Flash in the Pan 

Matzo ball-ogy in time for Passover

The Jews fled Egypt in such a hurry, reports the Old Testament, they couldn’t even wait for their bread to rise—they mixed flour and water, baked flat sheets called matzo, and bailed.

By all accounts, the ensuing 40-day matzo fast was no picnic. Matzo is dry, chalky, oven-browned with burn spots, and bland enough to discourage even the most determined of hungers. Appropriately, matzo is a staple of Passover, the Jewish celebration of a hunger for freedom worth eating matzo for. This year, Passover falls on April 20.

Centuries after their journey across desert and sea, the Jewish diaspora is reflected in the many spellings of matzo: matzah, matza, matzoh, matze, massa, masa, and so on. Meanwhile, the famous Last Supper of Jesus “the Jew” Christ was a Passover supper, or seder. Today, Passover celebrates survival on earth, while Passover’s spawn, Easter, celebrates resurrection and rebirth. Jews for Jesus, a Christian group, has made a yearly practice of teaching the Passover seder in church.

But I’m skeptical that, without proper training or Jewish mothers, these emissaries could recreate the Kosher pig-out after the seder–including delicacies like gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, and roast lamb. I always appreciated these foods more than the seder ceremony itself, Hebrew school dropout that I was.

The Old Testament couldn’t compete with The Gold Cook Book by Louis P. De Gouy (Chilton, 1947), which I discovered when I was nine years old.

My parents both worked full-time, and after years of nightly bliss at the Red Dragon Chinese buffet, halfway between home and the office, something that once seemed unimaginable actually happened: I got sick of Peking Ravioli, to the point where I offered to cook dinner.

After negotiating a meal-based allowance, I followed De Gouy’s recipe for veal scallopini au marsala. Next was salmon poached in cheesecloth. The meals continued, but I lost track of The Gold Cook Book decades ago. Then recently, while sneaking downtown mid-layover in Seattle, I found an old copy on a flea market table in the basement of Pike’s Market.

I recognized that fancy, East Coast-style–complete with an introduction by “Oscar of the Waldorf-Astoria,” with no last name, title, or other signifiers for Oscar mentioned. (De Gouy was chef at the Waldorf-Astoria for years.)

“Monotony needs no longer to harass the gourmet,” Oscar declares.

A scholar as well as a chef, De Gouy’s recipe for “Matzoth Balls” is followed by this discussion:

“Matzoth, the oldest and the simplest bread known to man, is made by billions of pounds before Passover. The eating of the matzoth is the most symbolic feature of this Jewish festival commemorating the Hebrews’ liberation from Egyptian bondage. Fleeing Egypt hurriedly, the Jews had no time to leaven the bread. This they have eaten for thousands of years, remembering it as the bread of affliction.”

As Jewish cooks are aware, when ground into matzo meal, the pulverized bread of affliction has properties of absorbance and body that make it good for mixing with other deconstructed foodstuffs and traditional eats, such as gefilte fish (matzo meal and fish), matzo balls (with egg), etc.

Given the symbolic and culinary properties of matzo meal, and given De Gouy’s obvious knowledge on the subject, I was shocked to notice that his recipe doesn’t use matzo meal. Instead, six whole sheets of matzo are soaked in boiling water (or stock) for one minute, then pressed and crumbled. A grated onion (he loves grated onion) is fried in two tablespoons of chicken fat, to which the soggy matzo is added, seasoned with salt, pepper, chopped parsley (I used watercress) and ginger (I prefer nutmeg). Three beaten egg yolks are mixed in, and finally the whites, beaten stiff, are folded in. Cool this mass o’ matzo, pat into 1-to-2-inch diameter balls, coat them in matzo meal, boil in salted water for 12-15 minutes. Serve hot.

Intrigued by De Gouy’s rather non-kosher recipe, I decided to compare it to my mom’s matzo ball recipe.

Mom said, “Follow the recipe printed on the Manischewitz matzo meal box, but separate the yolks from the whites. Add the yolks first, beat the whites stiff and fold them in, carefully.”

“Cool, Mom, thanks.”

“You really have to fold them in gently.”

“Thanks, Mom. I know what folding means.”

Both balls were served in soup, as customary. I made mom’s chicken soup: boiled chicken, carrot, onion, parsnip, celery root, and celery, seasoned with fresh dill and salt. This context, taken for granted in any Jewish kitchen worth its salt, proved a deciding factor in the second-place finish of De Gouy’s matzo balls.

De Gouy’s matzoth balls have a delicate, Dim Sum-like quality, and were more interesting on their own than Mom’s balls (oy vey). But Mom’s balls made the soup taste better. And when immersed in my pot of said “Jewish Penicillin,” Mom’s spheres of the pulverized bread of affliction had that authentic flavor of comfort food. Not fancy, but right.


Ask Ari: Don’t kvetch about boyfriend’s kvestions


Q: Dear Flash,

My boyfriend is a local-food freak. When we go out to eat, he insists on interrogating the wait staff with questions about where the food comes from. For every menu item he considers, the server has to run to the kitchen to answer his questions. My boyfriend isn’t normally such a high-maintanance guy, but in these situations he seems to think he’s Paris. How can I get him to calm down and just accept what’s written on the menu, and make his decisions accordingly?

Sincerely,
—Frustrated


A: In my opinion, you don’t need to calm down your boyfriend–you need to calm down, girlfriend. Although it’s possible your boyfriend thinks he’s some kind of spoiled brat, it sounds like he’s probably making these demands only partly out of self-interest, and in part because he wants to push the restaurant in a more sustainable direction.

Those who have worked in retail probably remember the mantra, “The customer is always right.” Despite plenty of exceptions to this rule, when customers simply want a better idea of what might be going into their body, they have every right to ask.

In addition to receiving information, the customer is sending a message into the restaurant’s brainstem. The server transmits the message “another customer wants local food” to the powers that be, and hopefully the message is noted.

Before you spill any tears about how complicated your boyfriend is making the server’s life, remember: If the server has a memory, the next time this question is asked, inconvenience won’t occur—the server will simply remember the answer, and provide it. Meanwhile, the server will hopefully learn that going the extra mile to answer such questions results in a generous tip. And if servers just roll their eyes and say, “I think it comes from the delivery truck,” your tip should reflect that lack of effort.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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