Crazy about kneidelach

Outside of matza and haroset, chicken soup with matza balls must be the quintessential Pessah food.

matzah ball soup 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
matzah ball soup 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Outside of matza and haroset, chicken soup with matza balls must be the quintessential Pessah food. "For me," wrote David Ansel, the author of The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups (Ten Speed, 2005), "eating matza ball soup any other time of year than Passover would be akin to... hearing crickets on a winter's eve, or smelling chimney smoke on a summer afternoon." Sticking closely to custom is common on Pessah, but Ansel takes his adherence to tradition farther than others. In attempting to make their Pessah menu as authentic as possible, he and his friends dug a pit in their yard to roast a lamb, imitating the ancient Hebrews in the desert. Next, he and his girlfriend began making matza balls. "Please crack 100 eggs into this bowl," he instructed her, figuring the whole neighborhood would want some. When he asked her to work faster, saying, "I'm trying to get out of Eretz Mitzrayim before sunset," she replied, "If the Jews were in such a hurry to get out of Egypt, how the hell did they have time to make matza ball soup?" The identity of whoever devised this great way to use matza remains unknown. Perhaps it came down along with the "Oral Law." And one rule seems to have come along with the recipe - don't mess with matza balls. The ingredient list is pretty standard - matza meal, eggs, salt, pepper and often chicken fat or oil. Still, creative cooks cannot resist trying something different. A vegetarian friend of mine, Nancy Eisman of Melissa's Worldwide Produce, enriches her matza balls with tofu and serves them in vegetable broth flavored with miso (Japanese soy bean paste). It's kosher for Pessah "for bean-eaters." Another friend, Akasha Richmond, author of Hollywood Dish (Avery, 2006), flavors her kneidelach with hot peppers and holy basil, and seasons her soup with gingerroot and lemongrass. But when my sister-in-law Hedva Cohen told me about the matza balls she prepared a couple of years ago, all I could say was "Wow!" They were stuffed with chopped liver! This was in the same league with the wildest inventions of nouvelle cuisine. Hedva assured me the kneidelach tasted great, and said the recipe was from chef Israel Aharoni. His creation caused a controversy, recounted by Joan Nathan in The Foods of Israel Today (Knopf, 2001): "Israel Aharoni, one of Israel's major cooking personalities, caused quite a stir in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot when he published the recipe." Some irate readers complained he shouldn't tamper with matza balls. But, wrote Nathan, Aharoni feels "there is a revolution of food in Israel. Our... chefs came with cooking habits from all over the world... now we are trying everything." Even traditional cooks cannot resist playing with matza balls. My mother, who made delicate kneidelach for nearly every Shabbat and holiday, sometimes served them differently - in chicken tzimmes. The rich sauce of the stew beautifully complemented the light dumplings. Her example guided me in choosing the entree for the Pessah cooking class that I am teaching this week: chicken in a Sephardi pepper sauce with cumin and turmeric, matched with Ashkenazi matza balls. Like many other Ashkenazi-Sephardi pairings, they go together perfectly. CHICKEN WITH MATZA BALLS, PEPPERS AND GREEN BEANS This colorful entree is perfect for the Seder, as it can be made in advance and reheated. a 1.5-kg. chicken, cut in 8 serving pieces Salt and freshly ground pepper 1/2 tsp. turmeric 1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil 1 large onion, thinly sliced 1 green bell pepper, cut in strips 1 red bell pepper, cut in strips 3 large garlic cloves, minced 2 ripe or canned tomatoes, chopped 1 1/2 cups chicken broth or water, or more if needed 700 gr. green beans, ends removed, halved 3 Tbsp. chopped dill or 2 to 2 1/2 tsp. dried (optional) Matza balls (see next recipe) Sprinkle chicken on both sides with pepper, turmeric and 1 teaspoon cumin. Rub seasonings into chicken. Heat oil in a shallow stew pan. Add leg and thigh pieces and brown them on all sides over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes. Remove them and brown remaining chicken pieces for 5 minutes; remove. Add onion to pan and cook over low heat until soft but not browned. Stir in peppers and garlic and cook, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and remaining cumin. Set chicken on top, putting in leg and thigh pieces first to be sure they are close to base of pan. Add broth and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 40 minutes or until chicken is tender. Cook green beans in a large saucepan of boiling salted water to cover for 5 minutes or until crisp tender. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Add green beans to sauce and heat through. Add more stock if sauce is too thick. Stir in dill, and salt and pepper if needed. Serve in shallow bowls or deep plates, with matza balls. Makes 4 servings. MATZA BALLS 3 large eggs 1 cup matza meal 1/4 tsp. salt, or to taste pinch of pepper 2 to 3 Tbsp. chicken soup or water 2 liters salted water, or 1 liter water and 1 liter chicken broth (for simmering) In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs. Add matza meal, salt and pepper and stir with a fork until smooth. Stir in chicken soup by spoonfuls, adding enough so mixture is just firm enough to hold together in rough-shaped balls. Bring salted water to a bare simmer. With wet hands, take about 2 teaspoons of dough and roll it between your palms to a ball; mixture will be soft. Gently drop matza ball into simmering water. Continue making balls, wetting hands before shaping each one. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. Keep them warm, covered, until ready to serve. When serving, remove them carefully with a slotted spoon, add them to bowls and spoon sauce over them. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins) and 1,000 Jewish Recipes (Wiley).