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Holiday Feature: Jewish Cooking; Preserving a Heritage Along with Recipes

When Joan Nathan serves gefilte fish for Passover, she puts a carrot in the fish head.

For her, the reason is simple: That’s the way her mother-in-law always did it.

“This is what her mother did. She died in the Holocaust,” Nathan said during an interview last Friday in the kitchen of her Washington home.

“It’s my way of remembering her family,” she said.

For Nathan, the author of “Jewish Cooking in America” and the star of a 26-part PBS series by the same name, “it’s not just about the recipes.”

It’s about preserving Jewish heritage.

In between sampling trial recipes and preparing a challah to take to Shabbat dinner at the home of Seth Waxman, the U.S. solicitor general, Nathan offered thoughts on why her Jewish cookbooks have been so successful and provided some tips to avoid the monotony of Passover foods.

In her sprawling home nestied behind one of Washington’s major thoroughfares, Nathan and a volunteer assistant tended to four dishes cooking on her gas stove and two challahs in the double oven. The recipe for one challah, made with bittersweet chocolate, will likely appear in a new book on Israeli cooking.

Nathan believes that “there is every different kind of Jew in America. If you are religious, non-religious, kosher, non-kosher — that’s not important. As a Jew, carrying on the tradition” is what matters, she said.

That’s why Nathan, who comes from a family of German Jews, and her husband, a child of Holocaust survivors, have tried to instill in her kids “that Friday night is special.”

“In a country with so many pulls, I want my kids to have a sense of who they are,” she said of her three children.

And to a large degree, that’s what Nathan’s show is about.

Shot on location, at times in her sun-splashed, open kitchen overlooking a cozy family room with at least two bookcases filled with cookbooks, Nathan and the show’s guests don’t only offer recipes, they tell stories.

In the Passover episode, which is scheduled to air sometime before the holiday — each local PBS affiliate has its own schedule — a 93-year-old fondly known as “Grandma Dora” makes gefilte fish.

Because of her connection with Nathan, Dora Solganik has become a star in her own right.

The woman has appeared twice on ABC’s “Regis and Kathy Lee” show.

“It’s not because she’s Jewish; she’s human,” Nathan said.

When asked how she gets through the monotony of Passover cuisine, Nathan offered some suggestions.

“Try stir-fried veggies with matzah farfel,” she said, adding “Jews have always been substitutors.”

Nathan herself is experimenting with a recipe for merillen knoedle — balls made from a potato dough that are stuffed with sugar and fruit and then breaded and fried.

With potato flour, the dish can be made for Passover.

“This recipe would have been extinct” had Nathan not discovered it, she said, pointing to the stove where the dish was cooking for the first time.

“There are recipes that are gone for good reasons,” she said. But from her firsthand experience, this is not one of them.

“We have an amazing cultural heritage. We could lose it in one generation; I do not want that to happen,” she said.

“Think of how many people in America” have no legacy of recipes, she said, recalling countless numbers of people who have come up to her or sent e-mail letters mourning the loss of recipes never recorded.

Nathan will host 50 people for her family’s seder. Using many of the recipes from her books, she plans to serve chicken soup and matzah balls, brisket, turkey, vegetable kugel, tzimmes and asparagus.

Guests will sample five different types of charoset. As always, she will serve chocolate torte, chocolate roll and almond lemon torte with strawberries.

“The seder to me is the most important meal of the year,” Nathan said.

When asked about her favorite Passover foods, Nathan answered as many would. “At the beginning, I like matzah,” she said, her voice trailing off.

So what are some of Joan Nathan’s favorite Passover recipes?

PASSOVER BROWNIES:

These brownies, created by Capsouto Freres for their Passover seder, are moist and delicious all year round.

3/4 stick unsalted butter or margarine, softened

3/4 cup sugar

5 eggs, separated

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate

6 ounces finely ground almonds or almond flour

Pinch of salt

1. Cream the butter and sugar together. Mix in the egg yolks.

2. Melt the chocolate over a double boiler. Cool and add to the butter mixture. Add the finely ground almonds or almond flower.

3. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Fold into the batter. Pour into a 9-inch square greased baking tin. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Cool and cut in squares.

Yield: about 24 brownies (Meat or Pareve)

PISTACHIO MACAROONS:

During the American Colonial period, Jewish merchants frequently had glass bowls filled with pistachio nuts for visitors in their homes. Sometimes at Passover they made their macaroons with these pistachios instead of almonds.

3 cups shelled pistachio nuts

1 cup sugar

3 egg whites

Sugar for dusting

1. Whirl the pistachio nuts in the food processor until ground but not pureed.

2. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium bowl mix the ground pistachio nuts, sugar and egg whites. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes. Drop the batter from a tablespoon onto the cookie sheets, leaving 1/ 2 inch between macaroons. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly brown. Dust with sugar when cool.

Yield: about a dozen (Pareve)

MY FAVORITE BRISKET (NOT TOO GEDEMPTE FLEYSCH):

Gedempte Fleysch — well-stewed — that’s how Eastern European Jews prefer their meat. Slow cooking, of course, became a practical necessity with grainy cuts of forequarter meat.

Because a brisket stretched into many meals, it was an economical cut for large families in Europe. Leftovers were ground up to stuff knishes or kreplach. The meaty gravy became the base for a midweek cabbage or potato soup or a sauce to cover pompushki, Ukrainian baked dumplings, which resemble Pepperidge Farm rolls. In this country, it became particularly popular.

Brisket comes from the front quarters of the steer, the chest area. The whole piece of meat, from three to 10 pounds, is potted (hence the term pot roast) and cooked slowly by braising in liquid. It should be covered and simmered in a 325-degree oven for several hours. Brisket needs to be simmered slowly to transform it into the succulent morsels I remember as a child. It is a dish I serve frequently on Friday night, at holidays and at dinner parties.

2 teaspoons salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 5-pound brisket of beef, shoulder roast of beef, chuck roast or end of steak

1 garlic clove, peeled

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 onions, peeled and diced

1 10-ounce can tomatoes

2 cups red wine

2 stalks celery with the leaves, chopped

1 bay leaf

1 sprig fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1/4 cup chopped parsley

6 to 8 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal

1. Sprinkle the salt and pepper over the brisket and rub with the garlic. Sear the brisket in the oil and then place, fat side up, on top of the onions in a large casserole. Cover with the tomatoes, red wine, celery, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary.

2. Cover and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for about 3 hours, basting often with pan juices.

3. Add the parsley and carrots and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes more or until the carrots are cooked. To test for doneness, stick a fork in the flat (thinner or leaner end of the brisket). When there is a light pull on the fork as it is removed from the meat, it is “fork tender.”

4. This dish is best prepared in advance and refrigerated so that the fat can be easily skimmed from the surface of the gravy. Trim off all the visible fat from the cold brisket. Then place the brisket, on what was the fat side down, on a cutting board. Look for the grain — that is, the muscle lines of the brisket — and with a sharp knife, cut across the grain.

5. When ready to serve, reheat the gravy.

6. Put the sliced brisket in a roasting pan. Pour the hot gravy on the meat, cover and reheat in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Some people like to strain the gravy, but I prefer to keep the onions because they are so delicious.

Serve with farfel (boiled egg barley noodles), noodle kugel or potato pancakes. A colorful winter salad goes well with this.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings (Meat)

Tip: Try adding a jar of sun-dried tomatoes to the canned tomatoes. They add a more intense flavor to the brisket.

MOROCCAN HAROSET BALLS WITH DATES, RAISINS AND NUTS:

The Passover seder never ceases to amaze me. Millions of Jews all over the world sit down at the same time to more or less the same story being retold in different languages, different melodies and different customs. At the Moroccan seder, the eldest son takes a seder plate covered with a shawl and passes it over the heads of all the guests. Everybody sings “Bibhilo” in haste while the person beneath the plate makes a wish. The words are, “We are in a rush, we went out of Egypt and we are now free.”

Later in the service Moroccans scoop up the haroset balls with romaine lettuce, their bitter herb, reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

2 cups pitted dates

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dark raisins

1/2 cup walnuts

1 to 2 tablespoons sweet red Passover wine

1. Process the dates, raisins and walnuts in a food processor until the mixture is finely chopped and begins to stick together. Add enough wine to make a sticky mass.

2. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Drop slightly rounded measuring teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto the lined sheet. Roll each mound with moistened palms into hazelnut-size balls. Refrigerate for at least three hours or until firm.

Yield: Approximately 60 or 3 1/2 cups (Parve)

EGGPLANT AND GREEN PEPPER KUGEL (CASSEROLE):

Here is an eggplant kugel for Passover I first tasted in Jerusalem, the world’s capital of international eggplant dishes. The recipe was brought there by American immigrants.

1 large eggplant (about 2 pounds)

1 onion, diced

1 green pepper, diced

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 matzah, crumbled

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

1. Peel the eggplant and dice in 2-inch cubes. Cook in simmering salted water to cover until the eggplant is tender — about 20 minutes. Drain and mash.

2. Meanwhile, saute the onion, pepper and pinc nuts in olive oil over medium heat until the vegetables are tender but not crisp. Combine with the basil and salt and pepper.

3. Mix the eggplant with the lightly beaten eggs as well as the vegetable mixture. Add the matzah and mix well. Place in a greased casserole and dot with butter or margarine. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 35 minutes or until golden brown on top and crusty on the sides.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings with butter (Dairy); with margarine (Pareve).

(Recipes are reprinted with the permission of “Jewish Cooking in America,” published by Knopf.)

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