Kitchen Wit & Wisdom: A feast for Passover

Passover this year is April 15 to 22 and traditional foods play a big part in this ancient Jewish festival

For Christians, Easter is the holiest and oldest of all traditions, and it’s related to the even more ancient Jewish festival of Passover, which is described in the Old Testament.

Both holidays are celebrated at the same time of year, often (but not always) in the same week. Passover takes place over one week in remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

This year Passover began Monday, and goes until April 22. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Because the house is free of chametz (leavened foods) for eight days, the Jewish household typically eats different foods during the week of Passover, such as matzah brei and gefilte fish, and probably most familiar, chicken soup with matzah balls, a chicken soup served with matzah-meal dumplings.

For Passover this year I offer a delicious chicken soup and a matzah ball variation recipe to try. I want to wish all of our Jewish friends a good Passover celebration.

Chicken Soup with Shallot-Shiitake Matzah Balls

1 whole chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds)

3 large carrots, peeled and chopped in half

3 stalks celery with leaves, chopped in half

2 onions, peeled and halved lengthwise through the root

1 bay leaf

4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh parsley (with stems), plus more chopped fresh parsley for serving

Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Shallot Shiitake Matzah Balls, recipe follows

Lemon wedges for serving, optional

Place chicken, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaf, garlic and 1/4 cup parsley in a large soup pot. Cover the ingredients with 1 inch of cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat to low and gently simmer, partially covered, skimming off the foam that accumulates as needed. Cook until chicken is very tender and falling off the bone, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and transfer to a cutting board. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve, and add it back to the pot. Discard the parsley and bay leaf. Using your fingers, remove the skin and discard it, then remove the meat from the bones. Roughly chop the meat. Chop the vegetables into bite-sized pieces and add them back to the pot with the chicken meat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, place 1 or 2 matzah balls into a soup bowl and top with soup and chopped fresh parsley. Serve with lemon wedges for squeezing, if desired.  Serves 6 to 8

Shallot-Shiitake Matzah Balls

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 medium shallots, finely chopped

Coarse kosher salt

1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and finely chopped, about 1-1/2 cups

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup matzah meal

3 tablespoons seltzer water

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium pan set over medium heat. Add the shallots and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms soften and brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the thyme and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Remove pan from heat and transfer mixture to a bowl to speed up the cooling process. Let cool until cool to the touch. Once cooled, mix the mushroom mixture together with the eggs, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon salt, matzah meal and seltzer in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium-low and keep at a simmer. Moisten your hands with water; scoop out a heaping tablespoon of matzah ball batter and roll it into a 1-inch ball. Drop the ball into the boiling water, and repeat with remaining batter. Cover the pot, and let simmer until matzah balls are tender and puffed, 30 to 35 minutes. (If you cut one in half, it should be pale in colour throughout.)

Remove matzah balls from pot with a slotted spoon and let sit on a plate until ready to use. Makes 16 to 18 matzah balls.