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My Favorite Matzo Ball

What makes a good matzo ball? It’s an age-old question that has stood the test of time and the duration of many a Passover Seder. Should they be light and fluffy or dense and hefty? Should they be the size of a golf ball or a fist? Should they sink or swim? Should they flake and fall apart or stick together at the slice of a spoon?

Some say the key to a good matzo ball is using seltzer water, which makes them extra fluffy. Others swear by whipped egg whites to get that light-as-air consistency. Still others say the secret is using enough schmaltz, or chicken fat, and one Jewish food aficionado claims the best matzo balls on earth are made not with chicken fat but with goose fat. The techniques and opinions on what makes matzo balls great vary, but one thing that all matzo ball lovers can agree on is that their mother makes them best.

For all of us New York transplants who can’t enjoy our mothers’ matzo ball soup this Passover, luckily we’re in the right city. From Katz’s Delicatessen to 2nd Avenue Deli to Barney Greengrass, there is no shortage of great places to find matzo balls, just like your mother makes them.

My favorite matzo ball hails from Lobel’s, one of New York’s oldest butchers. A five-generation family business since 1840, Lobel’s is known for its high quality beef. The butcher shop has been located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan since 1954, and in 2009, Lobel’s debuted their now-famous steak sandwich, which has earned a dedicated following, at Yankee Stadium. Just last week, on Monday, March 18, Lobel’s expanded its reach once again with the opening of a second location in Manhattan, on Third Avenue at 61stStreet: Lobel’s Kitchen.

The new spot serves prepared foods — like rotisserie chicken, cheeses, smoked salmon and sandwiches — as well as raw meet. You’ll find their classic steak sandwich on the menu, along with their signature steak, the Wrangler — a cut that the Lobels patented themselves. Light and spacious, with floor to ceiling windows, Lobel’s Kitchen has a significantly different feeling than the original butcher shop — a compact space lined with wood paneling –but both are marked by the same dedication to high quality.

While beef is their main business, Lobel’s also makes a great matzo ball soup — an unexpected gem.

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The ingredients for the matzo balls are simple, but, as co-owner David Lobel says, “it’s the technique that makes all the difference in creating the perfect matzo ball.” The matzo balls are made with matzo meal, eggs, pepper, canola oil and a little chicken broth, and once they are shaped into large rounds, they’re carefully placed in boiling water, which is then reduced to a simmer. The key is treating them gently to avoid breakage. When they’re ready, they must be carefully removed from the boiling water and delicately spaced out on a sheet, far enough apart so that they don’t stick together.

The matzo balls are solid and don’t flake apart, but in the soup, the exterior soaks up some of the chicken broth so that they’re slightly soft on the outside but retain their texture on the inside. Pepper is the only discernible spice in the matzo balls, and it’s very subtle. I love the matzo balls for their simplicity, but mostly because they remind me of childhood. My family’s long been a fan of Lobel’s for their beef, chicken noodle soup and of course their matzo ball soup. It’s this taste of home that keeps me coming back, which is why I’ll be serving Lobel’s matzo ball soup tonight at my seder.

No matter how you like your matzo balls, matzo ball soup is the ultimate comfort food because it is first and foremost about family and tradition. It stands to reason, then, that Lobel’s, a five-generation family business, serves up some of the best matzo ball soup in New York City, and definitely my favorite (except for my mother’s, of course).

This post was originally posted on the Huffington Post. See here for more photos.

Shelsky’s Smoked Fish

Appetizing (noun) is most easily explained as food that you would eat with a bagel: from smoked salmon and whitefish to homemade salads and cream cheese. This Jewish American food group gave rise to the appetizing shop, which reflects Jewish dietary laws that prohibit selling or consuming meat and dairy products together.  Appetizing shops sell dairy and fish, and delicatessens — traditionally — sell cured and pickled meat. Early in the 20th century, Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought appetizing cuisine to New York, and today that legacy is an emblematic food of the city: a bagel with lox and cream cheese. What says New York more than that?

Ironically, the bagel-lox-and-cream-cheese legacy has actually contributed to the slow disappearance of appetizing shops, which used to be a dime a dozen in New York. The ubiquity of this classic New York combo has cast a large shadow over the other important components of appetizing — whitefish salad, pickled herring, sturgeon, and sable, to name a few — and the shops have become nearly obsolete. Russ and Daughters, a stalwart of the Lower East Side, has been “appetizing since 1914″ and is thankfully still going strong. It is one of the only remaining stores in a neighborhood that used to be home to more than 30 appetizing shops, and happens to have some of the best whitefish salad on the planet. Brooklyn, for all its specialty food shops and Jewish roots, was sorely lacking an appetizing shop north of Prospect Park untilShelsky’s Smoked Fish opened in Carroll Gardens.

Peter Shelsky opened the store because he was tired of schlepping into Manhattan for whitefish, and he is restoring some heritage to the borough in the process. For a brilliant combination of all of the best that Shelsky’s has to offer, the “Brooklyn Native” is the perfect sandwich — Gaspe Nova, smoked Whitefish Salad, pickled herring, and sour pickles are served on a bagel or bialy. I am partial to the bialy, which is every so slightly toasted so as not to sacrifice the fluffy middle. The sandwich begins with a layer of creamy whitefish salad, which, made with chopped cucumber and celery, has just the right amount of crunch. Next comes two layers of Gaspe Nova so fresh it practically melts in your mouth. Not overly smoky, this Nova goes really well with the next layer, a slightly sweet piece of pickled herring that is much meatier than the salmon, offering a unique consistency in addition to the new flavor. Finally, a few sour pickles top off the salty stack, all enveloped, of course, by the bagel or bialy. The distinct texture of each component in the “Brooklyn Native” is an integral part of this sandwich’s character.

Other Shelsky’s sandwiches, like the “Member of the Tribe” (Gaspe Nova, scallion or plain cream cheese served on a bagel) or the namesake “Peter Shelsky” (Gaspe Nova, sable, pickled herring with cream sauce and onion, scallion cream cheese served on bagel or bialy) offer similarly complex, flavor-packed options. “The Great Gatsby” (pastrami cured salmon, horseradish cream cheese, honey mustard, and red onion) or the “Dr. Goldstein Special”(duck fat-laced chopped liver and apple horseradish sauce served between two schmaltz-fried potato latkes) take tradition to a whole new level. For those new to the cuisine, Shelsky’s sandwiches are a great introduction to the world of appetizing — a world that will hopefully see a revival in the city where it really came of age. Head down to Carroll Gardens (historically not a Jewish neighborhood, as it were), for a taste of authentic appetizing, and some of the best sandwiches this side of the bridge.