The International Language of Matzo Balls
by Ari LeVaux
When I was a restaurant critic in Albuquerque, I reviewed a small Mexican establishment named Dahlia’s, tucked into a strip mall on the city’s west side. The meal had its ups and downs, but the highlight was as unexpected as it was impressive: a bowl of matzo balls worthy of my Jewish mother’s respect.
Technically, they were albondigas, Mexican-style beef meatballs served in a shallow bowl of tomato-based vegetable soup. But they felt like Mexican matzo balls.
Mom’s matzo balls were always my favorite part of Passover. They have a mellow, soothing flavor and a supple structure that absorbs broth without softening, and I could always count on the juicy, savory satisfaction of a matzo ball dunked in her dilly chicken soup.
Albondigas don’t always taste like good matzo balls, especially Mom’s, but Dahlia’s had that general quality. I wondered if they had anything to do with the secret Jews of the Southwest.
For centuries, rumors have persisted of so-called “crypto-Jews” in New Mexico, old Mexico and Texas, and historians have gradually come to a consensus that the crypto-Jews were indeed real. And that they had good reason to keep their faith and rituals a secret.
The crypto-Jews are descendants of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity--sometimes by force--to escape persecution during the 1300s. Many of these marranos, as they were called, continued to practice Judaism covertly, and some migrated to the New World with the Spanish colonists.
During the Inquisition, Spanish officials would go from village to village, asking residents if they had seen evidence of Jewish behavior among their neighbors, such as the lighting of candles on Friday nights, or avoiding pork. This attitude, understandably, kept Judaism underground.
Dahlia, the owner of the restaurant, was a small, energetic woman with a head of sunny blonde hair. She circulated the dining room chatting with guests, and soon after reaching my table mentioned having a Jewish grandmother. I wrote it off as a coincidence, as we had been discussing pork.
In hindsight, I wish I had asked Dahlia the question that truly burned in my belly: “Is there matzo meal in the albondigas?” Matzo meal being the pulverized matzo used to make matzo balls. At the time, I was working in my capacity as a crypto-journalist, and didn’t want to attract attention.
After my review ran, Dahlia threatened to sue the newspaper over comments I’d made about her chiles rellenos. And even though she eventually abandoned the effort, I had lost my chance to ask her about those albondigas.
I decided to find out for myself, by using matzo-meal a typical albondigas recipe in place of the rice or masa (corn tortilla flour) that are traditionally used. My plan: make matzo albondigas, with chicken instead of beef, because they would be floating in chicken soup, like a matzo ball should.
I conducted side-by-side comparisons of my matzo albondigas against versions made with rice, masa, and even a combination of matzo and masa. Only the pure matzo meal-based albondigas had that special quality, reminiscent of Mom’s matzo balls or Dahlia’s albondigas.
If you are attending a serious, traditional Passover sedar, I don’t recommend bringing these albondigas and attempting to pass them off as matzo balls. Not all Passover veterans are as tolerant as my mom. But you could bring them to a Mexican party, call them albondigas, and be fine.
This recipe is meant to be made in concert with chicken soup. A few tablespoons of the broth are added to the meatball mixture, and the balls are then simmered in the broth.
Most albondigas recipes don’t include pecans, which are abundant in crypto-Jew country, or parsley, a Passover staple. But then, most albondigas are not crypto-Jewish Passover albondigas.
Makes 15 golf ball-sized spheres
¾ cup matzo meal
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
a pinch of nutmeg powder
2 tablespoons crushed pecans
1 lb ground chicken or turkey
½ cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons hot chicken soup broth
Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the parsley, garlic, meat and egg in another. Combine the contents of both bowls, and mix well. Refrigerate for at least minutes. Form the batter into walnut-sized orbs. Drop them in the chicken soup and simmer, covered, for about 30minutes.
Mom’s chicken soup
The only alteration I have made to the soup she has made forever is the addition of lemon. She respects the change, but does not endorse it.
I use a removable pasta boiler, which is basically a strainer that fits in the pot, for the chicken bones. That way I can cook the bones in the stock and easily remove them. Otherwise, pick out the bones or let them settle to the bottom of the pot, and be careful not to serve them with the soup.
Serves a whole party
one baked chicken (could be a store-bought rotisserie chicken if you’re pressed for time)
Salt and garlic salt and pepper to season the chicken
five quarts water
one onion, unpeeled, cut into quarters
two carrots, chopped for soup (about two cups)
three celery stalks, cut for soup (about two cups)
3 tablespoons dried dill
parsley stems leftover from matzo ball making
Juice of one fresh lemon
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for the final seasoning
Sprinkle the chicken with salt, garlic powder and and black pepper, and bake at 325 for about two hours, periodically turning and/or basting the bird until it’s as soft as a rotisserie chicken from the store. (Or just bring one home). When it’s cool enough to work with, remove the meat from the bones and refrigerate.
Heat the water and add the bones, along with the attached cartilage and tendons, and as much skin as you wish, as well as the pan drippings (or bag drippings), and simmer for an hour minimum. Add the vegetables, lemon juice, salt, dill, and any chicken meat you haven’t already devoured, and cook for another 60 minutes. Season with salt and dill.