I grew up in northern Minnesota, a part of the country where bagels come from the grocery store refrigerator section. Matzo ball soup wasn't part of my childhood--honestly, I don't know where I would find it in my hometown. So my first taste was in New York City, at Katz's Delicatessen.
We had spent a searing evening at the 9/11 Museum. I hadn't wanted to go, mostly because 9/11 hadn't resonated with me on a personal level--at the time, I had never even visited New York City. 9/11 was a day of news clips, a plane hitting the World Trade Center again and again, the same footage in civics class and English and science. The only reprieves were geometry, because Mr. LeBlanc thought it was morbid to spend an entire school day watching disaster footage, and gym, because there wasn't a way to rig up CNN on the soccer field. The whole thing was very far away and abstract, like WWII or Vietnam or Kosovo, something terrible that happened to other people. In the years since, I've come to understand 9/11's impact--the wars, the burgeoning surveillance state, the discrimination against Muslim Americans, the airport security measures. But the actual events of the day have always seemed so far removed from my life, something on the evening news to consider briefly and then turn back to chopping onions.
Mike's experience of 9/11 was different than mine--he had been to New York City as a child and visited the World Trade Center's 107th floor observatory, and he spent a whole week at home alone after the snarl of post-9/11 cancelled flights stranded his parents in Chicago. The tragedy was more tangible to him. I'm usually the one who drags us to museums, but in this case Mike was drawn to reflect and in some sense pay our respects.
The 9/11 Museum is meticulously informative and beautifully designed. It was also one of most emotionally draining experiences of my life. There are voicemail messages from people who realized they were about to die and wanted to call their spouse one last time to say "I love you". There are personal effects and photographs of the victims, and pieces of rubble, and that same news footage I watched all those years ago. But now it seems closer, maybe because I'm older and maybe because it finally hit me that so many people died because they did the same thing I do every weekday: they went to work. Everything was normal, until it wasn't.
I spent several hours with tears seeping from the corners of my eyes, wandering through the museum and thinking about loss and mortality and the arbitrary tragedies of human existence. And it seems kind of callous, after all of that, but when we left the museum we still needed to eat dinner. So we took the subway to Katz's Delicatessen, because it was open late and we were tourists.
Katz's is a Lower East Side icon, featured in the restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally. They serve classic Jewish deli fare, from hulking pastrami sandwiches to potato knishes, in a cafeteria style-setting with eyebrow-raising prices even by New York standards. Objectively, my tepid cup of matzo ball soup was not very good--a bland matzo ball accompanied by a few flabby chunks of carrot. But it was comforting at the end of a difficult day, and that was enough.
I had assumed that matzo balls would be too difficult to make at home until I happened across a very accessible recipe from Husbands That Cook--the trickiest part was tracking down matzo meal (I had to go over a few suburbs to find a grocery store with a Jewish food section). This recipe is magnitudes better (and cheaper) that the Katz's version, packed with vegetables, fresh dill, and matzo balls that pop with a pinch of cayenne pepper. The original recipe makes 8 servings; I've scaled it down to 4. I used a vegetable broth base, but if you like you can substitute 4 cups prepared vegetable or chicken broth and omit the broth base and water.
Adapted from Husbands That Cook
Serves 4 as a side or 2 as an entree
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 tablespoon finely minced onion
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 3/8 cup (6 tablespoons) matzo meal
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 cup chopped carrot (about 2 medium carrots)
- 1/2 cup chopped celery (about 1 stalk)
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable broth base
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
To prepare the matzo balls:
Beat egg yolks, 1 tablespoon minced onion, butter, salt, and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl until smooth.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until very foamy with stiff peaks.
Gently fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture just until evenly blended, being careful not to deflate the egg whites.
Fold 2 tablespoons of the matzo meal into the egg mixture, mixing just until combined. Repeat until all of the matzo meal is incorporated.
Cover bowl and refrigerate the dough for one hour.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide the dough into eight equal pieces and gently roll each into a ball, working lightly to keep the dough from deflating. Place the matzo balls on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
To prepare the soup:
Heat a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add olive oil and tilt to coat evenly. Add the 1 cup chopped onion, carrot, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until the wine has completely evaporated.
Add 4 cups of water, vegetable broth base, garlic, and bay leaf. Bring to boil and reduce heat to low. Add the prepared matzo balls, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the bay leaf. Serve garnished with fresh dill.