Few foods offer the comfort and soul-soothing warmth of matzo ball soup, prepared with some grandmotherly love. Well, at least that's true for myself, raised Jewish in New Jersey. That also happens to be true for chef Jon Sloan of The Crack Shack, who shares those roots. But his kitchen these days is in Southern California, where he's growing the footprint of the local chain from chef Richard Blais and owner Mike Rosen. And in SoCal, there's an entirely different definition of comfort food in a bowl: posole.
Why not then riff on that classic by mixing it up with the comfort food of his youth? "We already had posole for our Cali Dip sandwich, and last winter was quite cold," Sloan says, clearly now fully acclimated to the San Diego sunshine. "So we felt a posole-based soup was smart and the way to go." That's the origin story behind the ultimate Jewish Mexican comfort food combo: matzo ball posole. "As a fellow Jewish boy from New Jersey, the idea of a delicious matzo ball made with the fat rendered off of making the posole was an attractive idea," Sloan says.
This matzo ball soup (see the recipe) would be unrecognizable to your grandmother. Sloan's posole rojo showcases a savory red broth, flavored with a handful of different chile peppers—poblanos, jalapeños, dried pasillas and guajillos—along with a robust cast of spices and herbs. The rich broth is the perfect foil for the matzo ball, which replaces the posole's traditional hominy. You'll want to break up the matzo ball as you eat to let each bite soak up as much of that spicy broth as possible, while also mimicking the bite-for-bite texture and thickness of classic posole.
Meanwhile, the broth is fortified with chicken bones, and shredded chicken braised in the posole broth stands in for pork. Not only is this a delicious culinary combo, it's something you can actually serve with pride during Passover. Even if that wasn't Sloan's original plan. "No thought was given to Passover or being kosher, I am ashamed to admit," he says. "We have chicken bones in-house, so that was the direction we wanted to head."
Perhaps the best part of posole is loading up a bowl with toppings. Sloan opts for avocado, radish, cabbage, cilantro, Tajín-dusted limes and tortilla strips. Those adhering to Passover can sub tortilla strips for matzo farfel or customize it with your own choice of toppings any time of the year.
Of course, the key to any good matzo ball, whether it's being deployed in traditional soup or posole, is schmaltz. The uninitiated need not be scared away. Sloan cuts to the chase: "It's chicken fat," he says. "And quite sublime in terms of flavor."
So while duck-fat fries continue appearing on menus across the country, The Crack Shack serves up schmaltz-fried fries. And the matzo ball posole finds itself in good standing with other cultural mash-ups on the menu, such as the Mexican poutine.
Although there's been some movement away from combining different cuisines solely for the sake of it, Sloan doesn't see any reason to avoid such creations, as long as they're well planned and executed. "Fusion is no longer a dirty word to me, more like an informed reality," he says.
That's particularly true in Southern California, where numerous cultural and culinary influences are always on display. "We enjoy borrowing all sorts of techniques and inspirations from everywhere, our surroundings being the most influential," Sloan says. "This soup is really rooted in Mexican cuisine, with appropriate garnishes, and applying sound fundamental 'grandmother technique' to the ball."
Whether you're Jewish or Mexican, both, or neither, the dish stands on its own—it's addictively delicious. "I just want people to enjoy our food and feel satiated," Sloan says. "But if it reminds you or anyone else of home or childhood, that makes me happy. Food is at its best when it brings back great memories."
So, does Sloan's aforementioned grandmother technique create "sinkers"—heavier matzo balls anchored to the bottom of the bowl—or showcase the airy texture of "floaters"? Devotees of both factions need to know.
"We never thought about 'to float or not to float,'" Sloan says. "We simply knew what we wanted the texture to be like. My executive chef, Mike Gil, in Costa Mesa helped me with this dish; the matzo ball recipe is his. He worked for a Jewish deli concept in Chicago many years ago."
In other words, your grandmother may or may not approve, but you probably will when you try it for yourself. And as you're working in the kitchen, Sloan has some final parting wisdom: "Have some really flavorful fortified chicken stock at home," he says. "And a nice glass of Manischewitz or shot of tequila. Then have at it!"
Jake Emen is a food, drink and travel journalist living in San Diego. Follow his adventures on Twitter at @ManTalkFood.
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