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With Hanukkah just around the corner, I'm once again thinking about my favorite Jewish food: latkes. But I'm also thinking about my second favorite Jewish food—matzo balls—and how little respect they get.
Sure, most people only think of matzo balls during Passover, but in my house, for as long as I can remember, they've been an every-damn-Jewish-holiday food, because they're just that good, and almost everyone I know—Jew or gentile—adores them.
Yet while recipe writers trample over each other to develop the latest spin on latkes from sweet potato to Sichuan peppercorn, the humble matzo ball goes ignored. Even the discourse about them is stodgy: oh, some people like sinkers and others like floaters. Big whoop. When are we going to start having fun with our matzo balls?
As you start plotting out your Hanukkah menus and thinking about what you're serving besides brisket and latkes, as you eye that latke-essential matzo meal in the corner of your pantry, I want you to consider making matzo balls as well. And while you're at it, get creative with them. Here are three ways to do so.
Matzo Ball Fun Time #1: Chicken-Stuffed Matzo Balls
This idea started as a pun: would it be possible to make matzo ball soup dumplings?
The answer is no, because matzo balls are too porous to contain a soupy filling. But you can stuff matzo balls with dumpling-like nuggets of meat and surprise the hell out of your uncle when he first goes to taste his soup.
Here's the deal: get yourself some ground chicken (dark meat if at all possible, please!), some egg for binder, and some starch to soak up extra liquid (matzo meal is convenient and thematically appropriate). Then add complementary flavors: I went with minced onions caramelized in schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), loads of dill, and black pepper. You're essentially making chicken meatballs that you'll then stuff inside matzo ball batter; there's a full recipe for the filling here. Wet your hands with water, roll your meatballs into 1 1/4" balls, and set them aside.
It's important to think "meatball," not "dumpling," because matzo balls take a long time to cook—30 to 40 minutes—and you want to use a filling that's guaranteed to stay moist; the egg and matzo meal in your filling help with that. Oh, and if you're looking to play off Hanukkah starting on Thanksgiving Day this year? Ground turkey and a stuffing-flavored filling of bread crumbs, cooked onion and celery, and chopped sage would taste damn good inside a matzo ball. So would veal and pork with bread crumbs, oregano, and Parmesan.
Next come the matzo balls, which you can make however your grandma taught you to make them, provided the dough is a little tacky and thick enough to handle. I used the recipe on the back of the Manischewitz matzo meal box with a little extra matzo meal, though I use schmaltz or butter in place of oil and always use chicken stock instead of water. Wet your hands again, grab yourself a ping pong ball-sized portion of batter, and flatten it into a disk. Wrap a chicken meatball inside and pinch up the ball until it looks like any old matzo ball.
You cook it like any old matzo ball, too: 30 to 40 minutes in simmering salted water or stock. When done it'll look something like this:
Meaty, juicy innards, a matzo ball that's soaked up plenty of dill and schmaltzy onion flavor, and the first interesting matzo ball soup you've had in years.
Matzo Ball Fun Time # 2: Deep Fried, Chicken Skin-Wrapped Matzo Balls
I couldn't find any pre-ground dark meat chicken at my grocery store, so I wound up grinding my own from bone-in legs and thighs. This left me with two big pieces of chicken skin after my matzo ball-making was all said and done. Normally, I'd just fry my chicken skin into gribenes (Jewish chicharrones), but some leftover un-souped matzo balls, their exteriors drying in the open air, got me thinking: it'd be a shame not to fry those.
And thus I give you: chicken skin-wrapped, deep fried, chicken-stuffed matzo balls. Better than plain fried chicken skin, tastier than Scotch eggs, and thrifty enough to make your bubbe proud, they may just be the smartest bad decision you've ever made.
Once you cook your matzo balls, reserve a couple to dry out on a paper towel-lined plate. Let the balls dry out near a window or in the fridge until a leathery pellicle forms on the surface; turn them over so they dry evenly. Then get a pot of oil ready, something tall and narrow filled no more than one-third of the way with oil. Be careful—there will be splatters.
Your target frying temperature is 375°F; heat your oil to 380 or 385 to account for the temperature drop when you add the balls. Then turn your attention to the chicken skin.
Pat your skin (err, the chicken's) dry on both sides and spread it out into a rectangular shape. The goal is to completely wrap the matzo ball in a tight, even layer of skin. Roll the matzo ball in a cylinder of skin, then use toothpicks to stitch the seams together. Fold the loose ends of the cylinder underneath, trim off the uneven edges, and stab toothpicks through those folds right into the matzo ball. You'll wind up with something that looks like this:
A little like a naked voodoo doll, but tasty once you fry it, I promise.
Cook your matzo balls until the skin turns golden brown and shatter-crisp, using a thermometer to keep tabs on the oil's temperature. Once they're done, season them with salt while they're still hot, then let them cool for a minute and remove the toothpicks before serving.
Oh, and still thinking about Thanksgiving? Spare turkey skin works just as well.
Matzo Ball Fun Time #3: Pan-Fried Matzo Balls
With chicken-stuffed and chicken-wrapped matzo balls behind me, I thought I was done. But I still had some spare uncooked matzo ball batter, enough to make a dozen bite-sized matzo ball-lets. After I cooked them, I thought to myself, you know, these kind of look like gnocchi. And if there's one thing better than gnocchi, it's pan-frying those gnocchi in a little butter until they turn crispy, then saucing them with browned butter and sage or a simple cream sauce.
As it turns out, you can do the exact same thing with matzo balls. I give you Yiddishe gnocchi.
As with our chicken skin-wrapped matzo balls, you want to dry out the surface of the cooked matzo balls by leaving them in the fridge or next to an open window. If you're in a rush, blotting the balls with some paper towels will get you most of the way there.
Then cook them in a skillet over medium heat until they crisp up, tossing them as needed. If you have leftover full-sized matzo balls, slice them into thick rounds and pan-fry them just the same way. You may have to call them matzo ball medallions instead of matzo ball gnocchi, but they'll taste just as good.
What Are Your Favorite Matzo Ball Tricks?
And there you have it: three ways to turn a simple holiday staple into
a pile of dirty dishes something way more fun. I feel like this is just the tip of the matzo ball iceberg, so tell me: what crazy things do you do with matzo balls? Share your favorite tricks in the comments.