- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

My favorite Southern story comes from journalist Carol Ann Blitzer of Baton Rouge, La. The Southern sensibilities of a 102-year-old lady were offended when Miss Blitzer showed up to photograph the lady preparing matzo balls for a Passover story.

To help the elderly lady with the photograph, Miss Blitzer brought with her some light, fluffy matzo balls from a mix. The centenarian took one look at them and cried, “Yankee matzo balls.”

She pulled out a butcher knife and began chopping scallions and sprinkling on red pepper to stud the dumplings. She then molded them into small, decidedly less bouncy balls for the photograph.

Marcie Cohen Ferris, in “Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South” (University of North Carolina Press), does not tell tales of Jews from Baton Rouge, but she does relate hilarious and heartwarming stories about how Southern and Jewish cultures have melded at the dinner table throughout the South.

Miss Ferris, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, turned her doctoral dissertation into a readable account of how small communities of Jews throughout the South settled into the larger community and how they balanced their Southern and Jewish identities, something so many of our immigrant populations are wrestling with today.

For her book, Miss Ferris concentrated on interviewing cooks in Savannah, Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans, Atlanta and the Mississippi Delta. She found that French cooking styles, African spices and seasonings, as well as native produce and seafood, all blended into Jewish food, even the iconic matzo ball.

She heard people in New Orleans calling matzo balls “dumplings,” something I had previously noticed in nearby Hattiesburg, Miss., where I found stuffed matzo balls, a dish native to Lithuania, boiled and then transformed into golden brown matzo balls baked in muffin tins.

In Lithuania, these large stuffed matzo balls were connected to the Hasidic religious tradition. The cinnamon stuffing represents the secret sweetness within the spice box at the Havdalah service ending the Sabbath, and a wish to stretch the Sabbath as long as possible.

Sometimes the dumplings, or kneidlach, are made as they were in Germany and Alsace-Lorraine, the origins of many of the early Louisiana Jews. Some matzo balls are made with crushed matzo, ginger and nutmeg, and some are served Creole-style with seasonings including salt and pepper, scallions, parsley and sometimes red pepper.

They are either cooked first in water or in a reddish-colored Austrian-style soup made of beef and vegetables. I have also tasted a matzo ball base in South Carolina called “soup bunch,” thus named because of the root vegetables, including beets, parsley root and potatoes, sold together in a bunch for the soup.

In the South, matzo balls are also served like dumplings, sauteed in lots of butter and served as a side dish. “Serving the matzo balls as a side dish, rather than floating in a soup, ‘de-ethnicized’ the matzo ball,” Miss Ferris told me. “In the soup bowl, the matzo ball was Jewish, but served on the side it became an American side dish, as innocuous as rice or potatoes.

“The matzo ball is the Jewish culinary icon,” Miss Ferris added. “It means family, home and holiday. It is special. In New Orleans, cuisine is so strong that they can’t withstand the influence of gumbo, even now. Lately, people are making Creole matzo balls because they speak of the experiences of the flood. It is a way of keeping New Orleans in our hearts, especially at Passover.”

Creole matzo balls

This recipe was adapted from “Matzo Ball Gumbo.”

2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1/4 cup finely chopped onion

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 to 2½ teaspoons Creole seasoning (see note)

2 large eggs

½ cup matzo meal

Water

Kosher salt

In a small nonstick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in parsley and Creole seasoning to taste and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Scrape onion mixture into a medium bowl and let cool slightly.

Add eggs and remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Mix with a fork until eggs are well broken up. Add matzo meal and mix until blended. Cover and refrigerate for 20 minutes or a few hours.

Meanwhile, fill a large saucepan with water. Cover and bring to a boil. Moisten your hands and form the matzo ball mixture into 12 balls, using a heaping tablespoon mixture for each.

Add a big pinch of salt to the boiling water and drop in the matzo balls. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes, or until cooked through. Serve as a side dish or transfer with a slotted spoon to Red Soup (see preceding recipe) and serve hot. Makes 12 matzo balls or 6 servings.

Note: Creole seasoning blends are available in the spice section of most supermarkets and also sold on the Web.

Red soup

This recipe was adapted from “Matzo Ball Gumbo,” by Marcie Cohen Ferris.

2 cups coarsely chopped green cabbage

1 large Yukon Gold potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

1 large onion, coarsely chopped

1 large turnip, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

1 cup sliced leek, well rinsed of grit

2 medium carrots, sliced ½-inch thick

1 stalk celery, sliced

Water

1 6-ounce can tomato paste

2 teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 2-pound piece well-trimmed boneless beef brisket or chuck roast

Favorite recipe matzo balls, optional

Chopped fresh parsley for garnish, optional

In a Dutch oven or soup pot, place cabbage, potato, onion, turnip, leek, carrots, celery, 8 cups water, tomato paste, salt and pepper. Stir to mix well. There should be enough water to barely cover the vegetables. If not, add more, but do not make the soup too thin. Add brisket or chuck roast, stir again and bring to a boil over high heat.

Skim off foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until brisket is tender when pierced with a fork, about 2½ to 3 hours. Remove from heat. Remove brisket from soup. For best flavor, cover soup, wrap brisket and refrigerate both overnight.

To serve, skim any fat from soup. Cut brisket into 1-inch pieces and return to soup. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper, if necessary. Serve with hot with matzo balls and sprinkled with parsley, if desired. Makes 6 generous servings; more if matzo balls are added.

Mississippi baked stuffed matzo balls

This recipe was adapted from my book, “Jewish Cooking in America” (Alfred Knopf).

Vegetable oil for greasing muffin pans

4 large eggs, slightly beaten

2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable shortening

1 cup matzo meal

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

6 tablespoons chicken soup or water

FILLING:

1 onion, chopped extra fine

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or chicken fat

2 tablespoons matzo meal

1 egg yolk

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Dash of cinnamon

Water

Oil

12 cups chicken soup

Grease cups of a 12-cup muffin pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat eggs and chicken fat or vegetable shortening together. Stir in matzo meal, salt and parsley. Add chicken soup or water. Refrigerate 1 hour or more, to permit the meal to absorb the liquids.

Meanwhile, make the filling. Fry onion in oil or chicken fat over medium heat until it is very crisp. Cool slightly and then mix in 2 tablespoons matzo meal and egg yolk. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cinnamon.

Dip palms of your hands in cold water. Form 12 matzo balls from the refrigerated mixture, making them about the diameter of a 50-cent piece, wetting your hands as needed to keep them from sticking. Spoon a heaping teaspoon of filling into the middle of the matzo ball and close well.

Fill a 6-quart pot with a lid with salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drop in the matzo balls. Cover pot and cook just at a simmer for 30 minutes or until plump.

Remove matzo balls with a slotted spoon and put them in the greased muffin tins. Coat each matzo ball with a little oil and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown. To serve, place one matzo ball in the center of a soup bowl and spoon chicken soup over. Makes 12 matzo balls.

Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, “The New American Cooking” (Alfred Knopf), includes her mother’s recipe for, what else? Matzo balls.


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