April 14, 2011

Celebrating The Past

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 Monday.

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?

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 she has gone; she joined Dad in September at age 93. This will be my first Passover without her. So this year more than ever, I yearn for all the old favorites.

Her legendary chicken soup is de rigueur for holidays (as well as assorted sniffles). In 2002, the recipe graced these pages as food editor Cathy Thomas waxed poetic about this elixir of the gods.

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!)

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.

"Inspired" is the operative word, as I wonder whether Sara would even recognize it!

We decided to roast the garlic and add the 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.

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.


Recipe: Salmon Gefilte Fish

Recipe: My New Favorite Brisket Recipe

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