Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dining-In: A Culinary Tour of America-Lakewood Township, New Jersey

The City: Lakewood, New Jersey
According to the 2010 census, there are 92,843 people living here. 84.3% are white, 6.35% are African American. The per capita income is $16,430, and 26.1% live below the poverty line. Why did I choose this town, you may ask. Well, because it is home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the entire country. Jewish people make up 59% of the town's population. And this weekend is Passover!

The first European settlers to the area arrived around 1750 and turned the region into several sawmills. The early 1800's brought with it a changeover to ironworks. The town was renamed Lakewood in 1850 and used as a vacation spot for locals. Several large hotels were built to encourage visitors.

Lakewood Township houses one of the largest yeshivas in the world. A yeshiva, is a Jewish school system and can be from elementary age all the way though post graduate age. The yeshiva in Lakewood, Beth Madrash Govoha, has about 6500 students, all male, and is a university-age school.Tuition to the school is negotiable, the idea behind it being that no student should be denied their chance to study the Torah because they cannot afford to.

The Food: Matzo Ball Soup

If I had to point to one food and say, "This is it. This is Jewish cuisine," I would probably point to Matzo Ball soup. This is of course a gross generalization of a culture that spans the globe. Matzo Ball soup is not a food eaten by all sects of Jewish population, but I would say that it is the best known dish in this country. I think most non-Jewish people would probably identify that dish as the one they think of first and foremost when they think about Jewish cuisine.

I have a deep respect and love for Jewish cuisine. As a food historian, I have never run across a culture whose cuisine is so steeped in their history, or vice versa. Everything they eat seems to tell the story of who they are as a people and where they have come from. It is transportable and edible history, easily passed from one generation to the next. It is genius.

Matzo Ball soup has its roots in Germany and Poland, and the tradition traveled with immigrants to the United States, who largely settled on the East Coast, in cities like New York, and Lakewood Township. Matzo, to anybody unfamiliar with it, is a flat, wheat-based cracker with little flavoring. It is eaten largely during Passover to commemorate the emergency flight out of Egypt by the slaves. With little time to prepare, the women were unable to make proper breads with yeast and created these flat crackers instead. Each year, for the duration of the Passover celebration, Jewish people generally don't eat foods with yeast. That a soup from these crackers would become a popular dish at this time of year, isn't terribly surprising. The soup is a chicken soup base, with the matzo balls added as the main starch. Though this dish started off as a Passover dish, it has since become a year-round delicacy.

There were many recipes I could follow but I chose to only use the matzo ball recipe and create my own chicken soup. I did use some of the spices but added my own as well. I will write out my soup recipe, and link to the matzo ball recipe I used.

Matzo Ball Soup:
1 qt. container chicken broth
1 qt. water(I used the container of broth after it was emptied to get as much flavor out of it as I could)
1 large chicken breast, with skin and bones
1 onion, unpeeled, quartered
3 carrots, chopped in large chunks
3 celery stalks, chopped in large chunks
1 pinch each dried dill, dried thyme, whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 whole cloves

Place the chicken in a large pot and cover with the water and broth. Bring to a boil and reduce down to a simmer, turning the chicken several times to cook all the way through. During this time, there will be stuff that floats to the top of the liquid. Carefully remove this with a spoon.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pot and add the vegetables and herbs to the simmering liquid and continue to cook. Let the chicken rest until it's cool enough to handle and remove skin and bones before shredding the meat. Place in the fridge until ready to use.

When the vegetables are softened but not mushy, turn off the heat and strain into another pot, leaving the veggies and herbs behind. From the veggies, pick a few of the best and chop them up. This will be the vegetables for the soup. Discard the rest.

Now it's time to make the matzo balls. I read up about "floaters" and "sinkers" and decided on a floater recipe. I made my own matzo meal, instead of buying it pre-made from the store. I bought one box of crackers and crushed them up in my food processor. They break down into little bits but not powder. If you try this yourself, don't worry, it's supposed to look like that. I followed the recipe exactly except I added a pinch of thyme to it to reflect the flavors of the broth I had made.

Since the broth I had made didn't make enough to cook the mazto balls in, I used heavily salted water instead. This also helps keep any of them from breaking up and possibly clouding the broth. I cooked the matzo balls in a covered pot, and according to the comments I read from the recipe I had chosen, keeping it covered is vital. They half boil, half steam. I followed the recipe exactly as it said and when I lifted up the lid, they were definitely still floating, though the middles looked like they hadn't cooked all the way yet. I flipped them over to help finish cooking, and then they sunk. I don't know why, but they sunk. I thought they'd be like when you fry doughnuts and you flip those over, but no...they sank. I had to very carefully fish them out of the water.

At this time, I added the veggies and shredded chicken back to the broth and heated it through. I had never added any salt to this, so I flavored it at this point. It took quite a bit of salt to get it right. To serve, I put four matzo balls in the bottom of the bowl and poured the soup over it. Four ended up being too much. Three is a better amount for one serving, I think.

The broth was too carroty for my tastes, so next time I would probably use one less carrot. It was a bit too sweet for me, hence the need for so much salt to balance it out. The matzo balls taste and look probably exactly as they are supposed to. However, my palate and taste buds aren't used to them. I wasn't the hugest fan of them, I have to admit, sadly. Maybe if I had tried one made by a professional who knew what they were doing, it would be different. Or maybe if I had been raised with it as a part of my diet, it would be different. There isn't much flavor to a matzo, so it doesn't lend a lot to the finished product, but for me it was mostly the texture. I'm just not used to it. I should also mention the fact that I don't tend to have a lot of luck with chicken noodle soup, or chicken soups in general. I have no idea why, but it's one of the things that seems to elude me...And yet I keep trying!

Making the soup, regardless of the turnout, was fun. It was time consuming and very involved, but it was fun. It was nice to feel like I was participating in something that thousands of other people around the world are participating in right now. Preparing a dish that has traveled halfway around the world, and has been passed down from one generation to the next, and contains the story of who they are in it, is a joy and a privilege. And as with several other dishes I have made in this series, Matzo Ball soup has woven its way into American cuisine. It might not be my story or my history, but it is a beautiful one that is worth knowing by everybody.


Matzo Ball Recipe


Article about the Yeshiva system in Lakewood

City Pic

Matzo Ball History

More Matzo Ball History

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