How can you explain the wonders of chopped liver, gefilte fish and charoset to newcomers? For Jews, we've spent a lifetime in the presence of such culinary treats. We've acquired the acquired-tastes. Sure, matzoh ball soup and brisket are easy. They cross into the familiar. They are inherently good for any culinary tradition. But the exotic staples of passover are not so easy. Such is the dilemma I faced when cooking Passover for my in-laws for the first time.
My in-laws are originally from the Ohio and were lucky to spot a Jew in the wild for most of their lives. I am an anomaly. They are very polite. On my first visit many years ago they spent a great deal of energy trying to make me feel comfortable at Christmas. It took a while to convey the fact that I eat bacon, shellfish and have my Friday nights and Saturdays free to do as I please. Ten years later, I am still a curiosity with my strong opinions and curly hair.
Imagine my hesitation and concern when my sister-in-law Bev and I decided to take on passover during our visit to Winnetka (Just outside of Chicago, where a segment of the clan now lives). The Ohioans would be driving up on Friday, just in time for our mock-seder. Since I would be the only Jew, we forewent any formal traditions in favor of simple explanations and talk of Charlton Heston. Lucky for me there is a wondrous and mystical land called Highland Park that exists just north of Winnetka. Apparently this heavily Jewish community is quite proud of their Max's deli.
We started with Max's chopped liver, which was a solid version with just enough eggs, schmaltz and onions to satisfy me. Surprisingly the paté was scooped up and passed around and everyone seemed to enjoy the odd crackers with which it was served.
Max's has exceptional house-made gefilte fish, which was subtle and a little sweet. Some of the finest I've had. The adults all took a sample but were generally soft on the experience. No amount of horseradish can mask the oddity of a poached fish ball.
Now to the good stuff. I am known for my Matzoh Ball soup. When it is on, it is often lauded as the 'best I've had'. Sadly, a slight measurement gaff rendered my balls dense on this occasion, so the goys didn't get my A-game. But, for the sake of blogginess, I'm giving up the recipe..... For the soup: In a large stock pot place a whole-cut-up-organic-chicken. Cover with water to twice the height of the chicken. Simmer. DO NOT BOIL - this will break down the bones and cloud your broth. Skim foam. When the water turns slightly golden add a stalk of celery, a peeled parsnip, a peeled rutabaga, an onion with the skin on (will help with golden color). Continue to simmer for another hour. Add in 8-10 peeled whole carrots and a bunch of dill. Simmer for another hour or until the carrots are fork tender. At this point the broth should be pretty golden in color and have the aroma of perfection. Remove all of the meat and vegetables, discarding everything except the chicken and carrots. Strain the broth a couple of times (I use cheesecloth or a coffee filter). Season with salt. This is probably the most important flavor step. Don't be shy with the salt. Your guests will appreciate your sense of taste. Cool the broth overnight and remove the rendered fat layer from the top (reserve to use a schmaltz in the matzoh balls).
For matzoh balls: I use the Second Avenue Deli recipe as a base: CLICK HERE I've massaged it a little over time and add chopped parsley. The trick is to find the balance of wet and dry. The texture should be firm but a little moist. The size of your eggs will play a big part in getting the right balance. I also let it sit for multiple hours, not the 30 minutes they suggest. Experiment, make it your own. The bottom line here is that the baking powder is the best fluffer in the business. Forget seltzer.
To assemble my soup I put the maztoh balls in the soup pot to keep them hot. I tear apart some of the chicken meat, slice the carrots and then ladle the broth and balls over top. I'll often sprinkle some chopped parsley too.
Needless to say the crew universally enjoyed the soup, despite the fact that I was a tablespoon short on the baking powder. Even this kids gobbled it up.
But the real star of the evening was a brisket recipe I've adapted from a Food and Wine recipe for "Grandma Selma's Brisket", which is made with coca-cola: CLICK HERE. I'm guessing the coke works as a tenderizer and adds a little sweetness to the sauce. I add fingerling potatoes, scale back the tomatoes a bit and am generous with the coke. You can also add some english peas right at the end for a little color. Everyone raved that it was their favorite dish by far. It just goes to show that midwesterners love their meat and potatoes. For me, this is a departure from my mother's [wonderful] traditional brisket, which is much sweeter from ketchup and brown sugar.
So generally I feel that our Passover dinner was a great success. I love to see the children squirm at the thought of trying a new strange dish. And I was pleasantly surprised by how, for the most part, my in-laws enjoyed themselves. In fact, the next day, they were all over the leftovers. My mother-in-law was picking apart the brisket remains, just like my bubby used to do. But next year, I think I'm going to return to hosting my Hebrew homies. I like the idea of not having to stand in defense of Gefilte fish.