Is it Passover again?

Easy recipes for Pesach

| April 21, 2011
Matzoh Brei - PHOTO BY BOB DORAN
  • photo by Bob Doran
  • Matzoh Brei

Yes, Passover started at sundown on Monday. For a Jewish girl like me it's Pesach and time for Elijah's cup. For most of you it just means you'll see a display with matzoh at the grocery store, probably not far from the Easter candy.

I always thought once I lived in Brooklyn I'd eat a lot of Jewish food. Prior to my move there in 2003 I'd lived most of my life in Arcata, then in the Hudson Valley and in Edinburgh, Scotland; hardly torrid hotbeds of Jew diaspora. Growing up here in Humboldt I listened to my mother's anecdotes of Chicago in the '50s and watched a lot of Woody Allen, and I came to equate tzimmes and kishke with loud voices, endless hand-wringing, and intellect. That's the life for me, I thought!

The first place I lived in New York was Williamsburg, now known primarily for its embarrassment of hip bars, American Apparels and high rents. Back then, we white kids hadn't yet succeeded in pushing the less stalwart parts of the Hassidic community over to Bushwick, and the glittering dusty streets were furry with tall hats and dark with wigs. I was thrilled at the proximity of so many of my distant brethren. Oddly, they didn't seem to warm to me. Intimidated by my stunning good looks, perhaps? Or was I behind the times in wig trends? Sadly, neither was the case; I just needed to be escorted by a man. Once I was, they still weren't bubbling over with enthusiasm, but they'd at least respond to direct questions (by him).

On a recommendation we checked out Glatt Supermarket, which smelled funny and was dusty. I'd just been to Israel so I knew which kind of halvah was safe, and we got some excellent Brooklyn-made baba ganoush and a few boxes of matzoh. Then we walked over to Gottlieb's Restaurant, a kosher Ashkenazi joint on Roebling St. Timidly maneuvering past tables of wagging beards and muttered Yiddish, we seated ourselves and ordered cholent from the friendly young Hassidic waiter.

Cholent is a hearty stew made of beans and barley and brisket, sort of like baked beans but not quite as sweet. On the Sabbath, when observant Jews are not allowed to cook, it's a very popular dish historically because it can be made on Friday and cooked slowly for 24 hours. It's one of those dishes that improves over time.

Jewish cooking varies considerably the world over, but slow-cooked dishes -- as well as sweet and sour because of vinegar's preserving properties, plus sugar to cut the acidity -- are ubiquitous, no matter the nation or century, since observant Jews are forbidden from cooking on the Sabbath. Gottlieb's cholent was good, cheap, and nourishing: melting meat and sugar-tinged beans, with sharp dill pickles on the side to cut the stodge.

The Hassidic community of Williamsburg, I came to realize as I wandered the aisles of Glatt and perused the menu at Gottlieb's, has a different cuisine from that of the traditional American reformed Jew. There are plenty of overlaps, of course -- kishke, matzoh, noodle kugel, pickles. But the Hassidic community has more international influences -- Middle-Eastern in particular. There is notably less luxury. That may simply be a Brooklyn vs. Manhattan thing. In the great Jewish delis in Manhattan there is shmaltz on every table, and cole slaw, and chopped liver, and pumpernickel-rye, and corned beef, and most of all, abundance.

When you order a bagel and lox at the Carnegie Deli what you get is a bagel absolutely subsumed under an inch of dairy-free cream cheese (kosher!) and a huge, glistening mountain of buttery lox the color of a Hawaiian sunset, festooned with garlands of crisp red onion and rounds of tomato, bombarded with shrapnel of pepper and capers, poked with pickles and embraced by a lettuce leaf. I'm lucky if I can eat a quarter at one sitting. The generous portion offsets the sting of the exorbitant price ($22.95!). In contrast, the Hassidic stores and delis that I observed served fare that was less Borscht-Belt, more Jerusalem: hummus, kabobs, stuffed grape leaves; and prices and portions were smaller (my cholent at Gottlieb's was $5). Israeli imports abound.

Really, the most vivid difference between eating out at American-Jewish delis and Hassidic places for me is that of familiarity of culture. Hassidic restaurants feel like traveling to a different country; the food is recognizable but somehow different. It's like eating someone else's mom's meatloaf for the first time. The silverware looks funny. I'm kind of nervous about ordering the kugel; it looked suspicious somehow (those better be currants!). Of course all of this is what makes eating out interesting. Live on the edge, Jew-style; that's my motto.

I include below a simple and wonderful Parsley and Tahini Salad I loved to eat in Tel Aviv. This recipe is adapted from Joyce Goldstein's Sephardic Flavors. It's a very vibrant, healthy dish and an excellent springtime tonic.

Sometimes, though, I like a staid, homecooked meal. Matzoh Brei was an old standby for late-night breakfast when I went to college. The ingredients keep well; it's cheap and easy and, best of all, yummy, buttery and familiar. Its origins are Ashkenazi and it's a common breakfast food during Passover, when, of course, you're only supposed to eat unleavened bread. Some Jews (Hasidic) won't eat it during Passover, though, because it's gebrochts, matzo that has come into contact with water. Same thing with matzoh ball soup. Go figure.

 

Parsley Tahini Salad

Serves 4

2 cups chopped parsley

1/4 cup chopped scallions or chives

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts or chopped walnuts

6 warmed pita breads, cut into quarters

Dressing:

1/4 cup tahini

6 T. water

juice 2 lemons

salt and pepper to taste

Whir up dressing ingredients in a blender. Taste -- enough salt and lemon are crucial in this dish. Adjust if necessary. Toss salad with dressing; serve by scooping with pita.

 

Matzoh Brei

Serves 2

2 matzohs

2 eggs, beaten, in a shallow wide dish

1 tablespoon butter

salt to taste

In a sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Meanwhile, break the matzoh into large-ish pieces and soak in the beaten egg for a minute or so. Pour into sauce pan, sprinkle with salt and lightly fry until egg is set and a little browning has commenced.

If you want savory, serve with ketchup and ground pepper. You could also add some minced onion in with the egg. For sweet, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with jam.

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Comments (6)

Showing 1-6 of 6

Oy vey! I am aware that it is NOT the High Holy Days. That's my lovely editor's error which I should have caught.

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Posted by Jada Brotman on 04/21/2011 at 12:46 PM

Great column, Jada. Made me pine for my mom's home cooking and midnight trips to Canter's Deli on Fairfax after punk shows in the 80's... My mom grew up in the Jewish Ghetto in Los Angeles, when there still was one (before the diaspora, following the end of WWII). Check out the great film "The Jews of LA" for more history on Jewish Angelenos, who go back to the Jewish cowboys who were among the first fifty or so people to found Los Angeles, 300 years ago (true!). Proud to be a 2nd generation Jewish Angeleno!

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Posted by Neal Latt on 04/21/2011 at 10:52 PM

Your article made my mouth water, offered me fantastic savings since I didn't have to plunk down $22.95, and I enjoyed a picturesque bazaar of culture and locations from around the world provided by the "You-Were-There" touch you shared. Your article brought me back to a Sadar table I was invited to once and my memory filled with its unique flavors and my first experience with making Morar. What a wonderful time to recall. I love your articles, keep them coming!

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Posted by Ann on 04/22/2011 at 7:30 AM

Wonderful article, thank you! First mention I've heard of schmalz in a long time. My arteries will beg me to resist, but now that it's in my head... matzoh with schmalz and salt. I grew up in Queens, NY (Rego Park) and I remember making the eight block walk every weekend to buy a bag of hot fresh bagels to bring home for breakfast -- unless my memory is gone they were something like six for a dollar back in the sixties, and I would usually have eaten two by the time I got the bag home. Now THAT was religion!

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Posted by Mitch on 04/22/2011 at 7:43 AM

Jada, You know I cook many of your recipes and steer others toward them, but I have to correct you here. A Passover recipe would never have pita BREAD in it. Oy vey! Stephanie Matzon brie is manna in ou rhouse, esp with a friend's homemade jam. Try a savory version, cooked more the pancake style, with asparagus and shaved parm.

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Posted by stephanie silvia on 04/24/2011 at 7:14 PM

Everyone has such evocative comments, awesome! Mitch, I think we are stuck making homemade schmatlz in Arcata. I'm in Chicago this week and I went to Manny's? SCMALTZ HEAVEN. Thanks Stephanie for pointing that out, you may have inferred correctly I am not an observant Jew. Just a Woody Allen Jew.

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Posted by Jada on 05/07/2011 at 10:25 AM
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