A lighter take on matzo ball soup for Passover

Matzo ball soupThe Husband is Jewish and I am his shiksa bride. As young marrieds, we ignored both traditions equally. But when we had children, we began celebrating Jewish and Christian holidays alike, so that as the kids matured they could naturally gravitate to the rituals that moved them the most.

Though I grew up in New York, I'd never attended a Passover seder until I met my future husband. I really enjoyed the meal, but the Passover service seemed so complicated that I felt a tad overwhelmed when it was time to produce my own seder. For that matter, even the meal — with its many platters of symbolic dishes — seemed pretty daunting.

I knew I'd probably never attempt homemade gefilte fish, but I figured I might be able to produce a respectable matzo ball soup. At the time (now a generation ago) I owned no Jewish cookbooks, and there was no internet. So what did I do? I called my mother-in-law. And what did she tell me? To make the recipe on the back of the matzo meal box.

And? Except for the fact that I made the balls too big and they blew up to the size of tennis balls and took forever to cook, I felt pretty proud of my soup. It was tasty.

Since then I've produced many matzo ball soups, and not always on Passover. My son, for one, loves it all year. At the birthday dinner parties he used to throw for himself as a teenager (guess who cooked) matzo ball soup was always on the menu. Over time, I've refined the recipe from the back of the box.

Like other cooks before me, I swapped out the vegetable oil in favor of schmaltz (chicken fat), which amps the flavor. I also began poaching the matzo balls not in water, but in broth. These techniques made for a notably dense matzo ball — sinkers, not floaters, as The Husband's Aunt Yetta used to say. But my family liked them that way.

However, for the purpose of this column, I wanted to dream up a matzo ball that is lower in fat and calories, but that doesn't sacrifice any flavor. The schmaltz was the first ingredient to go. Yes, of course, it's delicious, but it's also pure saturated fat. Not healthy. So it was back to vegetable oil.

Then I kissed off the whole eggs in favor of egg whites, which are leaner. I tried to make up for the flavor that went missing along with the schmaltz by adding broth to the batter, but the resulting matzo ball was as dense as a lead ball. What to do? I could have lost the broth in favor of seltzer, which would have made the matzo balls much lighter, but I was afraid it would dull the flavor.

Instead, I added some baking powder, which did indeed make them more buoyant. Isn't baking powder, a leavener, a no-no during Passover, which bans all leavened bread? Not if you use baking powder that's been certified kosher for Passover. Then I poached the matzo balls for much longer than recommended, which helped to cook them all the way through, and made them less dense.

The soup part of this recipe is thick with spring vegetables — fava beans, asparagus, leeks, mushrooms and peas. If you want to get fancy (and you can find them), use fresh, seasonal morel mushrooms instead of the buttons. Just make sure you wash them well.

Considered as a whole — matzo balls and vegetables — this soup could stand alone as a hearty, one-pot dinner. If it strikes you as too hearty for the first course of a seder, simply add more chicken broth to thin it.

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SPRING VEGETABLE SOUP WITH LOW-FAT, HIGH-FLAVOR MATZO BALLS

Start to finish: 2 hours (45 minutes active)

Servings: 8

For the matzo balls:

3/4 cup matzo meal

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

6 large egg whites, lightly beaten

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 tablespoons low-sodium chicken broth

For the soup:

1/2 pound shelled fresh fava beans or shelled fresh lima beans (or 1 2/3 cups defrosted frozen), or a combination

3 medium leeks

1/2 pound asparagus (about 1/2 bunch), tough ends discarded (peel the stalks if thicker than 1/3 inch)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 pound small white mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

10 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 cup shelled fresh or defrosted frozen green peas

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Chopped fresh dill, to garnish

To make the matzo balls, in a large bowl stir together the matzo meal, salt and baking powder. Add the egg whites, vegetable oil and chicken broth, then stir until well combined. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.

While the matzo mixture cools, prepare the vegetables. If using fava beans, in a large saucepan bring 1 quart of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the shelled fava beans and blanch for 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to immediately transfer them to a bowl of ice water to cool. When they are cool enough to handle, gently peel the skins from the beans. If using lima beans, this step can be skipped.

Trim off and discard the green parts of the leeks, leaving about 5 inches. Cut the white part in half lengthwise, then slice into 1-inch pieces (about 3 1/2 cups). Rinse them well and pat them dry. Cut the asparagus crosswise into 1-inch pieces.

In a large saucepan over medium, heat the oil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes, or until they have softened. Add the asparagus and mushrooms to the leek mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 to 4 minutes more, or until almost tender. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set aside.

Return the saucepan to the stovetop over medium-high heat. Add the chicken broth and bring it to a boil. Shape the chilled matzo batter into 16 balls and add them to the broth. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the matzo balls are tender.

Add the vegetable mixture to the chicken stock and matzo balls, along with the fava beans and peas and simmer until heated through. If using defrosted frozen lima beans, add them first to the soup and let them simmer for 5 minutes or until tender, then add the other vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste, ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped fresh dill.

Nutrition information per serving: 230 calories; 80 calories from fat (35 percent of total calories); 9 g fat (0.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 10 g protein; 1070 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."