza, mac and cheese and this matzo ball soup.
Her family has done this for generations: integrating its culinary roots with the place it lives now.
When her paternal grandmother, Esther Morgenstern, moved to Mexico from Poland in the 1920s, traditional gefilte fish got the Vera Cruz treatment with red sauce, capers and pickled chiles.
Chicharrones were off limits — crispy pig skin isn’t kosher. Instead, for Friday night Shabbat dinner, she made gribenes — Yiddish for “crispy chicken skin.”
“So instead of doing tacos with corn tortillas with guacamole and pork rind, [my grandmother] would do corn tortillas with guacamole and gribenes. So that was the Shabbat chicharron!” Jinich recalls.
And for the Jewish new year, Jinich’s maternal grandmother, Lotte Gross — who immigrated to Mexico from Austria in the 1940s — made this reinvented matzo ball soup.
“She came from Austria, and there they have a lot of mushroom dishes,” Jinich explains. “And in Mexico in the rainy season, you get wild kinds of mushrooms, clouds and birds. The shapes are insane — they’re blue and yellow. She’d choose different kinds of mushrooms and then cook them with jalapeño, onion and garlic.”
Mushrooms and jalapeños aren’t the only surprises in this soup. When Jinich mixes the matzo balls, she adds freshly grated nutmeg.
“Nutmeg — when you use it for savory foods, it makes the other elements of that dish shine a little bit more,” Jinich says. “It makes the sweetness of the matzo meal come out.”
Another surprise? Toasted sesame oil. It adds a nutty, toasted flavor to Jinich’s matzo ball soup.
Finally, she shares a trick to help the matzo balls float — sparkling water. “It keeps it light and fluffy,” she says.
The resulting soup is hearty, earthy. The jalapeños add a touch of heat; the matzo meal and sesame oil give it a nutty sweetness. The taste, I tell her, is familiar but different — like a taste of home, but a home that has been remodeled.
At that, Jinich laughs. “It’s not overpowering, that’s what I love,” she says. “And it’s still very homey. It’s still something you’d want to have if you have a cold tonight.”
Matzo Balls With Mushrooms And Jalapeños In Broth
(Bolas de Matza con hongos y chiles)
Serves 6 to 8
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Make ahead: The soup can be made up to 3 days ahead, covered, and refrigerated.
This is a Mexican rendition of matzo ball soup, with jalapeños sweated along with mushrooms, adding subtle heat to the broth. The mushroom base is easy to make. It’s a wonderful way to dress up chicken soup for the holidays or for entertaining. My maternal grandmother used to season her matzo balls with nutmeg and a bit of parsley. I add a splash of toasted sesame oil, too. Her secret ingredient for making them fluffy was a dash of sparkling water. She used mushrooms of all sorts in the soup, but she was moderate in her use of chiles. In honor of my late grandfather, who was obsessed with chiles, I add a lot more to this soup than she would have.
1 cup matzo ball mix (or two 2-ounce packages)
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher or sea salt
4 large eggs
8 tablespoons canola or safflower oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons sparkling water
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 jalapeño chiles, finely chopped (seeded if desired) or to taste
8 ounces white and/or baby bella (cremini) mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned and thinly sliced
8 cups chicken broth, homemade or store-bought
- In a large bowl, combine the matzo ball mix, parsley, nutmeg, and 3/4 teaspoon salt. In another small bowl, lightly beat the eggs with 6 tablespoons of the canola oil and the sesame oil. Fold the beaten eggs into the matzo ball mixture with a rubber spatula. Add the sparkling water and mix until well combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and chiles and cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have softened a bit. Stir in the mushrooms and 3/4 teaspoon salt, cover, and steam the mushrooms for 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the lid and cook uncovered until the liquid in the pot evaporates. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
- Meanwhile, when ready to cook the matzo balls, bring about 3 quarts salted water to a rolling boil in a large pot over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, shape the matzo ball mix into 1- to 1 1/2-inch balls and gently drop them into the water. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until the matzo balls are completely cooked and have puffed up. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to the soup. Serve.
Text excerpted from Mexican Today, copyright 2016 by Pati Jinich. Reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.