Matzo balls and latkes?
I don't know from Jewish food. Grew up in the Northwest where there are no Jewish eating establishments. Spent most of my adult life in the Bay Area where there are almost none (well, none that get any respect).
The other day was a dreary drippy one, so a little Jewish soul food seemed about right to warm things up. I tried out a nearby place that had "N.Y." in it's name. I'd never had matzoh ball soup or latkes so I was hoping for a revelation.
The soup broth was wimpy and didn't taste like it could cure anything. It contained an object the size of a baseball and almost as sturdy. To eat the thing, I had to spear it with my fork and carve it. It had no discernible chicken flavor, or any other flavor for that matter. .
The latkes seemed to have been fried up yesterday and taken out and reheated in another round of oil, which had gotten absorbed to the max. They seemed to have been made from pre-cooked potatoes instead of raw ones, giving it more of a potato patty texture than a potato pancake character. They came with sour cream "we're out of applesauce". I gave up on them after a couple of bites.
So, what is the yardstick for rating matzoh ball soup? How do you judge latkehood excellence?
My own excellent (pat on the back!) potato pancakes are based on ones I had at a wonderful bygone place called the German Beer Garden in what is now called Silicon Valley. They are thin and very crisp, and topped with applesauce. They go very well with bratwurst of the big, white, fine-ground varety. Is this identical to latkes?
Latkes: What you describe is a latke. There is no one way to make a latke, though there very well may be some wrong ways, like using fatback! My personal annual quota for latkes is one. Too heavy for me. Even the light ones. From my perspective, if you listen to experienced latke eaters or makers, criticism outmatches praise by something like a billion to one.
Matzoh ball Soup: The 'soup' part should be delicious on its own. The matzoh balls should taste like matzoh(!) which is indeed a fairly plain flavor, but one that is distinctive.
There is no single 'correct' matzoh ball density. Some like 'em fluffy, some dense. I like mine on the firmer side.
Try making matzoh brie (rhymes with fry) sometime. Over on the home cooking board, you should be able to find a recipe. Basically, there are two main ingredients, matzoh and eggs. The rest is up to you. I can't imagine mine without fried onions. This will give you a good idea of the delights of using matzoh in cooking!
It sounds like you went to a place that capitolized on the fact that they were the only restaurant of their type in the area and either got lazy or just don't know how to make these foods. Your version of a latke sounds right. Reheating never seems to work well, and should always be made fresh if possible. Sour cream is another traditional accompaniments if served with a dairy meal or not in a kosher establishment.
As for the mazto balls, they sound like they are in the "sinker" category while many people are familiar with the "floater" categories. My great aunt was in the sinker category and my dad tells stories about breaking fillings and walls (I hope these are jokes.) When sinkers are made, they should never be made large enough to fill a bowl on its own ad should still have flavor. Many who make matzo balls use the recipe from the back of a matzo meal or matzo ball mix. I'm experimenting with stuffed and spiced varieties but this is the basic type and most popular.
re: small h
At this point I'm convinced that you can freeze them but reheated they will never compare to fresh. I've reached the point where I just serve them out of the pan, don't even let them sit around while I finish a batch. That means I don't get any until everyone else has eaten their fill, but it's worth it for the rave reviews. And I'm in the shredded camp. The other kind makes me think of some weird fast food potato breakfast thing.
My parents were Protestant German immigrants. I grew up on potato pancakes and applesauce, and was an adult before I realized that these synonymous with latkes. As you undoubltedly know, since you make them, they are best just-made. If they MUST be made ahead, they should be held or reheated in a hot oven. Refrying is for beans, not latkes.
I second Steve (though I think it's spelled "brei," no?).
I wouldn't judge latkes based on your experience. They're potato pancakes, so you already like latkes. You just don't like poorly executed food. As for matzoh balls, yeah, there's just not much going on.
But don't take matzoh balls as proof that Jewish food (which, like every other X food, is diverse, even with the unfortunate ban on shellfish and pork) is bland in general. After all, IIRC, the Jews of Rome are responsible for twice-fried artichokes; Sephardic cuisine relies on (almost) all the same goodies other cuisines of the Mediterranean do; and from smoked fish to sour pickles to horseradish (not that any of those things are exclusive to Jews), there's plenty of pungency to go around.
As Steve says, there are lots of ways to make latkes. In my experience, most restaurants that offer them have the type of prefab, mashed-potato pancake thing you describe. My own are much closer to Swiss rõsti - shredded potatoes with a bit of grated onion, some egg, and almost no flour or matzoh meal, fried so they come out really crisp. But as I say, you almost never see this kind when dining out as they need to be made at the last minute and most places would rather do a stack and reheat them as needed.
Matzo balls at their best are nothing to get excited about, and at their worst are like trying to eat hardened balls of library paste.