ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This is a big weekend for matzo ball soup. Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, starts Sunday night. And chef Pati Jinich wants all the matzo ball makers out there to understand the soup doesn't care whether you prefer floaters or sinkers.
PATI JINICH: It turns out that matzo balls maybe are insanely capricious. One Friday, they're like, here, you can have me fluffy. And the other week is like, this is what you'll get.
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SHAPIRO: Matzo ball soup is a classic recipe straight from Eastern Europe - typically chicken stock, root vegetables and dumplings made from the crumbs of unleavened bread.
But the recipe that Pati Jinich serves at her home near Washington, D.C., took a detour. Like Pati's grandparents, it skipped Ellis Island and reached the new world through Mexico.
JINICH: This matzo ball soup is going to sit on a bed of steamed mushrooms, jalapenos and onions.
SHAPIRO: Not exactly traditional.
JINICH: Not traditional, but it is a recipe that my grandmother used to make in Mexico.
SHAPIRO: We are making this soup today and posting the full recipe at npr.org.
JINICH: You can tell really quickly if a chili is spicy or not, like, the moment you cut into it.
SHAPIRO: The first time I picked up Pati's cookbook, "Mexican Today," I thought this isn't Mexican food. There are recipes for pizza and mac and cheese, this matzo ball soup recipe, too. Turns out, her family has done this for generations, integrating their culinary roots with the place they live now.
When her Polish grandmother moved to Mexico in the early 20th century, traditional gefilte fish got capers and pickled chiles. Chicharrones was off limits - crispy pigskin isn't kosher. So instead, for Friday night's Shabbat dinner, she made gribenes - Yiddish for crispy chicken skin.
JINICH: So instead of doing tacos, you know, corn tortillas with guacamole and pork rind, she would do corn tortillas with guacamole and gribenes. So that was the Shabbat chicharron.
SHAPIRO: And for the Jewish New Year, Pati's other grandmother made this - reinvented matzo ball soup.
JINICH: She came from Austria and, you know, there they have a lot of mushroom dishes. And in Mexico in the rainy season, you get wild kinds of mushrooms. I mean, we call them clouds and birds. And, I mean, the shapes are insane. They're blue and yellow and black and white, like all kinds. So she would choose different kinds of mushrooms, and then cook them with jalapeno, onion and garlic.
SHAPIRO: Mushrooms and jalapenos aren't the only surprises in this soup. When Pati mixes the matzo balls, she adds freshly grated nutmeg.
JINICH: Nutmeg - I think when you use it for savory foods, it makes the other elements of that dish shine a little bit more. Like, it makes the sweetness of the matzo meal sort of come out.
SHAPIRO: The second surprise?
JINICH: Toasted sesame oil.
SHAPIRO: I've never put that in a matzo ball.
JINICH: See, smell a little.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it's that nutty smell.
JINICH: It's that nutty smell. And the combination of the toasted sesame oil with the matzo is, like, double toasted flavor.
Finally, a trick to help the matzo balls float.
JINICH: Sparkling water (laughter).
SHAPIRO: ...It keeps it light and fluffy.
JINICH: It keeps it light and fluffy.
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SHAPIRO: The mixture goes into the refrigerator for half an hour. Meanwhile, Pati cooks the mushrooms, onions and jalapenos on the stove. She adds the chicken stock and lets the soup simmer. When the matzo mix comes out of the refrigerator, she rolls out the little spheres, dropping them into boiling water.
So each ball is about an inch or 2 in diameter?
JINICH: Like a golf ball.
SHAPIRO: They sink going into the pot, all the way to the bottom. And after a minute, they rise to the surface.
JINICH: Once I add them all, I'll let them simmer because you want to make sure that it's really, really cooked throughout.
SHAPIRO: Soon, we have Pati's Mexican matzo ball soup - hearty, earthy, a touch of heat with the jalapenos, nutty sweetness from the matzo meal and the sesame oil.
SHAPIRO: This is, like, a taste of home, but a home that has been remodeled.
JINICH: I love that.
SHAPIRO: I recognize it, but it looks a little different.
JINICH: It is, but it's not overpowering. That's what I love.
JINICH: And it's also very homey. It's still something that you'd want to have if you have a cold tonight.
SHAPIRO: I was just going to say...
SHAPIRO: ...Next time I'm sick, this is what I'm going to make.
JINICH: Right (laughter).
SHAPIRO: Pati Jinich, author of "Mexican Today," it has been a pleasure talking with you.
JINICH: Aw, thank you.
SHAPIRO: And shanah tovah, happy Jewish New Year.
JINICH: My pleasure to have you here.
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