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From the time she was five, my daughter grew up tasting—and critiquing—the buckwheat polenta, goat cheese wonton-ravioli, and such that I tested for the food articles I write. So it’s no surprise that she’s been my co-conspirator throughout the years, brainstorming the tweaks and twists we devise for our holiday recipes.
Of course, we’re the first to say that tradition makes holiday food taste richer. No lamb chops on our Thanksgiving table or at the Passover seder, which begins this year at sundown on Monday, March 29th, no sushi. Cuisine connects us to our past, and encoded in our recipes are our family stories and histories. Grandma Fanny’s rugelach and George’s matzoh balls—how many holiday foods are linked to family and friends now gone or traditions that remain fragile?
But we know too that for a cuisine to remain vital, it cannot be static, a culinary dinosaur. Just as Jews in nineteenth century Eastern and Central Europe created a “nouvelle latke” for Hanukkah using that New World import—the potato, we too want to add our imprint to the cuisine, create our own traditions.
Passover has always been a time for Jewish cooks to innovate, inventing a cuisine that was free of leavening, and--except for matzoh and matzoh-derived products--free of flour, in addition to other restrictions. Many of these creations—matzoh balls, flourless nut tortes, matzoh brei—became so well-loved that they are among the stars in the Jewish repertoire.
In fact, on Passover we’re even urged to experiment by the Haggadah, the booklet that narrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery and the subsequent exodus from Egypt. There we read: “Everyone who adds an interpretation to the story is worthy of praise.” For food lovers who tell their stories in recipes, here is an invitation to improvise, to reinterpret and riff so that the ritual does not become rote.
But in many families—including my sister’s, with whom we celebrate the first seder night every year—much of the menu is set in stone and creative cooks may be met with pleas for the old way or the way Grandma, Uncle Jesse, or my mother made it--even when the object of such Proustian fixation is nearly inedible, indigestible, or just plain same-old.
So how do you dance that tango between tradition and tweak? Here is what I’ve learned over the years.
- New foods should be familiar enough to taste like Passover, yet still be fresh and inventive. My sister’s family’s favorite Passover main course is my Brisket with Thirty-Six Cloves of Garlic (a play on both the French Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic and the special significance of numbers that are multiples of eighteen—the value of the letters in chai, the Hebrew word for life). The brisket is meltingly tender and all that garlic mellows to become an exceptionally flavorful and flour-free gravy. But it still tastes like brisket. Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls hint at sensuous, flavored gnocchi, but at the same time, they evoke my grandmother’s almost buttery-tasting knaidlach.
- Don’t plan an entire menu of all new foods; introduce just a few at a time. If you offer a choice of two main courses at your seders, experiment on only one. Offer one novel side dish at a time. If you want to try a delicious new haroset, serve it alongside your familiar one.
- Include children--and whenever possible, spouses--in both planning and preparing the meal. It sounds like a cliché, but they really are much more likely to try something that they’ve had a hand in putting on the table.
- Families who sit down to two holiday dinners on Passover are likely to find new foods welcome on the second night. And those who celebrate only one seder can try more inventive Passover cuisine during the remainder of the holiday. Then, no longer unfamiliar, these new dishes may well find a place on your holiday table next time.
Below you will find recipes for Chicken Soup with Asparagus and Shiitakes, Served with Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls; Lemon Fried Chicken with Tart Salad Topping; and Braised Brisket with Thirty-Six Cloves of Garlic.
All recipes are from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (Wiley 2008).
Chicken Soup with Asparagus and Shiitakes, Served with Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls
Yield: About 8 servings
Set in spring, when the earth is renewing and reassembling herself, Passover is celebrated as a sort of second New Year, reflecting the rebirth of the Jews as a free people after the Exodus from Egypt. Children start the season with new clothes, and houses are thoroughly cleaned and freshened up to make way for the new foods and special sets of dishes reserved just for Passover use.
And just as they delay until Rosh Hashanah their first tastes of the sweet new autumn fruits, so many Jews wait until Passover to savor the tender new vegetables of spring. In this delicious soup, woodsy shiitake mushrooms and early asparagus combine with delicate roasted fennel-flavored matzoh balls in a free-wheeling ode to spring.
For the Roasted Fennel Matzoh Balls
2 small-medium fennel bulbs (about 1 pound, weighed with 2 inches of top stalks)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon coarsely chopped garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle (optional)
2 large eggs
About 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzoh meal
For the Soup
7 cups homemade chicken broth or very good-quality purchased
1/4 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and reserved for another use or discarded, caps wiped clean with a damp paper towel and thinly sliced
12 to 15 thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
Prepare the matzoh balls: preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut off the fennel stalks and reserve for another use (excellent for fish broths and stews). If there are some attractive feathery fronds, set aside about 2 tablespoons of them to garnish the soup. Quarter the bulbs and trim away the stems, the bottom hard core, and any tough parts. Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough to fit the fennel in one layer and put in 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the fennel and toss until well coated. Roast the fennel until pale gold, about 20 minutes, then turn the fennel over and roast for 10 minutes longer. Stir in the broth, garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and 1/2 teaspoon of the thyme. Cover the pan with foil and cook for 35 to 45 minutes longer, or until the fennel is very soft. Remove the foil, stir, and roast for a few more minutes to evaporate most of the liquid. Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and chop coarsely. Add the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of thyme, salt (it will need about 1 teaspoon), pepper to taste, and the fennel seeds, if using. With the machine on, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil through the feed tube.
Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. You need 1 cup of puree, so nosh on any extra. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Add the matzoh meal and stir well. If you can form a lump into a very soft walnut-size ball (the batter will become firmer when you chill it), don’t add any more matzoh meal. If necessary, add just enough matzoh meal to enable you to do so. Refrigerate for at least 2 or up to 4 hours so the matzoh meal can drink in the liquid and seasoning.
When ready to cook, bring 4 quarts water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large, wide lidded pot. Dipping your hands into cold water if needed, roll the batter into walnut-size balls. When all the balls are rolled and the water is boiling furiously, turn the heat down to a gentle boil. Carefully slide in the balls one at a time and cover the pot tightly.
Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, without removing the cover. (They will cook by direct heat as well as by steam, which makes them puff and swell, and lifting the lid will allow some of that steam to escape.) Take out a dumpling and cut it in half. It should be light, fluffy and completely cooked through. If it isn’t, continue cooking a few more minutes.
Remove the balls gently with a skimmer or large slotted spoon--they are too fragile to pour into a colander.
When the matzoh balls are almost ready, start the soup: bring the broth to a simmer in a large pot. Add the matzoh balls, the mushrooms, and asparagus and simmer for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the matzoh balls to shallow soup bowls and ladle the hot soup and the vegetables over them. Garnish with the reserved chopped fennel fronds.
Cook’s Note: You can cook the matzoh balls up to 2 to 3 hours in advance. Drain them and cover with some broth to keep them moist before setting them aside until you are ready to reheat them.
Experiment making matzoh balls with a puree of other vegetables, like beets, carrots, leeks, mushrooms, or shallots. Roasted vegetables absorb less moisture than boiled or steamed ones (and therefore require less matzoh meal, making them lighter). They are also more flavorful.
Braised Brisket with Thirty-Six Cloves of Garlic
Yield: about 8 servings
In my take on the French classic, chicken with forty cloves of garlic becomes brisket with thirty-six cloves. All that feisty garlic turns sweet and mellow with gentle braising; when pureed, it forms a seductive gravy, which is finished with a zing of chopped raw garlic and lemon zest.
Why thirty-six cloves? Beginning with aleph, which equals one, each letter of the Hebrew alphabet stands for a number, and so every word has a numerical value. All multiples of eighteen, the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, life, are considered especially auspicious, which is why donations to charity and wedding and bar mitzvah gifts are often given in multiples of eighteen.
about 36 fat unpeeled garlic cloves (1 2/3 to 2 cups) or an equivalent amount of smaller cloves, plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 tablespoons olive oil
A first- or second-cut beef brisket (about 5 pounds), trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel, and patted dry
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade or good-quality low-sodium purchased
3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs, or 2 teaspoons dried leaves
2 fresh rosemary sprigs, plus 1 teaspoon chopped leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Drop the garlic cloves into a small saucepan of boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain immediately. Peel as soon as the garlic is cool enough to handle. Set aside on paper towels to dry.
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed roasting pan or casserole large enough to accommodate the meat in one layer. Use two burners, if necessary. Add the brisket and brown well on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer the brisket to a platter and set aside. (Or brown the meat under the broiler: place the brisket, fat side up, on a foil-lined broiler pan under a preheated broiler. Broil for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, until browned. Don’t allow it to develop a hard, dark crust, which might make the meat tough or bitter. Move the meat around as necessary, so it sears evenly.)
Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat remaining in the pan and add the garlic cloves. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic edges are tinged with gold. Add the vinegar and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the browned bits from the bottom with a wooden spoon. Add the stock, thyme, and rosemary sprigs, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Salt and pepper the brisket to taste on all sides, and add it to the pan, fat side up. Spoon the garlic cloves over the meat.
Place the brisket in the oven, cover (if you have no lid, use heavy-duty foil), and cook, basting every half-hour, until the meat is fork tender, 2 ½ to 3 hours or longer. (As the meat cooks, periodically check that the liquid is bubbling gently. If it is boiling rapidly, turn the oven down to 300 degrees F.)
The brisket tastes best if it is allowed to rest, reabsorbing the juices lost during braising, and it’s easiest to defat the gravy if you prepare the meat ahead and refrigerate it until the fat solidifies. That is the method I use, given here, but the gravy can be prepared by skimming the fat in the traditional way, if you prefer. If you go that route though, do let the meat rest in the pan sauce for at least an hour.
Cool the brisket in the pan sauce, cover well with foil, and refrigerate until the fat congeals. Scrape off all solid fat. Remove the brisket from the pan and slice thinly across the grain.
Prepare the gravy: bring the braising mixture to room temperature, then strain it, reserving the garlic and discarding the thyme and rosemary sprigs. Skim and discard as much fat as possible from the liquid. Puree about one half of the cooked garlic with 1 cup of the defatted braising liquid in a food processor or a blender. (If you want a smooth gravy, puree all of the cooked garlic cloves.) Transfer the pureed mixture, the remaining braising liquid, and the rest of the cooked garlic to a skillet. Add the chopped rosemary, minced garlic, and lemon zest. Boil down the gravy over high heat, uncovered, to the desired consistency. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Rewarm the brisket in the gravy until heated through.
Arrange the sliced brisket on a serving platter. Spoon some of the hot gravy all over the meat and pass the rest in a separate sauce boat.
Lemon Fried Chicken with Tart Salad Topping
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
“Why on this night do we dip twice, and on other nights, we dip only once?” asks the youngest child as part of the Four Questions at the seder, seeking an explanation of the mysteries encoded in the ritual Passover meal.
And the head of the family answers that on this night we dip bitter herbs into haroset to remind us of the mortar the Jews used to build Pharaoh’s cities and the bitterness they suffered. We dip vegetables in salt water or vinegar to commemorate both the joy of spring and the tears of the Jewish slaves.
But when did we dip once? In ancient times, when the diet of the Jews comprised mainly bread--and heavy bread at that, often made from barley or other coarse grains--they dipped the bread in vinegar, onions, or bitter herbs (the maror of the seder plate) to make the leaden starch more palatable and more digestible.
Arugula was then collected wild by the poor. Purslane--a lemony-flavored, small-leafed green currently gracing mesclun salads--and cress were gathered and later cultivated by Jewish farmers. Jews dipped rough bread into the sharp greens or combined them into a sandwich. (In some Haggadahs, Ashkenazi Jews, unfamiliar with this erstwhile Mediterranean custom of dunking, have changed the question to “. . . and on other nights, we dip not at all?”)
“Lo, this is the bread of affliction,” the Haggadah refers to the matzoh. And after a few days of the coarse, unleavened bread in every guise imaginable, we too, like the ancients, need spring’s sharp greens coursing through systems now sluggish and logy.
In this adaptation of a popular Milanese dish, we reenact the dipping one more time: the crisp, matzoh meal-coated chicken is dipped into a salad of tart greens, tomato, and onion.
For the Cutlets
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil, for frying, plus 1 teaspoon
About 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 3/4 to 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken cutlets, trimmed of fat and gristle and pounded lightly to a uniform thickness
2 large eggs
1 cup matzoh meal, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
For the Salad
1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, diced (1 cup)
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons fine-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups sharp salad greens (such as arugula, watercress, endive, radicchio, sorrel, flat-leaf parsley, or purslane, or, preferably, a mixture of these), washed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces
Accompaniment: lemon wedges
Prepare the cutlets: In a large bowl, blend together the garlic, lemon juice, 1 teaspoon olive oil, salt, and pepper. Add the chicken, toss to coat thoroughly with the mixture, and refrigerate to marinate, covered, for 1 to 2 hours. Or marinate in a resealable plastic bag. Turn the chicken occasionally in the marinade to ensure even flavoring.
Beat the eggs well in a wide shallow bowl or pie pan. Stir together the matzoh meal and lemon zest and spread on a large sheet of wax paper or a plate. Taking one cutlet at a time, dip it into the beaten egg, coating well on both sides. Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl. Dredge the cutlets on both sides in the matzoh meal mixture. To prevent loose crumbs from falling off and burning in the hot oil, pat the cutlets firmly on each side so the matzoh meal adheres, then place them on a rack and let stand for about 15 minutes to set the coating.
Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the cutlets (in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding the pan), and sauté them for about 2 minutes on each side, until golden and cooked through.
Transfer the cutlets as they are done to a paper towel--lined baking sheet to absorb excess oil, keeping them warm, if necessary, in a 200 degree F oven, until the rest are done.
Prepare the salad: In a bowl, combine the tomato, onions, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the greens and toss well.
Serve the cutlets topped with the salad, accompanied by the lemon wedges.
Cook’s Note: Divide the seasoned matzoh meal in half. When the first half becomes ragged with little clumps of egg from dredging the cutlets, replace with the reserved fresh half.