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Chicken Soup with Asparagus and Shiitakes, Served with Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls
Yield: About 8 servings
Set in spring, when the earth is renewing and reassembling herself, Passover is celebrated as a sort of second New Year, reflecting the rebirth of the Jews as a free people after the Exodus from Egypt. Children start the season with new clothes, and houses are thoroughly cleaned and freshened up to make way for the new foods and special sets of dishes reserved just for Passover use.
And just as they delay until Rosh Hashanah their first tastes of the sweet new autumn fruits, so many Jews wait until Passover to savor the tender new vegetables of spring. In this delicious soup, woodsy shiitake mushrooms and early asparagus combine with delicate roasted fennel-flavored matzoh balls in a free-wheeling ode to spring.
For the Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls
2 small-medium fennel bulbs (about 1 pound, weighed with 2 inches of top stalks)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle (optional)
2 large eggs
About 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzoh meal
For the Soup
7 cups homemade chicken broth or very good-quality purchased
1/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and reserved for another use or discarded, caps wiped clean with a damp paper towel and thinly sliced
12 to 15 thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Prepare the matzoh balls: preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut off the fennel stalks and reserve for another use (excellent for fish broths and stews). If there are some attractive feathery fronds, set aside about 2 tablespoons of them to garnish the soup. Quarter the bulbs and trim away the stems, the bottom hard core, and any tough parts. Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough to fit the fennel in one layer and put in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the fennel and toss until well coated. Roast the fennel until pale gold, about 20 minutes, then turn the fennel over and roast for 10 minutes longer. Stir in the broth, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and 1/2 teaspoon of the thyme. Cover the pan with foil and cook for 35 to 45 minutes longer, or until the fennel is very soft. Remove the foil, stir, and roast for a few more minutes to evaporate most of the liquid. Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and chop coarsely. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of thyme, salt (it will need about 1 teaspoon), pepper to taste, and the fennel seeds, if using. With the machine on, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil through the feed tube.
Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. You need 1 cup of puree, so nosh on any extra. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Add the matzoh meal and stir well. If you can form a lump into a very soft walnut-size ball (the batter will become firmer when you chill it), don’t add any more matzoh meal. If necessary, add just enough matzoh meal to enable you to do so. Refrigerate for at least 2 or up to 4 hours so the matzoh meal can drink in the liquid and seasoning.
When ready to cook, bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large, wide lidded pot. Dipping your hands into cold water if needed, roll the batter into walnut-size balls. When all the balls are rolled and the water is boiling furiously, turn the heat down to a gentle boil. Carefully slide in the balls one at a time and cover the pot tightly.
Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, without removing the cover. (They will cook by direct heat as well as by steam, which makes them puff and swell, and lifting the lid will allow some of that steam to escape.) Take out a dumpling and cut it in half. It should be light, fluffy and completely cooked through. If it isn’t, continue cooking a few more minutes.
Remove the balls gently with a skimmer or large slotted spoon--they are too fragile to pour into a colander.
When the matzoh balls are almost ready, start the soup: bring the broth to a simmer in a large pot. Add the matzoh balls, the mushrooms, and asparagus and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the matzoh balls to shallow soup bowls and ladle the hot soup and the vegetables over them. Garnish with the reserved chopped fennel fronds.
Cook’s Note: You can cook the matzoh balls up to 2 to 3 hours in advance. Drain them and cover with some broth to keep them moist before setting them aside until you are ready to reheat them.
Experiment making matzoh balls with a puree of other vegetables, like beets, carrots, leeks, mushrooms, or shallots. Roasted vegetables absorb less moisture than boiled or steamed ones (and therefore require less matzoh meal, making them lighter). They are also more flavorful.