With Passover and Easter upon us, this seems like a good time to share some Jewish secrets. I love food because it heals everyone–people, dogs, iguanas, plants. A piece of dark chocolate nibbled while sipping a dessert wine; spaghetti slurped and splattering sauce; roasted sweet potatoes served with crisp, tender chicken; food can transform a foul mood, acquaint strangers, comfort kids and…er…lubricate relationships.
Coming from the daughter of a Yiddishe mama, this belief isn’t odd. My mother used to chase my toddler daughter around the garden with teaspoons of avocado, and today, decades later, she still wonders whether we’re getting enough to eat. Her mother taught her how to make dishes that the family drools over, and here are a few to try.
You’ll find similar recipes anywhere you choose to look, but I call them secrets because although I’ve attempted for several years, I have never, not once, been able to cook the way my mother does. So they’re as much a mystery to me as they will be to you. It’s not intentional; my mom really does want to hand this legacy down to me; but neither she nor I can figure out whether my failure is a result of being cuisinely challenged, or something magical that happens between her and the ingredients. Some people kill orchids and are very sad about it. Well, maybe I have the same effect on ingredients.
These are (supposed to be) fluffy oval or round dumplings that wallow in clear chicken soup. Put one pinkie wrong and they’re inedible, get it right and that’s all you’ll want to eat for a week. You can buy a ready mix at a grocery store, but meh. I should add that not a single other person in all my travels has ever been able to produce kneidlachof this caliber. Including me. Mysterious? You bet, because the recipe is pretty standard. Maybe it has to do with timing. They’re supposed to cook for 3/4 of an hour. When I made them last year, 2 hours later they were dense as rock in the middle and needed another hour on the stove. Which didn’t help.
Here’s what you’ll need:
Half a cup of cold water (as in fridge, not tap or bottle).
Half a teaspoon of salt.
1/4 teaspoon pepper (or way less if you don’t like pepper).
Matzo meal of a completely indeterminate amount (maybe, sort-of, who knows: 3/4 of a cup).
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.
2 tablespoons softened chicken fat (otherwise known as schmaltz, and if you can’t find that, maybe oil will work).
Here’s what to do:
Crack the eggs into a bowl and add the water, salt, pepper and cinnamon. The schmaltz is usually the consistency of coconut oil, so you’ll want it to soften before adding it. Make sure to fold it all together so that there are no lumps–you can even use one of those old-fashioned egg beaters to do it. Now here it gets tricky. Gradually add the matzo meal until the mixture is soft, but not runny, then keep it in the fridge for at least one hour. Even then the mixture shouldn’t be hard, and will stick to your fingers when you start to roll the balls. Wetting your hands helps with the sticking.
Roll the matzo balls and place them in a pot of lightly salted boiling water. Turn down the heat and cook for 45 minutes to an hour.
Keep them separate from the soup until ready to serve, and if you’re going to eat them a day or so later, heat them up separately too. When the soup is hot, delicately and with a flourish, settle your kneidlach into as many bowls as you need. Expect applause, and if it’s not forthcoming, demand it.
Oh heavens, these are delicious…
Here’s what you’ll need:
A cabbage, preferably a pretty one.
However many pounds of mincemeat you think you’ll need.
One or two plump, deeply red tomatoes.
Salt, pepper and some water.
Here’s what to do:
Boil cabbage leaves until they soften, but not so they get all limp and sad.
Remove them from the stove, pour cold water over them, drain and set to one side to cool.
Pour boiling water over your tomato/es to soften the skin, and peel (or use canned tomatoes, meh).
Mash the mincemeat with the egg, salt, pepper, and a dash of water. Who knows how much…just guess.
Roll dollops of mince mixture into tight balls, and nestle each one in a leaf.
Chop up the tomatoes into chunks and toss them into an oven-proof dish, along with your neat little cabbage parcels.
Pour globs of brown sugar on everything, and sprinkle the juice of a lemon over it all.
(Taste to make sure you haven’t screwed up. You’re going for sweet and sour.)
Oh, and you have to cook/bake them.
Maybe they don’t sound like much, but I guarantee they’ll be a crowd-pleaser.
My mom turns 90 this year, and my daughter and I are traveling to South Africa to celebrate her birthday. I adore my mother, miss and treasure her more than I can capture here. I’m going to tell her how much you all loved her recipes, even if you’re convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye.
Wishing you a Happy Passover and Easter!