Mexican Masa-Ball Soup, or, How a Silly Pun Led to a Really Tasty Dish

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A Jewish classic crosses paths with Mexico. Daniel Gritzer

Can I share the greatest pun of my life with you? It was a few years ago while I was talking with friends, and one of them asked why a male medical student would ever decide to become a gynecologist—of all things—in this day and age.

"Maybe it's medical-school pee pressure," I spat out. "Urethra urine, or you're out."

That, right there, is triple-word-play, and as you can see by my quoting myself years later, I'm fairly pleased with it. But I know there are many who would see it differently—lots of people will tell you that puns are one of the lowest forms of humor. I used to be one of them, until I spent two and a half years working at a magazine where I was forced to come up with puns for every single headline we ran. Eventually my brain became so pun-drunk, it couldn't stop. (See what I mean?)

Today I believe more than ever that puns are not only a perfectly acceptable form of humor, but also the fodder for other great ideas. This recipe is my proof. It started as a pun that my girlfriend, Kate, came up with recently while I was doing matzo ball soup recipe tests. We were searching for something to whip up for dinner when she glanced at a bag of Mexican masa harina, the nixtamalized corn flour used to make tortillas and tamales. Then she looked at me with sly, bright eyes and said, "How about masa ball soup?"

She was half joking,* but I was pretty sure that, with a little tinkering, it might actually be a great idea.

Her other half, though, was totally serious—about 30 minutes later she served me a bowl of broth with leaden little masa dumplings in it. She made them by simply mixing the masa with water, as you would for tortillas...not something I recommend.

Some days later I decided to find out. As a starting point, I thought it made sense to use my matzo-ball recipe, substituting masa harina for the matzo meal. It worked so well that I declared it a success right away.

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The components are incredibly simple. First, there's the masa harina itself. I used masa para tamales, which has a slightly coarser grind than the masa harina typically used for tortillas; I thought that more coarse texture might be the best choice for this application, though regular masa harina for tortillas will work too.

Then I mix it with eggs and fat (more on that below). For leavening, I add baking powder and seltzer water. In my matzo ball recipe, I listed the baking powder as optional, since seltzer alone is able to create a pleasantly light texture. Here, I think the baking powder is more important, since masa harina makes a denser dough than matzo meal does (in fact, with the addition of baking powder, the recipe even works with plain water instead of seltzer).

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For the fat, you have a few choices. Just like with matzo balls, you can use oil, which will give a neutral flavor, or you can use an animal fat. For matzo balls, that fat is traditionally schmaltz, the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat, which is an acceptable choice according to kosher rules. For masa balls, you can also use schmaltz, but, freed from the religious prescriptions that govern kosher-for-Passover matzo balls, you can also use lard. I think lard is the best choice for adding more of a Mexican flavor to this dish.

For those of you familiar with Mexican cooking, you may notice that the mixture for these masa balls is not all too different from the dough used to make tamales (the only real difference is the addition of eggs). In fact, this soup could just as easily be called "Mexican Chicken Soup With Poached Tamales," but that doesn't sound quite as playful, does it?

Once the masa mixture is ready, it follows all the same steps as the matzo balls: refrigerate the mixture long enough for the masa to fully hydrate (about 30 minutes), then roll it into balls and boil it, covered, in a pot of broth. The masa mixture may seem a little on the soft side when rolling it, but I found that I was still able to make nicely spherical balls without too much trouble.

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As for the soup, it's just a good, rich chicken broth that I jazzed up with some Mexican flourishes like thinly sliced jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and lime wedges to squeeze into each bowl at the table.

Whether you like puns or not, one thing's for sure: This is a bowl of soup that lovers of both Mexican and Jewish cooking will not want to pass over.