Norene Gilletz reviews Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited
“Food can connect us to our past. In fact, food is often our very last and only connection to our pasts, enduring long after the old language has been forgotten and other traditions have died. There’s many a Jew, for instance, who identifies as a Jew mainly through his or her love of pastrami, or potted brisket, or chicken soup with matzo balls.”
In his poignant introduction, Arthur Schwartz invites his readers to join him on a wonderful, mouth-watering and sentimental journey through the memory-filled pages of his newest cookbook, Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited (Ten Speed Press, $35, color photographs by Ben Fink).
The book features nearly 100 authentic recipes for appetizers, soups, side dishes, meat main courses, dairy main courses, Passover dishes, baked goods and desserts. Schwartz embellishes simple ingredients with the wonderful stories behind the recipes and the people who have cooked and eaten them. The recipes are primarily Ashkenazic (Eastern-European), with adjustments and updates for how we eat today.
The Passover chapter of Jewish Home Cooking includes many of his childhood memories, including removing the regular dishes and pots down to the basement and carrying all the Passover dishes and pots back upstairs. This was his job – and he hated it! Arthur recalls: “We didn’t have carp swimming in the bathtub. My grandmother went to an old, reliable fish market where she could pick out the live fish from a big cement tank. I can still see her climbing the step up to the tank in her spiked heels, and with her long, well-manicured index finger, pointing to the specimen she wanted, then having the fish scaled and filleted on the spot. Of course, she kept the fish’s head, tail, and bones to make the broth that would later jell around her fish patties.”
The chapter devoted to Passover starts with the story of the holiday, including an explanation of how matzo is made. Schwartz writes, “Most commercial matzo is baked within seven minutes of being mixed with water, but the mixing equipment must be steam-washed between batches to ensure that no fermentation occurs.”
He includes his favorite Passover recipes, along with accompanying memories that will tug at your heartstrings, adding their own special ‘tam’ (flavor). Recipes include Matzo Brei (fried matzo), Matzo Farfel Kugel, Matzo Meal Latkes, Cottage Cheese Chremslach, My Family’s Passover Walnut Cake, Passover Mandelbread (from his mother’s handwritten recipe), Matzo Buttercrunch, Dried Fruit Compote, Wine-Poached Pears, and Ingberlach (his grandmother’s delicious matzo farfel candy made with honey and ginger).
Elsewhere in Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking are the recipes for some of the most popular Passover dishes, including brisket, chicken, and the special Passover borscht that was made with rosle, the juice of fermented beets. Schwartz also includes his schmaltz-filled memories of chicken fat rendering on the stove. Schmaltz was the most important cooking fat in old-time Jewish kitchens. He writes: “Although we rarely fry with it today, preferring less saturated vegetable oils, it is still a necessity for flavor. What are knaidlach without it? Just any old dumplings.”
Recipes are reprinted with permission from Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited by Arthur Schwartz, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.
ARTHUR SCHWARTZ’S GEFILTE FISH
Gefilte means “stuffed” in Yiddish. Nowadays, this iconic Jewish dish is fashioned into single-portion oval cakes and sometimes into “party-sized” loaves or tiny “cocktail balls.” But originally, gefilte fish was packed back into the fish skin from whence the fish flesh came. For all the Borscht Belt jokes about its bad aroma, its gray color, and its too-often fishy flavor, when gefilte fish is well made, it is actually the most refined of Yiddish fare, a very highly manipulated way to serve freshwater fish elegantly, without their many bones. And it was meant to be fancy, because it was devised to be served on very festive occasions.
Once the fish’s flesh is carefully separated from the bones, head, and tail, it is ground or chopped into a paste, seasoned well, possibly extended with a starchy ingredient (matzo meal and potatoes are the most usual), bound with eggs, then poached in a broth so rich in protein it jells when chilled.
Gefilte fish is the traditional Ashkenazic way to begin the Friday night Shabbos dinner. Sephardim have other fish preparations, but it is custom among all Jews to begin the Sabbath meal, the Passover seder, the Rosh Hashanah dinner, and, actually, any celebratory meal, with a fish course. As in Chinese tradition, fish symbolize prosperity and fertility. In some traditions, the head of the family is supposed to be served the head of the fish, and it still is the custom of some Jews, especially for Rosh Hashanah.
My Russian family tradition is for peppery gefilte fish, but many Jewish families with roots in Germany, Austria, and Poland prefer a sugar-sweetened fish. This difference in taste is typical of the two main divisions of Yiddish cooking: Litvak, referring to people who came from the easternmost areas of the Pale, and Galitzianer, referring specifically to Galicia, then part of the Austrian Empire, now divided between Poland and Ukraine, but also coming to mean all those who don’t agree with Litvaks about the seasoning of food.
In the end, the Galitzianers have prevailed, probably because their taste for sweet food aligns with American taste. In New York City today, it is hard to find unsweetened gefilte fish. Every supermarket carries at least one, if not several, brands of gefilte fish, both peppered and “Vienna-style.” But sweetened fish prevails in the few restaurants, delis, and appetizing stores that still make their own. These are of varying quality. Some, unfortunately, deserve the ridicule and embarrassment that Jews often make and have about this dish.
As preparing gefilte fish is something of a project – and an expensive one at that – many a balabusta gave in to the convenience of jarred gefilte fish when it was introduced in the 1950s. To assuage the guilt of not serving homemade fish – there is no other way to explain it – they would doctor the fish by recooking it in what amounted to a French-style court-bouillon. Of course, they didn’t know they were making something called court-bouillon when they boiled water with a few vegetables and seasonings. Rather than “refresh” the fish, which is what everyone said they were doing, the fish became overcooked. Some brands of jarred gefilte fish are truly quite appealing, especially if you spike each bite with horseradish, the condiment that is the necessary accompaniment to gefilte fish.
In the following recipe, my grandmother’s, I have added some contemporary cooking touches. There are instructions for using a food processor and a stand mixer for preparing the ground fish, and instructions for using the microwave to test the seasoning of the fish. In my grandmother’s day it was apparently somewhat safer to taste raw freshwater fish, but today we are told that they may harbor parasites. The fish can actually be cooked entirely in the microwave, which results in a fresher tasting gefilte fish if you cook it until just done – a very different dish, but delicious.
Family traditions differ on the combination of fish used. Carp is relatively inexpensive compared to whitefish, pike, or perch. All-carp gefilte fish can be very dense and dark in color, but it is definitely to some people’s taste – as are, if I might say disparagingly, hard matzo balls. Gefilte fish with no carp, just whitefish and pike, which is the most popular combination, can be very delicate. Some carp in the mix adds body.
1 pound mixed fish head, skeleton, and skin
1 medium onion, sliced
1 carrot, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 large rib celery, cut crosswise into several pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 pounds fish fillets (a combination of two or more of the following: whitefish, carp, perch, yellow pike; see headnote)
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
2 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 cup seltzer
Carrot rounds, for garnish
Sliced onion, for garnish
Horseradish, for accompaniment (see below)
To prepare the broth, place the fish head, skeleton, and skin in a large pot, preferably enameled cast iron. Add the onion, carrot, celery, enough cold water to cover the solids, and the salt and pepper. Heat to boiling over high heat, decrease the heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.
Meanwhile, prepare the fish. Examine the fillets carefully for bones, removing any with tweezers. Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks and place half of them in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse until finely ground.
Transfer the ground fish to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Grind the remaining fish in the processor and combine with the first batch in the mixer bowl.
Without washing the food processor bowl, fill it with the chopped onion, carrot, and celery. Process until very, very finely chopped. Add to the ground fish, along with the egg yolks, salt, and pepper.
With the mixer on low speed, mix well, scraping the bowl frequently, and gradually blend in the seltzer. Let the machine work the fish mixture for 5 minutes.
Check the seasoning as follows so you don’t taste raw fish: Form a small ball of fish, place it on a small plate with 1 or 2 spoonfuls of broth, and cover loosely with plastic. Microwave on high until cooked. If the mixture is not to your taste, adjust the salt and pepper accordingly.
To cook the fish mixture in the microwave, measure about 1/2 cup of clear broth into a 9-inch glass pie plate or other shallow microwave-safe dish.
With wet hands and a wet rubber spatula, shape the fish mixture into oval cakes, using 1/2 cup of fish mixture for each one. Set about 4 in the 9-inch plate, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and place in the microwave oven. Cook at 50 percent power for 10 to 11 minutes, or longer. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish a third around twice during cooking. Test for doneness by cutting one fish cake in half; when cooked, the fish mixture is firm and no longer translucent. (Since every microwave oven is slightly different, your first batch may have to be somewhat experimental.) Repeat with the remaining fish cakes.
Remove from the microwave, let cool to near room temperature, then refrigerate, tightly covered, to chill thoroughly. Serve each with a carrot round, fresh sliced onion, or horseradish, or all three.
To cook conventionally, have the broth at a simmer. Shape the fish cakes as above, then ease them into the simmering broth on top of the bones and skins. Cover the pot and simmer gently for about 40 minutes.
When done, remove the fish cakes. Strain the broth. Arrange the fish in a shallow baking dish, top each cake with a slice of carrot salvaged from the broth, and pour over the broth (yoich, in Yiddish). This will encase the gefilte fish in jelled broth. Or pack the fish and yoich separately. The jelled broth can be cut into cubes to garnish the fish, but it is traditional to serve each cake of gefilte fish topped with a round of carrot, which also symbolizes prosperity.
A favorite condiment on the Yiddish table, horseradish is absolutely essential with Gefilte Fish.
The fresh root is available in New York City markets most of the year because it stores well. But it is an early spring specialty, and for many people freshly grated horseradish is strictly a Passover treat. It is, in fact, the “bitter herb” on the Passover seder plate alongside the other symbolic foods used during the ritual reading of the Haggadah.
There are two kinds of grated horseradish sold in bottles and jars: the fully pungent white type and the red type, colored and slightly sweetened with beet juice. Gold’s Horseradish Company, founded in 1932, used to have the largest root cellar in the world, in Brooklyn, just for storing horseradish for New York’s Jews. Nowadays, the company is in Hempstead, New York, on Long Island, and it has diversified into bottled horseradish sauce, mustard (to which horseradish is related), salsa, and other condiments, all nationally distributed.
Freshly grated horseradish has a very different flavor than jarred, which is preserved with salt and vinegar. This is not to diminish the appeal of jarred horseradish. It’s great stuff. On the other hand, there is a discouraging fact about freshly grated horseradish: it loses its pungency very quickly, even within minutes, and its color turns an unappetizing gray unless it is preserved with vinegar, just like the bottled variety. Hand-grated horseradish with vinegar should keep for at least several weeks in the refrigerator before turning gray.
If you want to serve freshly grated plain horseradish, it must be put on the table immediately after it is grated. Otherwise, per 1 cup of grated horseradish (grated by hand on the medium side of a box grater or in a food processor), combine with 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1 teaspoon of sugar. If you grate fresh horseradish in a food processor, be careful when you open the processor bowl. The fumes of horseradish-like its cousin, mustard-can burn your eyes or sinus passages.
All the old recipes for potato kugel come out sort of heavy and gluey, which is not at all how good kugels taste today. These days, the kugel sold in the take-out shops and delicatessens, not to mention those made at home by modern balabustas, are still full of good onion flavor but they are high and light. What may seem like an inordinate number of eggs is the secret. Some recipes call for baking powder, too, but I’ve found the baking powder does absolutely nothing. Lots of eggs are definitely the ticket to lightness. It also helps to use russet potatoes, which were not nearly as available in grandma’s day as they are today. Drier russets produce a fluffier kugel. Incidentally, this is a very low-fat recipe.
Besides serving potato kugel as a side dish for meat or poultry or fish, a larger portion of this egg-rich version makes a good lunch. If cut into small squares, it’s also a good finger food to go with wine or cocktails.
Serves at least 12
3 pounds russet (baking) potatoes
2 medium onions (about 12 ounces), peeled and cut into chunks
2/3 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons oil (for a pareve pudding) or melted Schmaltz
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks to prepare them for the food processor. Reserve in a bowl of cold water until ready to process, but don’t leave them there longer than 2 hours.
In a very large bowl, beat together the eggs until well mixed. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the onions until very finely chopped, but not liquefied. Scrape the onions into the bowl with the eggs and stir them in. Stir in the matzo meal.
Drain the potatoes, then set a strainer over a bowl. In the same processor bowl (no need to clean), process the potatoes in three batches, until very finely chopped. The pieces should be no bigger than a grain of rice and mostly smaller.
As each batch of potatoes is processed, immediately scrape it into the strainer. With a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon, press out the moisture so it drains into the catch bowl.
Immediately stir the potatoes into the egg mixture. Discard the liquid and potato starch collected in the bowl. Season the batter with salt and pepper.
Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil into a 13- by 9-inch baking dish, preferably heatproof glass. Tip the pan so the oil coats the pan bottom and halfway up the sides. Warm the empty pan in the preheated oven for 5 minutes.
Protecting your hands, remove the hot pan from the oven and fill with the kugel mixture. The oil will rise up the sides of the pan, especially in the corners. It’s a good thing when the oil spills onto the surface of the batter, as it adds crispness to the finished dish. Press the batter down near the corners lightly to fill them with potato batter. Drizzle the surface with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving, preferably somewhat longer. Serve hot or warm, freshly baked or reheated.
The kugel reheats extremely well in a 350 F oven, uncovered so the top can re-crisp. Reheating time depends on the size of the piece being reheated and the temperature of the kugel before it goes into the oven. It can be kept in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for at least 4 days, and for several months in the freezer. It is best to defrost in the refrigerator before reheating.
PASSOVER PAREVE APPLE CAKE
When it was given to me, this recipe originally specified flour, not matzo cake meal. I didn’t think it was very good, but I made it a few times anyway, as my family and friends liked it. Obsessing over how to improve the recipe to make it more to my own liking, it dawned on me that someone had converted a perfectly good Passover cake into an everyday cake and that if I converted it back it would be much better. I love it now, and everyone I have served it to raves about it. One day I didn’t have quite enough ground cinnamon, however, and I blended together a substitute with the teaspoon of cinnamon I had, plus ground nutmeg, mace, and ginger to fill out the tablespoon measure. That was yet another improvement.
Makes one 8-inch-square cake
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon or a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and ginger
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup matzo cake meal
5 medium apples, peeled, cored, halved, and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 5 cups), preferably Golden Delicious, Crispin (Mutzu), or other apples that keep their shape when cooked
1/3 cup raisins (optional)
Position an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350?F. Lightly oil an 8-inch-square glass baking dish.
To prepare the topping, mix together the walnuts, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl; set aside.
To prepare the cake batter, in a bowl, with a hand-held electric mixer, beat the eggs on medium speed until well mixed. Beat in the sugar, about 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until the mixture is thick and foamy. Beat in the oil, adding it in a steady stream. Scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the spatula, stir in the matzo cake meal, blending well.
Pour half of the batter mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle about half the topping mixture evenly over the batter. Top with half the apples and all the raisins. Scrape the remaining half of the batter over the apples, spreading it out to cover the apples. Arrange the remaining apples on top of the batter. Sprinkle evenly with the remaining topping mixture.
Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the sides of the cake pull away very slightly from the baking dish and the topping has begun to caramelize. (A cake tester is not reliable. It will not come out clean due to the moist richness of this cake.) Let sit in the baking dish for several hours until completely cool before cutting into serving portions. This cake is yet another Yiddish food that improves with age. Keep the cake in its dish, covered tightly with plastic, and the next day the topping will have become a moist, candy-like coating.