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Tales of the Testers: More balls of fun

Olney resident Rachel Packer is faced with extra challenges at Passover. Her 5-year-old son is allergic to eggs and nuts, making holiday cooking “a virtual landmine,” she says. To make matzoh balls, Packer has tried flax seed and water and a combination of oil, water and baking powder as egg substitutes. Neither worked.

She finally settled on a mixture of cooked potatoes, parsnips and matzoh meal, which produced dense matzoh balls that her son deemed “too sticky.” (That might have been due to her recipe directions’ food processor step to combine the vegetables; better to mash by hand and avoid activating gumminess.) She called them “matzgnocchi” and served them to the rest of her family with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.

“While my experiment failed in a matzoh ball way,” she concluded in an e-mail recap/essay sent to the Food section, “I feel that my attempts captured the true spirit of creative cooks everywhere. Sometimes, when our initial creations don’t work out as planned, they cam evolve into something different, or better. This mentality can be quite liberating, actually, and liberation is what Passover is all about.”

I give her full credit for the positive spin, and continued her vegan matzoh ball research with visions of light and fluffy orbs in mind. The ones in Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s “Vegan With a Vengeance” were out, as they contain tofu – a legume-based food and therefore not eaten during Passover by Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European descent).

A vegan substitute called Ener G Egg Replacer (kosher/parve, although not kosher for Passover) did not fare so well. Just replacing the equivalent of two eggs in the basic, halved recipe on the back of a matzoh meal box made a lovely mixture. The chilled matzoh balls held their shape for about 4 minutes in barely bubbling water, and then disintegrated rather dramatically, as if a gruel bomb had gone off in the pot.

I went back to Packer’s potato-based plan, intent on getting some of the lead out. Parsnips, gone. Yukon Golds, cut from 3 to 4 down to just 1. Instead of mashing, I let the warm, peeled potato cool and drain for 15 minutes, then used a ricer to create fluffy strands. I reintroduced a little fat. I added club soda, more potato starch and retained Packer’s original flavor quad of onion powder, salt, pepper and chopped dill. The mixture barely held together, but after a minimum of 30 minutes chilling time, the balls held up for no more than 20 minutes of cooking. Any longer and the balls fell apart.

The result?

Not so big, but fairly light. Fit for company.

Basic techniques from my matzoh ball travails this season apply for this vegan version as well: Use a wide pot and shape the mixture with your fingertips. Do not compress. And I’d recommend another change: Reduce the heat to medium-low once the matzoh balls go in, as they are more delicate and don’t need the jostling of barely bubbling water.

So here’s to invention and liberation. With days of Passover to go and plenty of people with allergies similar to Packer’s son’s, there’ time to try her recipe and a lighter alternative.

-- Bonnie Benwick

P.S. If anyone's come up with a good eggless version, we'd love to see it.

Rachel Packer’s Vegan Matzgnocchi
Makes about 20 small matzoh balls

3 to 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into halves
2 medium parsnips, trimmed, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 tablespoon potato starch
1 1/4 cups matzoh meal
Chopped dill
2 teaspoons onion powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add the potatoes and parsnips; cook until fork-tender. Drain and cool.

Refill the pot with clean water and bring to a boil over high heat.

Combine the cooled vegetables, potato starch, matzoh meal, dill to taste, the onion powder, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor; process to form a smooth dough. Or combine the ingredients in a bowl and mash by hand to form a dough that is not quite smooth.

Use your fingertips to form about 20 balls, each smaller than a walnut. Drop no more than 10 at a time into the boiling water. Reduce the heat to medium-high or medium; cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, checking often, until they are firm, floating and cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate.

Serve warm, with sauce or in warm vegetable broth.

Vegan Matzoh Balls
Makes 12 to 14 medium matzoh balls

For best results, make these just before serving.

MAKE AHEAD: The potato can be cooked, peeled, cooled and refrigerated up to 2 days in advance. Cut in half and reheat in the microwave on HIGH for 1 minute before placing in a potato ricer. The mixture needs 30 minutes to 1 hour’s refrigeration before shaping it into balls.

Based on a recipe by Olney resident Rachel Packer.

1 large unpeeled Yukon Gold potato (about 10 ounces)
1/2 cup matzoh meal, or more as needed
2 tablespoons potato starch
2 teaspoons onion powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons chopped dill (may substitute finely chopped flat-leaf parsley)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons club soda (may substitute water)

Place the potato in a medium saucepan; cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook uncovered for about 25 minutes or until fork-tender. Transfer to a colander to drain and cool for 10 minutes; discard the skin.

Cut the potato into halves or quarters. Use a potato ricer to create fluffy potato strands, letting them fall into a medium mixing bowl. Add the matzoh meal, potato starch, onion powder, salt, pepper and dill to taste, then the vegetable oil and club soda. Mix until thoroughly combined, adding a little matzoh meal if the mixture seems too wet. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.

Bring a large, wide pot of water to a boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, shape the chilled mixture into 12 to 14 balls, about 1 inch in diameter. Drop no more than 8 of them at a time into the water and reduce the heat to medium or medium-low; cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until floating and tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a plate.

Serve warm, in warmed vegetable broth.

Per serving (based on 14): 60 calories, 0 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 85 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  March 31, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Tales of the Testers  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Passover, matzoh balls, recipes, vegan  
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Next: Flour Girl: How the other half (of the egg) lives

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