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Matzoh Ball Soup is the quintessential comfort food of a people who have frequently been in dire need of comfort. I grew up eating my mother’s version, whose production required a whole stewing chicken, a pressure cooker, and about an hour of cooking time. My version is a bit different, not only because my delicate system does not like gluten, but also because having grown up in the shadow of my mother’s pressure-cooker accidents, I have yet to muster the nerve to acquire a pressure cooker of my own. I have already seen the rice on the ceiling, and it ain’t pretty — also the exploded hardboiled eggs, but that’s another story.
Matzoh ball soup is traditionally made with, surprisingly enough, crumbs made from matzoh, the unleavened bread made for Passover. Unaccompanied gentiles encountering a piece of matzoh for the first time would probably call it a very big cracker, and upon tasting it would be shocked by its bland, cardboardy, white-flour flavorlessness, which is relieved only by scattered burned spots. The only way to make matzoh go down and stay down is to smother it with butter (or with horseradish, Passover’s bitter herb). Almost no one ever eats matzoh voluntarily other than during Passover. Matzoh ball soup, however, is an entirely different animal; almost everyone who has ever tried it loves it.
Matzoh ball soup is Walt’s favorite, and he very emphatically did not grow up eating it in Main Line Philadelphia. So it was a sad day in the Sandbeck household when I suddenly realized that my recently discovered gluten allergy meant that I could no longer eat matzoh balls. After several years of deprivation, I decided to attempt to a gluten-free matzoh ball substitute. I thought hard about it, and asked a few questions — some of you readers may know the tune:
Questioner: What makes matzoh balls different from all other dumplings?
Chorus: They are not sticky.
Questioner: Why aren’t matzoh balls sticky?
Chorus: They are made from matzoh, which has already been baked.
Questioner: What makes other types of dumplings sticky?
Chorus: The gluten in the unbaked flour makes other dumplings sticky.
Questioner: What gives matzoh balls their extra flavor?
Chorus: The matzoh, which has already been baked, tastes a little toasted and sometimes a tiny bit burned.
Questioner: How can I make gluten-free dumplings for my soup that taste and feel like matzoh balls?
Chorus: Use gluten-free flour you have in your cupboards, and try toasting some oatmeal for texture and flavor.
I’ve made a few different iterations of Chicken Soup With Gluten-free Matzoh Balls, and this one is far and away the best:
RECIPE: GLUTEN-FREE “MATZOH BALLS”
¼ cup coconut flour
½ cup quinoa flour
1 cup steel cut oats
¼ cup oil
1 cup water
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp baking soda
Heat a cast iron skillet over a medium flame. Pour in the steel cut oats and toast them, stirring frequently with a spatula or wooden spoon until they are golden brown and smelling delightful. Pour in a cup of cold water and keep stirring until the oats have soaked up most of the water. Turn off the heat.
Pour the flours, salt, pepper and baking soda into a medium sized mixing bowl, and stir them together.
Beat the eggs in a small bowl, then add them to the dry ingredients. Mix well. Add the cooked steel cut oats, and stir well. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it while you make the broth.
There are a few different ways to make chicken broth.
One is to buy a stewing chicken and boil it for several hours in a large pot with some onions, celery, carrots, a bay leaf, and some peppercorns, then strain all the solids out of the broth.
Another way is to cook all the same ingredients in a pressure cooker (follow the directions for cooking chicken that came with your pressure cooker). Both of these methods will yield a very clear, light golden broth with a light flavor.
Then there is the third way, the slow, cheap, non-purist’s way, which entails freezing all your leftover poultry bones and carcasses, and buying cheap frozen turkey backs and necks. This type of broth is thick, opaque, and very, very flavorful, because most of the meat and bones have already been roasted — this is my method of choice. Usually my “chicken broth” is made mostly of turkey.
So, dump your saved bones and carcasses into a large stockpot. If you don’t have enough bones to mostly fill the stockpot, you may want to add a package of frozen turkey backs and necks. Pour in enough cold water to cover the bones. Now is the time to add bay leaves, pepper corns, celery leaves or lovage, sprigs of dried or fresh herbs, or any other flavoring agent that you don’t want to actually chew on while eating your soup. Put the lid on the pot and cook on the stove over medium heat until it comes to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer. Let it simmer for several hours, until the broth is opaque and golden.
Strain the solids out of your broth. I use a double-pot system for this: I have two large stockpots, one of which is the perfect size to sit my soup colander into. I pour the broth from Pot $1 through the colander that is sitting in the top of Pot #2, so all the solids stay in the colander. This is a rather delicate operation that requires tongs to remove the bones, and then a ladle to transfer enough broth so I can easily pick up the pot and pour the remaining broth through the colander without burning myself. Unless you are very tall, extremely strong, and don’t mind being splashed with boiling broth, I cannot recommend trying to pour the entire contents of Pot #1 into Pot #2 without first lightening the load.
Now that your strained broth is in Pot #2, you can add chopped onions, celery, carrots, and garlic in whatever proportions you like. (At this point, I also add my dried nettles, minced dried seaweed, and frozen Lambsquarters. My soups are nearly medicinal.) If you are thinking ahead, you can actually put all these vegetables into Pot #2 BEFORE you pour in the broth, thus completely avoiding splashback. Sometimes I remember to do this, and sometimes I don’t. Turn the burner on simmer and let the vegetables cook.
COOKING THE MATZOH BALLS
Do not attempt to cook your matzoh balls in your broth — they act like little sponges, and you may end up with matzoh balls with no soup.
Pour about 5 inches of cold water into Pot #1. Do not wash the pot first, the residual chicken or turkey fat and broth will help flavor your matzoh balls. Salt the water liberally, turn the burner on high, and bring the water to a rolling boil.
Take the bowl of matzoh ball batter out of the refrigerator. Scoop tablespoonfuls of the batter out of the bowl, quickly mold each spoonful of batter into the rough semblance of a sphere, then drop the ball gently into the boiling salt water. Repeat until all the batter has been used up. This will cool your cooking water, so let the water heat back up to a simmer, then turn down the heat. The matzoh balls need to simmer gently — a rolling boil may make them disintegrate. Let the matzoh balls simmer for half an hour, then use a slotted spoon to gently transfer them to your soup. Simmer the matzoh balls in the soup for five or ten minutes in order to allow them to soak up some flavor before you serve.