We Jewish cooks walk a perilous tightrope. We want to keep our culinary traditions alive; yet times have changed, and the delicacies lovingly prepared by our bubbes just do not suit today’s lifestyle.
Case in point: chopped liver. My grandmother, Mama Hinda, of course, used schmaltz (chicken fat) for its unbeatable flavor. No wonder it was so good! The dish is a history lesson on a plate. Our thrifty shtetl ancestors used every innard and organ; no part of the animal was wasted. So rich, so silky…so heavy, so fattening! Cholesterol was a far off future scientific enigma, like moon landings and DNA. How to capture the spirit of the dish without jeopardizing our health or diet regimen.
Some years ago I was asked to do a cooking demonstration at the Palo Alto Jewish street festival called “To Life!” A man picked up my cookbook and turned immediately to the vegetarian chopped “livers.” “Mine is better,” he announced. “So where’s the recipe?” I countered. (I love a challenge.) He sent it, and when I saw the peanut butter, I was hooked! Where many vegetarian chopped “livers” call for green beans or peas, the version presented here relies on lentils, substantial and meaty but bland by themselves, the perfect backdrop for the rich peanuty/garlicky flavors. This is Steve Kaplowitz’s adaptation of the dish from the old Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Serve it with crackers or cocktail rye as a schmear, or on lettuce with a radish garnish as an appetizer. It also makes a great sandwich.
We’ve all heard stories about fish swimming in our bubbes’ bathtubs awaiting their metamorphosis into another shtetl favorite, gefilte fish, a labor-intensive process calling for much chopping and grinding. Who’s got that kind of time? Add to that the bad rap the dish has gotten over the years due in part to the canned and bottled preparations, which, while convenient, cannot compare to authentic homemade. Although preground fish is available at kosher food markets and the food processor does the job easily, just hearing the word “gefilte” sends shivers down some spines.
Since the Middle Ages the serving of gefilte fish has been a Sabbath tradition, fish being seen by Jewish mystics as signaling the coming of the Messiah. Fish was expensive in Europe, and the recipe was developed as an economical way to stretch it so that every family member could get a taste. It became a particularly traditional Sabbath dish, made on Friday because to remove the flesh from the bone was viewed by the devout as “work.”
The word “gefilte” is actually
German for “stuffed.” The original recipe called for seasoned, ground boned fish mixed with eggs and fillers, such as vegetables and crumbs, which was then stuffed back into the fish skin and cooked. Over the centuries the skin was eliminated, with cooks shaping the mixture into balls or patties and poaching them.
For years I denied myself gefilte fish at holiday time because my kids would turn up their noses. Then I created a variation of Marlene Sorosky’s recipe from “Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays,” using salmon and baking the fish as individual “muffins.” I called them Salmon Timbales—the word “gefilte” never crossed my lips—and not a nose turned up. (It’s all in the packaging.)
They make a lovely presentation on a bed of greens, surrounded by thinly sliced cucumber, a few grape tomatoes, and horseradish, preferably my Uncle Lou’s homemade. (For Passover I add haroset, a Yemenite haroset truffle, parsley and a quail egg to the plate, as shown in the photograph.)
Horseradish root is not a radish at all. According to rabbi and food historian Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” the English name is a mistranslation of the German “meerretich” (mare radish). In Yiddish it is known as “chrain,” and today Ashkenazi Jews use it as the maror (bitter herbs) on the Seder plate, although it is neither bitter nor an herb. This use was a late development, notes Marks. “Horseradish was unknown in Israel in Talmudic times and was not among the five vegetables sited by the Talmud as acceptable for maror.”
To quote Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, the dairyman, “Horseradish that does not bring a pious tear to the eye is not G-d’s horseradish.” Sure, you can buy horseradish in the jar, but it’s easy enough to make it yourself. Chopping fresh horseradish is famously billed as a curative for sinus conditions, but you’ll be fine unless you remove the lid of the food processor, as I did the first time I made it, and lean directly over it to turn on the light. Actually, the hardest part is peeling the stubborn horseradish root! Then it’s a simple matter to whiz the ingredients and fill little jars to give to friends or freeze for future use. Once you’ve tasted the fresh, you’ll never go back to store-bought.
Steve Kaplowitz’s Vegetarian Chopped “Liver”
Yield: 6 cups
1½ cups (10 ounces) green lentils
2 bay leaves
3 large onions (8 ounces each), chopped
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1¼ teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
3 large eggs, hard-cooked and chopped
1. Prepare lentils according to package directions, adding bay leaves to cooking water. Do not overcook. Drain, remove bay leaves, and set lentils aside to cool.
2. Set aside about ½ cup chopped onions. Heat oil in large skillet over low heat. Add remaining chopped onions and cook very slowly until rich, dark brown, 20 minutes or more. Add crushed garlic and cook, stirring, a few minutes more. Cool.
3. Place cooled lentils, cooled onion mixture, peanut butter, reserved ½ cup raw onion, 1¼ teaspoons salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper in food processor and pulse. You want some texture, not a smooth paste. Transfer mixture to bowl, fold in eggs, and add salt and pepper to taste. Chill, covered with plastic wrap, at least 4 hours to allow flavors to meld.
Salmon Timbales (wink, wink) with Homemade Horseradish
Yield: 24 timbales
Vegetable cooking spray
2 medium-size onions, cut into chunks
5 medium-size carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup curly-leaf parsley leaves
3 pounds skinless salmon, cut into 2-inch pieces
3 large eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray 24 standard muffin cups.
2. Place onions in food processor and pulse until minced. Transfer onions to very large bowl.
3. Process carrots, celery, and parsley together until ground. Add to onions.
4. Process about two thirds of the salmon, adding 1 piece at a time through feed tube, until ground. Add processed salmon to onion mixture.
5. Process remaining salmon, adding it through feed tube. Then add eggs, oil, sugar, salt, and pepper, and process until well blended. Add mixture to onion-salmon mixture, and combine well.
6. Divide salmon mixture evenly among prepared muffin cups. Bake until top feels set when touched, 25 to 30 minutes. Let fish cool in muffin cups; then unmold. Serve with horseradish (recipe follows).
Uncle Lou Bower’s Homemade Horseradish
1 pound horseradish root, peeled and cleaned
1 can (16 ounces) sliced beets, undrained
1 tablespoon kosher (coarse) salt, or to taste
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar or red wine vinegar
Yield: about 3 1/2 cups
1. Cut horseradish root into 1-inch pieces and process them in food processor until uniformly shredded.
2. Add beets with their liquid, salt, sugar, and vinegar, and process until mixture is finely chopped and well mixed.
3. Add up to 1/4 cup water, until desired consistency. Do not over process or mass will liquefy.
4. Serve with gefilte fish (but you knew that), any fish at all, brisket, or—my personal favorite—boiled chicken from the soup.
Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.