When I was a restaurant critic in Albuquerque, I reviewed a small Mexican establishment named Dahlia's, tucked into a strip mall on the city's west side. The meal had its ups and downs, but the highlight was as unexpected as it was impressive: a bowl of matzo balls worthy of my Jewish mother's respect.
Technically, they were albondigas, Mexican-style beef meatballs served in a shallow bowl of tomato-based vegetable soup. But they felt like Mexican matzo balls.
Mom's matzo balls were always my favorite part of Passover. They have a mellow, soothing flavor and a supple structure that absorbs broth without softening. Like that Mexican meal, Passover also has its ups and downs from a culinary perspective. We don’t exactly pine away the year waiting to eat gefilte fish, but I could at least count on the juicy, savory satisfaction of a matzo ball dunked in her dilly chicken soup.
Good albondigas don't always taste like good matzo balls. At the fabled and sorely missed Marianne’s Hob Nob restaurant in Missoula, where servers would call to the kitchen "Al BON di GAS!! in deep, resonant tones, they tasted more like meatballs.
But Dahlia's had that matzo ball quality, and I wondered if it was some kind of crypto-Jewish trick.
For centuries, rumors have persisted of so-called "crypto-Jews" in Mexico, New Mexico and Texas, and historians have gradually come to a consensus that the crypto-Jews were a real thing. Descendants of Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity — sometimes by force — to escape persecution during the 1300s, many of these Marranos, as they were called, continued to practice Judaism covertly, and some migrated to the New World with the Spanish colonists. And they had good reason to keep their faith and rituals a secret.
During the Inquisition, Spanish officials would go from village to village, asking residents if they had seen evidence of Jewish behavior among their neighbors, such as the lighting of candles on Friday nights, or avoiding pork. This attitude, understandably, kept Judaism underground.
Dahlia, the owner of the restaurant, was a small, energetic woman with a head of sunny blonde hair. She circulated the dining room chatting with guests, and soon after reaching my table mentioned having a Jewish grandmother. I wrote it off as a coincidence.
In hindsight, I wish I had asked Dahlia the question that truly burned in my belly: "Is there matzo meal in the albondigas?" Matzo meal being the pulverized matzo used to make matzo balls. I should have. Just as I should have asked about the batter on the chiles rellenos. I was new to my job as a crypto-restaurant critic and hesitant to attract attention.
After my review ran, Dahlia threatened to sue the newspaper over comments I'd made about her chiles rellenos. And even though she eventually abandoned the effort, I had lost my chance to ask her about those albondigas.
I decided to find out for myself if matzo-meal albondigas could be a thing, and made a batch with matzo meal in place of the masa (corn tortilla flour) or white rice that are traditionally used in albondigas.
If they aren’t floating in chicken soup, they aren’t matzo balls. So I decided to switch the beef that is most typical in albondigas with chicken.
I conducted side-by-side chicken albondiga trials, pitting my matzo albondigas against versions made with rice, masa, and even a combination of matzo and masa. Only the pure matzo meal-based albondigas had that special, fleshy quality, reminiscent of Mom's matzo balls or Dahlia's albondigas.
If you are attending a serious, traditional Passover seder, I don't recommend bringing these albondigas and attempting to pass them off as matzo balls, as not all Passover veterans are as tolerant as my mom. But you could bring them to a Mexican party, call them albondigas, and be fine.
This recipe is meant to be made in concert with chicken soup. A few tablespoons of the broth are added to the meatball mixture, and the balls are then simmered in the broth.
Most albondigas recipes don't include pecans. But as they are abundant in crypto-Jew country, I included crushed pecans as an option. Albondigas are typically flavored with oregano or mint, but I’ve substituted parsley, a Passover staple.
Makes 15 golf ball-sized spheres
¾ cup matzo meal
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
a pinch of nutmeg powder
Optional: 2 tablespoons crushed pecans
1 lb ground chicken or turkey
½ cup minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons hot chicken soup broth
Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl, and the parsley, garlic, meat and egg in another. Combine the contents of both bowls and mix well. Refrigerate for at least minutes. Form the batter into walnut-sized orbs.
Mom's* chicken soup
*The only alteration I have made to the soup she has made forever is the addition of lemon. She respects the change, but does not endorse it.
I use a removable pasta boiler, which is basically a strainer that fits in the pot, for the chicken bones. That way I can cook the bones in the stock as long as I want and easily remove them just by pulling out the strainer. If you don’t have one, pick out the bones or let them settle to the bottom of the pot, and be careful not to serve them with the soup.
Serves a whole party
One chicken (could be a store-bought rotisserie chicken if you're pressed for time)
Salt and garlic salt and pepper to season the chicken
5 quarts water
1 onion, unpeeled, cut into quarters
2 carrots, chopped for soup (about 2 cups)
3 celery stalks, cut for soup (about 2 cups)
3 tablespoons dried dill
Parsley stems leftover from matzo ball making
Juice of one fresh lemon
1 teaspoon salt, plus more for the final seasoning
Sprinkle the chicken with salt, garlic powder and and black pepper, and bake at 325 for about two hours, periodically turning and/or basting the bird until it's as soft as a rotisserie chicken from the store. (Or just bring one of those home.) When it's cool enough to work with, remove the meat from the bones and refrigerate the meat.
Heat the water and add the bones, cartilage and tendons, and as much skin as you wish, as well as the pan drippings (or bag drippings), and simmer for an hour minimum. Add the vegetables, lemon juice, salt, dill and any chicken meat you haven't already devoured, and cook for another 60 minutes. Season with salt and dill.
Drop the matzo balbondigas, as it were, into the chicken soup and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. Remove them until serving time, and put them back in the soup to heat before serving.