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In tune with the past at Passover
Religious and family traditions come together at the table
Ask most Jewish children, "What's your favorite holiday?" and "Hanukkah!" would be the expected response. Eight days of presents, spinning dreidels, crunchy potato latkes — how do you compete with that?
For me, all the beribboned boxes in the world can't hold a candle to Passover, the most celebrated Jewish holiday, which begins this year at sundown on Friday.
When I was growing up, my large, boisterous family would gather in my grandparents' tiny apartment in Belle Harbor, N.Y., for the Seder, the festive ceremonial meal. Papa Harry, who had emigrated from Russia in 1906 as a carpenter, would extend the dining table with boards reaching practically to the walls.
Over at the children's table, a gaggle of cousins — raised practically as siblings — chattered, spilled soup, shouted, squabbled, hiccupped with laughter, fought over drumsticks, dropped crumbs, clamored for seconds and ran around, as far as one could run in such tight quarters, until a withering look from one of the aunties brought a temporary attitude adjustment, and then it was back to the merriment.
Or so I'm told.
We were never there.
My parents were singers, and as I recall the Passovers of my childhood, no idyllic scene of family gatherings comes to mind. Dad was also a part-time cantor, and we spent the entire week of Passover at hotels in the "Borscht Belt," the Catskill Mountains of New York, where Dad conducted his magnificent Seders, complete with choir (including my mom's glorious contralto) for 800 or so enthusiastic vacationers.
With my Dad's death in 1971, it became our turn — Mom's and mine — to create the traditions that would become the childhood memories of my coming grandchildren.
Our annual cooking, chopping, searing and sautéing frenzy was part culinary challenge, part giggle/gab fest and part bonding experience. And year after year, as Mom's hands became shaky and her memory faded, my role as first assistant morphed into chef de cuisine and she became my sous-chef.
Now that she is gone, I yearn for all the old favorites.
Her legendary chicken soup is de rigueur for holidays (as well as assorted sniffles).
Traditionally, we begin the meal with a hard-boiled egg, because Passover also celebrates spring and rebirth. But let's face it: With all that glorious food awaiting us, do we really want to start the meal filling up on a hard-boiled egg? My mother's brilliant suggestion solves that problem neatly: We use tiny quail eggs. (Find them at Asian markets. And yes, they're kosher. If the bird is kosher, the eggs are kosher.)
Mom loved gefilte fish — and no, there is no fish named gefilte swimming anywhere. So commonly served is this ground and poached whitefish and pike patty that it is almost a cliché. Regrettably, the kids never acquired a taste for it, so we rarely made it. That is, until we discovered Marlene Sorosky's Salmon Gefilte Fish in her "Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays" (William Morrow).
Although Marlene combines salmon and whitefish, Mom suggested using all salmon and baking the mixture in a cupcake pan for pretty pink individual servings. Now everyone loves it. (It also helps that I call them Salmon Timbales instead of the G-word, but don't tell my kids, please!)
SALMON GEFILTE FISH
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into chunks
5 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup parsley sprigs
3 pounds salmon filet, skinned and cut into 2-inch pieces
3 large eggs
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
1⁄4 cup sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Lettuce leaves, cooked carrot slices and horseradish, for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 24 standard muffin cups.
In food processor with metal blade, process onions until minced. Remove to a very large bowl. Process carrots, celery and parsley until ground. Add to onions. Process salmon until ground.
With motor running, add salmon through feed tube, one piece at a time, until ground. Add to vegetables. Add eggs, oil, sugar, salt and pepper to processor and mix until well blended. Add to fish mixture and mix with hands or spoon until thoroughly combined.
Divide salmon mixture evenly among prepared muffin cups. Bake, uncovered, until firm to the touch, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool in the cups. Refrigerate. Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.
Source: "Fast & Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays" by Marlene Sorosky
• • •
You don't have to be Jewish to love brisket — nor do you have to be a Texan! — but somehow, if you're thinking traditional for a Jewish holiday, then you're thinking brisket. Some people — even great cooks — spend their entire lives with the same old recipe. But Mom and I would flit merrily from brisket to brisket as the mood hit.
For the past few years, our favorite has been one inspired by a recipe from one of my favorite chefs, Sara Moulton. But "inspired" is the operative word, as I wonder whether Sara would even recognize it the way we prepare it.
We decided to roast the garlic and add onion mix and duck sauce. The blender method was Mom's idea — you get a thicker gravy while still leaving plenty of onion bits for that homemade look and feel.
Slicing the meat before it is completely cooked is a little tip I picked up from my mother-in-law. It's less likely to fall apart that way, and think of how cut slices pick up all the succulent flavor from the gravy as they finish cooking.
Sara evaporates the wine; I don't do this. I get a ton of gravy, just the ticket, because no matter what brisket recipe I'm making, I'd better do my Mom's potatoes or face that close-but-no-cigar look on my husband's face. And here's how:
Peel and cube potatoes and simmer them in gravy until soft and crusty brown and achingly tender. Then add the sliced meat, heat through and serve. Bow from the waist as you soak in the compliments. You can say, "It was nothing," but I wouldn't.
MY NEW FAVORITE BRISKET RECIPE
1 large head garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1⁄2 to 1 cup matzo cake meal (see cook's notes)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 pounds beef brisket
2 large onions, chopped
3 cups dry red wine
1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
1 envelope dry onion soup mix
1⁄2 cup Asian Duck Sauce (see cook's notes)
3 dried bay leaves
1-1⁄2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 quart chicken stock (preferably homemade)
Cook's notes: After Passover, flour may be substituted for matzo cake meal. If kosher-for-Passover duck sauce is unavailable, substitute apricot jam.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Roast garlic: Slice off top of garlic head to expose all cloves. Place garlic on a square of aluminum foil and pour 1 tablespoon of the oil over exposed cloves. Twist foil tight and roast for 40 minutes. Open foil and let garlic cool for five to 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.
Meanwhile, sprinkle brisket on both sides with salt and pepper and liberally with matzo cake meal, shaking off any excess.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large covered casserole or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Add brisket and sear, turning often, until well browned, about six to eight minutes per side.
Transfer to a platter and pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. (I usually have nothing to pour off.) Add onions, reduce heat to medium and sauté, stirring often, until golden, about 10 minutes.
Pour in wine and stir to pick up any browned bits on bottom of casserole. Stir in tomato paste, onion soup mix and duck sauce and add bay leaves and thyme. Squeeze roasted garlic into the pot. Discard paper from garlic.
Increase heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring often, for a minute or two. Pour in the chicken stock and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and add brisket. Cover tightly with foil, then cover pot. Transfer to lower third of oven and cook until meat is firm but not quite done (about three hours).
Remove pot from oven. Transfer meat to a cutting board and allow to cool 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, remove and discard bay leaves. With a slotted spoon or small strainer, transfer about 3⁄4 of onions with any chunks of garlic into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour mixture back into pot. Taste and add salt and pepper, if necessary.
Slice meat. Transfer slices back to pot and continue cooking until tender (about one hour longer).
Cool and refrigerate overnight. Remove as much fat as possible. Reheat and serve.
Source: Loosely inspired by "Sara Moulton Cooks at Home" (Clarkson Potter)
• • •
At most Seders, a bounty of desserts takes center stage. Oh, yes, poor us. No bread or flour for a week! Jewish cooks must love a challenge, because no Passover restrictions have stopped us from creating a veritable groaning board of tempting treats. No matter what else I'll serve this year, I'm including Mom's favorite, Chocolate Chip Mandelbrot.
These twice-baked cookies — think Jewish biscotti — are crunchy, dunkable dippers, and for Mom, no dinner was complete without one or two with tea. Far from a sloppy second, this Passover matzo cake meal version from Aunt Estelle trumps its floured cousin in crispness and flavor.
So we'll be dunking and toasting to you, Mom. From you I learned more than how to concoct an awesome soup — you taught me how to laugh and love.
PASSOVER CHOCOLATE CHIP MANDELBROT
Makes about six dozen
1⁄2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine, at room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover vanilla
2-1⁄2 cups matzo cake meal
3⁄4 cup potato starch
4 cups (24 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cream butter and sugar with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, scraping bowl several times. Then beat in vanilla.
Reduce speed to low and add cake meal and potato starch. Scrape bowl and blend just until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips. (If dough feels too sticky to handle even with floured hands, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until it is stiff, 30 minutes to several hours.)
Divide dough into four portions. Flour your hands with cake meal and form each portion into a log the length of baking sheet. Space logs evenly on prepared baking sheet, and bake on center oven rack until golden and tops are firm to the touch, about 30 minutes.
Remove baking sheet from oven and let logs cool for about five minutes. Using a serrated knife, cut each log diagonally into 3⁄4-inch-thick slices. Place the slices, cut side down, on baking sheet and bake on center oven rack until golden brown, 10 minutes.
Turn oven off. Leave cookies in oven for 15 to 30 minutes for softer mandelbrot, longer for crisper ones. (I leave them in until the oven has cooled completely, as we like them really crisp.) Let mandelbrot cool completely on sheet set on a wire rack.
Store in an airtight plastic container at room temperature for up to one week.
Source: "The Perfect Passover Cookbook," an e-book from Workman Publishing ($4.99), by Judy Bart Kancigor