Alibi V.24 No.13 • March 26-April 1, 2015 

Flash in the Pan

Crypto-Cuisine

Ari LeVaux

While dining at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque, I was shocked to eat something that reminded me of my mom's East Coast Jewish cooking. I had taken a chance on a bowl of meatball soup called albóndigas. It turned out to be a bowl of mildly aromatic broth with chunks of carrot, celery, zucchini and one large beef meatball. My first bite of that meatball, the albóndiga, was spongy, and its mellow, satisfying flavor reminded me unmistakably of Mom's matzo balls. Of course matzo balls don't contain meat. But part of their magic is a springy, fleshy quality.

The menu noted the lamb chop entrée is the owner's favorite dish, and when she stopped at my table, I asked her why. She explained that lamb chops remind her of the farm where she grew up in southern New Mexico. They raised a lot of animals, she added, but rarely ate the pigs. She speculated it's because her grandmother was Jewish.

Such conjecture of Jewish ancestry is common in the Southwest. Supposedly, a population of covert Jews settled in the area long ago. These Crypto-Jews trace their roots to late-1300s Spain, during a fierce wave of anti-Semitism. Thousands of Jews were murdered or expelled. Thousands more converted to Christianity, sometimes by force, but sometimes by choice as a means of escaping persecution. Many of these conversos continued to covertly practice Judaism and are thought to have migrated to the New World with Spanish colonists and settled along the border region between Texas and Nuevo León, Mexico. From there, they spread throughout the Southwest.

Such conjecture of Jewish ancestry is common in the Southwest. Supposedly, a population of covert Jews settled in the area long ago.

In old New Mexican cemeteries, graves with Stars of David carved into the headstones are inscribed with Jewish-sounding names. There are reports of slaughter practices that sound suspiciously Jewish, of grandparents who refused to work on Saturdays and who proclaimed their Jewishness from their deathbeds. Curiously, there are few examples of these practices being overtly passed along, as if being Jewish was a dangerous burden the Crypto-Jews didn't wish on their families. Or perhaps they didn't even know why they were following these rituals.

Does this mean that those fluffy albóndigas are actually crypto-matzo balls? Probably not. Albóndigas are thought to have originated as Berber or Arab dishes that made their way to Spain during the country’s Muslim rule.

In Mexican albóndigas the starchy binder used to hold the meatballs together is usually rice or corn-based, not matzo meal. But that doesn't mean matzo can't be used.

I played around with various recipes for both albóndigas and matzo balls, including a matzo ball recipe incorporating leeks and potatoes, and I came up with the following recipe for “crypto-matzo balls.”

These are denser than typical matzo balls, thanks primarily to the meat, but they will nonetheless float in soup, like a matzo ball should. Thanks to their matzo meal, they are lighter than a typical meatball but meatier than a matzo ball.

The recipe uses pecans, in a nod to the original Crypto-Jewish community along the lower Rio Grande on the Tex-Mex border.

Crypto-Matzo Balls

1 lb meat (raw ground beef or lamb, or shredded cooked chicken)

1 large leek, minced

2 cups potatoes, diced

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup matzo meal

3 cloves garlic, minced, pressed or crushed

1 ½ teaspoons salt

2 cups unsalted chicken stock

4 tablespoons pecans, crushed

A pinch of cumin

Add leeks to the stock in a saucepan, and simmer until the liquid is nearly gone. Meanwhile, steam the potatoes until soft. Purée potatoes, leeks and remaining stock in a blender.

In a bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients and potato leek purée. Shape them into balls. Drop them into soup. Simmer for 30 minutes, and serve. Remove uneaten crypto-matzo balls and store separately, so they don't get mushy.

For a more Southwest feel, add some red chile powder to the chicken soup. But please, don't tell my mom.