Don Day apologizes but he just can’t start a blog about matzo ball soup without a tall Jewish tale.
A prominent and respected Jewish businessman died, and the community was gathered in the synagogue to honor him.
The rabbi intoned solemnly, “Our dear departed Saul will be sorely missed. He was a good husband, a loving father, he was…”
At this point a tiny old lady at the back shouts, “Give him some matzo ball soup!”
The rabbi discreetly ignores her and goes on, “Saul was a beloved community man, a pillar of the community, a fine businessman…”
And the old lady shouts louder, “Give him some matzo ball soup!”
The rabbi can’t ignore her any longer, so he responds, “Dear lady, our brother is departed; matzo ball soup can’t help him now.”
The lady shouts back, “It couldn’t hurt him!”
Don Day has a little Jewish blood. Including a great grandmother who pronouced hurt like oyt. But not enough to have ever had matzo balls at his childhood home. Noren Caceres has considerably more Jewish blood. But she never had matzo balls at home either.
“I didn’t learn to make matzo balls from my grandmother, certainly not my mother! Both came from New York City where there are delis to do that for you and they do it perfectly,” said Noren.
At this time last year, there were two places in San Miguel de Allende where Don Day could nosh on Jewish food and I mean old fashioned, hearty, stick to the ribs type food you might only expect to find in Brooklyn. One was at Jennifer Posner and Gaby Green’s Hierbabuena food truck. The other was at La Frontera. These days, the food truck appears to be up on blocks so, I think, it’s down to one.
Today, as the chef at La Frontera, Noren Caceres is the last outpost of Jewish food in San Miguel de Allende. The last hope for people like Don Day who grew up with at least one lunch a week at a Jewish deli. But as long as there’s one and it’s good as what Noren Caceres makes, one is enough.
Don Day was at La Frontera this week. For a couple of traditional Jewish dishes that are on La Frontera‘s regular menu. Most of all though he was there for the matzo ball soup.
“The only thing my grandmother ever told me about making matzo balls was when I was a teenager. I bought a box of mix and told her I wanted to make them myself. She told me that the trick was the seltzer and refrigeration. If only that were true,” Noren told me.
Today, San Miguelenses, including Noren Caceres, buy their matzo ball mix at Luna de Queso, a San Miguel deli that’s the pride of an American Jewish man and a local Mexican woman. The shop, in a space not more than about 15 feet x 30 feet, has just about anything and everything you might expect in a New York deli five times the size. At Luna de Queso you have your choice of Matzo Ball Mix or Matzo Meal. And Don Day has been told that the deciding factor as to which one you use is whether it’s Passover or not. Don Day’s not sure why this is but Don Day’s Wife says she thinks it’s because the Matzo Ball Mix is unleavened.
There are two kinds of matzo balls and they share their description with, to Don Day’s knowledge, only one other thing in this world. The two kinds of matzo balls are floaters and sinkers or, as Don Day’s friend Peter Carafiol refers to them, beach balls and cannonballs. Though most people tend to favor the floaters, there are passionate devotees of the sinkers. Peter Carafiol even glamorizes a sound, “the clunk that can only come from a cannonball when the spoon breaks through and hits the bottom of the bowl.”
Don Day favors the floaters. Just because they’re lighter, fluffier and seem to soak up more soup. I would call Noren Caceres’ matzo balls floaters.
“I’ve made some very good matzo balls and some not so great”, said Noren. “Whenever a customer comes in that claims to make fabulous matzo balls, I take notes. The last woman who gave me her tip was that she doesn’t touch hers more than two to three times when she forms the ball. That and the water needs to be boiling when you place them in the pot. That’s a very important point.”
Matzo balls are both one of the simplest and most complicated things you can ever try and create. And though Don Day has never made a matzo ball in his life, he is a good listener (despite what Don Day’s Wife says). People not only have opinions about whether the matzo balls should float, they can talk for what seems like hours about whether the balls need to be perfectly round, whether they “clouded” the soup, whether you should grease or wet your hands when you form them, and what the precise ingredients should be.
There are four basic ingredients: matzo meal, eggs, water and a fat. And there are people who will tell you that once you venture past the four ingredients, you have ventured into foreign territory; you no longer have real matzo balls.
Most cooks do, however, travel into foreign lands when they make their matzo balls. Lots of them use seltzer or club soda to help lighten them up. Many of them include parsley and salt. Noren Caceres goes a little further.
“The matzo balls you ate today were made with a little finely chopped onion, parsley, dill, salt, pepper, seltzer (as grandma said), and separated eggs with the whites whisked to firm peaks,” Noren told me. “The mix was then refrigerated overnight and I did my best to get them in the pot without ever touching them!”
Noren then realized she’d missed one of the ingredients. Don Day mentioned earlier that one of the four basics is fat but he didn’t say what kind of fat. These days most people use margarine or vegetable oil but in the old days, they used schmaltz and I don’t mean they use to sit around and get all sentimental when they made matzo balls. Schmaltz is actually something else. Schmaltz is chicken fat.
“I just used oil, even if many say to use chicken fat”, said Noren. “I haven’t gone that far yet.”
I’m not sure what individual ingredients make the difference in Noren Caceres matzo balls but they do make a significant difference. Matzo is a wonderful word, a word that’s delightful to say, a word that’s hard to say without using your hand. But when you get right down to it, matzo or matza or matzah balls aren’t exactly wonderful to eat without a little doctoring up and, most importantly, without something wonderful to be dropped into.
Let’s face it, you can have a great boat but it isn’t truly great until you have a great place to float your boat. The same can be said for matzo balls.
The traditional place to place a matzo ball is, of course, in chicken soup or, as Don Day’s Mom always called it, Jewish penicillin.
Noren Caceres chicken soup is very traditional, with no trendy, no exotic ingredients, and that’s how it should be. The soup combines onions, carrots and celery, the three aromatic vegetables that together form a mirepoix, the base for so many of the world’s favorite braises, soups and stews. Noren bathes them in a broth that has never been inside a can or an envelope or ever been formed into a cube. The chicken stock at La Frontera comes from simply boiling fresh chickens. The result is chicken soup that almost makes you wish the weather in San Miguel de Allende wasn’t quite so perfect.
Matzo ball soup isn’t the only Jewish food that La Frontera serves. You’ll also find brisket on their regular menu. As specials, you might also see chopped chicken liver, potato latkes or Noren Caceres’ take on cheese blintzes, a wonderful dessert that is somewhere between a canole, a flauta and a blintz. If you have a special event (Don Day knows Noren has done a Jewish wedding), you can probably talk the restaurant into combining them all into a multi-course meal.
Jewish food isn’t the only specialty at La Frontera. Noren Caceres is like a spinning globe when it comes to national cuisines. Don Day has had Noren’s Indian dishes, her Spanish dishes, her North African dishes and her Thai dishes. Next Sunday, March 30, Noren will be doing what Don Day thinks she does better than any cuisine, the food from another side of her family, Comida Mexicana. It’s being served at a dinner, wine and music event called the SMARTs. You can read more about it and how to make reservations at http://sanmigueldeallendeevents.com/93/don.php
Now because I started this blog with a tall tale, I have to end it with one. Especially when Don Day just realized that he never told you about his first ever matzo ball experience.
I was on my very first camping trip without my parents. Just my friend Reuben and I, portaging between lakes in Algonquin Park. It was the second day and we were paddling down this winding, narrow river between lakes when I realized how easy it would be to get lost.
I said to Reuben, “Sure am glad you brought that compass.”
“Actually, I didn’t”, said Reuben. “When my mother was helping me pack she took it out and gave me something else she says is better.”
“What’s that?”, I replied.
Reuben then reached into his backpack and held up a canister of Manischewitz Matzo Mix.
“My mother told me you can be in the middle of nowhere,” said Reuben, “when it’s pitch black and there are wolves howling all around you and all you have to do is open the can, take out a few grains of the meal and start rolling it around in your hands. Within five minutes there’ll be ten Jewish women there telling you you’re doing it wrong.”
La Frontera is located at Stirling Dickinson 28, in Plaza Pueblita, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Monday to Saturday, Noon to 8:00 pm.