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The Perfect Matzo Ball Soup

Courtesy of Jenn Louis

Sometimes a recipe "mistake" turns into a treasured memory.

In's Recipe Vault series, celebrity chefs and food bloggers share how recipes preserve our life stories and connect us to those we've lost.

As executive chef/co-owner of two restaurants – Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern –  and a full-service catering company in Portland, Oregon, Jenn Louis has competed on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters" and was named one of Food & Wine's "Best New Chefs." Her simple, sophisticated cooking style, using seasonal ingredients from the Pacific Northwest, has earned her two nominations for the James Beard award of Best Chef: Northwest. Her debut cookbook, "Pasta By Hand" (Chronicle Books), came out in the spring, and this fall she'll open an Israeli restaurant in the forthcoming Freehand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, California.

We talked to Jenn about learning to cook under pressure, the pleasure of creating delicious food, and the happy accident that elevated her mom's matzo ball soup from good to perfect. Read on to learn more, and don't miss the recipe for that soup.

How did you first get interested in cooking?

I didn't realize it was an option for a job. I went to college, and when I came out, I started down the path of teaching and social work. I got a job cooking kind of on a fluke after college, and it was the best thing I'd ever done. I worked for the National Outward Bound School in North Carolina – I got a job cooking for their base camp instructors and course directors. I was living basically in the woods getting food drops twice a week, and I had to cook three meals a day from scratch. I'd never done it, but I somehow talked them into the fact that I could do it better than anyone else, and they hired me. It was one of the greatest experiences. I fell in love with cooking.

How did you learn to cook? Was it at home as a child, or did you teach yourself later?

I learned a lot through that job because I had to cook three meals a day for hungry people. Everything was from scratch, so I had to cook with raw materials. My mom was the cook in our house growing up, and she ran the kitchen; it wasn't super available to me. So I watched her cook, and I really appreciated home-cooked meals and food that was made from scratch, taking the time to cut your vegetables, and have well-balanced meals. But I didn't really learn to cook until college, when I started to cook some meals, and then after college when I got this job. I really didn't have any experience – I just went for it.

What's your favorite thing about cooking?

I love, love, love the creativity. I've been cooking for about 22 years, and the more I cook, the more I understand. The more I travel, the more I understand about food, and I become a better cook. I've always loved learning, and I think it's a very humbling job because as much as you know, there's always so much more to know. And it's pretty wonderful to be able to feed people and bring them joy. It's a pretty great job.

Let's talk about the recipe that reminds you of a loved one you've lost.

I grew up in a Jewish family, and I have this really fun story about my mom's matzo ball soup, which I make and really enjoy. Matzo balls, there are many, many styles. Some people like them more dense; some people like them completely fluffy. People like them different sizes; some really large, some a little smaller. People like different things in their broth.

So it was a holiday, and we were going to services and then coming back and having dinner. But my mom didn't have enough time to finish the soup. She put the matzo balls in the broth, simmered them, and then ran out of time. So she just turned it off, left them in the water that they were poaching in, covered it, and we went to services. We came back for dinner, and they were absolutely perfect.

It's that funny thing of making a mistake – not exactly a mistake, but making a choice in your cooking that is suited for something you need, but all of a sudden it's the best outcome for the product. And they become really, really light on the outside, and just a little bit dense on the inside, and ever since, I found a timing that I like to poach them with, and they're the perfect matzo balls.

So this is still something that you make regularly?

For holidays, yes.

When you make them, are you remembering this story? Are you thinking of your mom?

Yeah, absolutely. She passed away a few years ago, and she was a homemaker – she made all of our meals at home, from scratch. We always ate homemade meals. We always ate around a dinner table. And this is just one of those dishes that, every time I make it, every time I put them in to simmer for a little while, put the lid on, turn it off, let it sit – I always kind of laugh at how we found that really great texture. She found that great texture.

If you're going to be remembered in years to come for one particular recipe, what would it be?

That's a hard one. I think that as a chef, there are certain things you do in your career that you're like … "I made that." Home cooks do, too, and it feels really good. Sometimes it's very simple, like you make a batch of ricotta for the first time, or the third time, or the 12th time, and you're like, "Dude, I totally made that!" And it's so cool to watch something so elemental come together.

I have a couple things that I'm super proud of that I developed recipes for. One is a corned lamb neck that we serve at the restaurant. It's just like corned beef, but we take a whole lamb neck and corn it for a week, and then braise it really slowly. It gets this incredible, savory flavor.

Another one is a popcorn panna cotta. I ate at a restaurant, and they had a popcorn panna cotta, and it was just the custard flipped out onto a plate, but I'm like, "Yeah, but we can add more flavor to that!" And so I took my favorite panna cotta recipe, popped fresh popcorn, and put some butter and sea salt into it. We blended it, strained it really fine, and then set that, and put a little bit of whipped crème fraiche that's unsweetened, and warm caramel sauce over the top. We eat it in a little pot rather than flipping it out onto a plate. It's that crazy, sensory thing – it has all that popcorny, caramel corny flavor, but you're not used to eating it in such a smooth consistency. It just tricks out your brain, making your brain think, "Huh! What is that?" Everyone loves it; it's really yummy.

The third one is, I published a book a year ago called "Pasta By Hand." It was a really, really amazing experience to write this book. It was a difficult process – I started it probably five years prior to publishing, but I really wrote it over three years. It's the first collection of pasta recipes of its kind. A lot of people don't realize that pasta is broken down into three categories, and this book is about the category that's never been defined.

Italy is a collection of regions; they don't think of themselves as a unified country. And every region has what I call a dumpling – but there's no word for dumpling in Italian. So things like gnocchi, but they're not necessarily gnocchi. Depending on the region in Italy, what they grow and what they have, they make these different dumplings out of different ingredients. Some can be bread-based, some potato- or ricotta-based, and some with a semolina, from north to south.

They're all about food that was made by people to feed their families because they didn't have any money. So they're very rudimentary and very inexpensive to make, but incredibly soulful. I started to learn about different dumplings, and then I had 25 recipes, and I thought, hey, this should be a collection. And I ended up with 65 in the book. It was pretty special – I got to cook with people in their homes and restaurants. They're very doable, and it's very easy to do at home. It was really cool to contribute something to my field that was unique.

Isabel’s Matzo Ball Soup

Serves: 8

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 eggs

½ cup matzo meal

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons water

8 cups very rich homemade chicken stock

Combine all ingredients except the stock in a large bowl; stir to fully combine. Cover and chill for ½ hour.

Scoop into golf ball-sized balls (I like to use a No. 40 ice cream scoop), then lightly drop into very well-salted simmering water. Simmer 30 minutes, with lid slightly ajar.

Turn off heat and cover for 30 minutes.

Heat the stock, season with kosher salt, and ladle into bowls with 2 matzo balls.