Restaurateur Danny Meyer really loves his matzoh ball soup.
“When I first moved to NYC and was a salesman, I would drive around and eat deli food at least once a week,” the Shake Shack and Gramercy Tavern chief told the crowd earlier this month at his Union Square Hospitality group’s Morning Market Meeting, a quarterly town hall-style event.
“I would go to genuine delis, and also found that Greek diners were selling matzoh ball soup and ersatz corned beef,” he explained. “I think those places created a bridge.”
Matzoh ball soup has been on the menu at the upscale Gramercy Tavern, and is currently available at the Untitled at The Whitney, located in the Upper East Side art museum. But Meyer’s menus were not the topic of discussion that morning, at least not entirely. Meyer was joined by Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner of Katz’s Delicatessen, for the deli-themed event, titled ‘Knishes, Kugel, and Kvetching,’ at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket.
In terms of average restaurant lifespans, Meyer’s Union Square Cafe is certainly up there. But the 28-year-old downtown dining staple has got nothing on Katz’s Delicatessen, the iconic Lower East Side institution celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. In honor of the milestone—and the publication of Katz’s: Autobiography of a Delicatessen—Meyer devoted this month’s meeting to deli culture.
Meyer, who grew up in St. Louis, MO, has fond memories of El and Lee, the local deli his family frequented. He and his brother, he explained proudly, perfected a method of opening up the pastrami early on Sunday mornings to dig in without their mother knowing.
“I remember that food very fondly—the chopped liver was amazing, the matzoh ball soup was great.” He also admitted to a prank he and his brother once pulled, in which they had over $100 worth of El and Lee food sent to their neighbor anonymously. (They paid it back in leaf-raking.)
The event’s nearly 50 guests sampled Katz’s pastrami and matzoh ball soup, as well as breads and pastries from Breads Bakery, whose Israeli-born owner Uri Scheft shared with the crowd his memory of visiting Katz’s 30 years ago, on his first trip to the United States, and trying the pastrami.
The one-year-old bakery and cafe is located across the street from Union Square Cafe—their bread can be found in the restaurant’s bread basket—and Scheft’s venture has clearly caught Meyer’s eye. Scheft is something of a restaurateur himself, operating three other locations, known as “Lechamim,” in Tel Aviv.
Unsurprisingly, much of the morning’s conversation focused on tradition and the desire to create community through food. After all, it was a member of the Union Square Hospitality community—a book publisher who dines at Union Square Cafe about twice a week—who suggested that a Morning Market Meeting pay tribute to Katz’s. It was a major deviation from the usual farmers market-themed guests and subject matter, but Meyer was all ears.
“My grandmother, who was a fierce assimilationist, would serve us matzoh balls with roast beef for Christmas dinner,” Meyer explained.
Meyer included that recipe in one of his first hand-typed newsletters from Union Square Cafe. “I got a bag of mail from furious people because the recipe called for both butter and chicken stock,” he said. “People would say, ‘What kind of Jew are you?’”
Undeterred, he put a version of the dish—a fusion of Italian food and Jewish food—into the first Union Square Cookbook with a disclaimer. No complaints followed.
Meyer, who is a fan of Katz’s pastrami, says deli is something he now indulges in only about four times a year. Fortunately, he knows that the menu at Katz’s isn’t likely changing any time soon.
“We have to stick to the traditional, tried-and-true dishes,” Dell explained. “If we didn’t offer that, I think there’d be a riot.”
For Meyer, though, there’s a bit more room for experimentation. Case in point: The “potato kzeppoli” created by Union Square Cafe’s executive chef Carmen Quagliata during a cooking demonstration. It’s what happens when a knish meets a zeppoli, and it’s good enough to unite all kinds of communities.
2 cups kosher salt
3/4 lb. fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons butter/margarine
1 Spanish onion -minced and sauteed
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 lb. cooked and milled Idaho potatoes – add 2 tsp. salt to cooking water
1/4 oz. fresh yeast, 7-9 grams
1/4 cup chicken/vegetable stock
1/2 lb all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
1. Wash the fingerling potatoes and drain in a colander. While in the colander but still wet, toss with an 1/8 of a cup of kosher salt. Pour the rest of the salt onto a cookie sheet or a medium-large (10-inch) saute pan. Spread the salt out a little and place the wet salt-coated potatoes on the bed of salt. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until tender. Remove and cool to room temperature.
2. While the potatoes are baking, peel and mince the onion. Heat the butter/margarine in a small saute pan over a medium flame until it is bubbly and hot. Add the onions, salt and pepper. Cook for 1 minutes, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat a bit if the onions are starting to brown around the edge without being yet being totally and evenly translucent. Add the chopped thyme and cook for another 5 minutes or until the onions start to brown just a little. Remove from heat and set aside.
3. Peel 3 medium or 2 large Idaho potatoes. Cut into large chunks and place in a saucepot with just enough water to cover and 2 teaspoons of salt. Cook at a rapid simmer until tender. Drain the potatoes well and add back to the pot over a low flame to dry out the residual water. Press the potatoes through a ricer or food mill into a bowl and set aside to cool to room temperature.
4. Peel the skin from the fingerling potatoes. Crush well with a fork and add to the pan of minced onion.
5. Mix the chicken/vegetable stock and yeast to dissolve. Add the stock/yeast mix, egg and olive oil to the milled potato and mix. Add the onions and crushed potato to the milled potato and fold to incorporate evenly. Mix the flour and salt together and add to the milled potato mix. Mix together with a fork until there is only a small amount of flour not incorporated. Then, using your hands, finish mixing in a folding motion until all is well incorporated.
6. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover and leave at room temperature for 1 hour. The dough should have doubled in size and when lightly shook it jiggles.
7. Deep-fry or shallow pan-fry in 350-degree vegetable oil until golden brown. This should take 3 minutes, flipping the kzeppoli often for even browning.
8. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels. Salt immediately. Let rest for 4-5 minutes before serving.
Lucy Cohen Blatter is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter @lucycblatter.