To this day, when I think of the Jewish High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — I have three clear images in my head. One is of my mother sipping a small glass of Guinness while she bastes the brisket with the rest of the bottle. Another involves dipping apple slices into bowls of honey at our synagogue. And then there’s the feeling that returns year after year, of sitting through a sermon and hearing my stomach growl over the Rabbi’s words of wisdom, wondering when I’ll get my hands on a bagel smeared with cream cheese and buried under fresh lox.
There are few stronger ties to any religious upbringing than that of holiday food. Recipes are handed down over generations, often spanning continents. But just as religion is constantly updated along with culture, classic holiday dishes deserve a makeover. We asked six top Jewish chefs around the United States about the holiday dishes they grew up eating, and how they’ve transformed them using culinary super powers. Why? We’re looking out for the home cooks seeking inspiration as another season of brisket and kugel is upon us. It’s OK — we won’t tell your mother you’ve abandoned her cherished recipes, and you can still sip Guinness while you cook.
1. Michael Solomonov | Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street Barbecue and the recently opened Abe Fisher and Dizengoff in Philadelphia
All the women on my mother’s side of my family make honey cake. To give you an idea how important it is, my mother makes it in Israel, freezes it and sends it to me — which is TOTALLY unnecessary because I’m a f–king chef and can follow a recipe. In general, the easiest way to improvise [a dish] is by taking one ingredient or one idea and sort of elaborating. For example, we always braise brisket with coffee in my family. I like Israeli food, I like Arabic coffee with cardamom. Voila: brisket braised with coffee and cardamom.
2. Ivan Orkin | Ivan Ramen in New York City
My family, we’re Eastern European Jews, so at every high holiday we had brisket. My family did a sort of sweet version of the pot roast with caramelized onion, some tomato product, carrots and parsnips. I didn’t grow up in much of a gourmet family, but we ate pot roast every year, and kugel, too. Honey cake for dessert. Very simple. I always looked forward to Rosh Hashanah and Passover meals. Yom Kippur was bagels and lox, herring, gefilte fish.
As a chef, I approach pot roast as a braise, which means cooking the meat, then pulling it out, straining the liquid and reducing it so the sauce isn’t so thin. At home it’s easy to have a thin sauce and overcooked vegetables. I puree the vegetables, then add them into the sauce, so it’s more beautiful and abundant. Maybe some mushrooms can go in there. You can use nice red wine in your initial braise; the flavor will come through in your pot roast. I still tend to like a sweeter pot roast so I might throw some apples and tomatoes in, or prunes and apricots, which is a very Eastern European thing. It’s always nice to use fresh chicken stock, it’s got gelatin and depth of flavor, an umami that water doesn’t have. Deglaze your pan with wine — scrape up your bits, add in some stock. I also sometimes use dashi, which is loaded with umami; it’s a gentle flavor, not fishy, just nice and clean. For those doing the first Rosh Hashanah and don’t have time to make chicken stock, try Citarella or Zabar’s for high quality frozen chicken stock.
3. Einat Admony | Balaboosta in New York City
Pomegranate was always an important ingredient during my family’s High Holidays. I love pomegranate, but I never liked peeling the two cases I always needed before these dinners. As a treat, my mother used to leave a fruit sitting outside until it was really ripe. She would then roll it and roll it and massage it and bang it and throw it around and then finally, when it was ready, she would cut a hole inside, lean my head back, and let me drink all of the juice. Nothing is better than fresh pomegranate juice.
I still use pomegranate quite frequently in my own cooking for the season, making a version of my mom’s pomegranate chicken and walnuts as well as an amazing quinoa with pomegranate and pistachio. Pomegranate molasses can also provide a great update to a classic brisket. Combine with honey and a touch of chili for a sweet, tangy, and spicy twist on your holiday meal.
4. Micah Wexler | Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles
My grandmother used to always make chicken fricassee for Rosh Hashanah. It’s basically a stew of meatballs, chicken wings, gizzards and hearts in a sweet and sour sauce. I used to look forward to the fricassee all year and I could smell it from a block away when I would walk up to my grandparents’ apartment. Some dishes are better left alone. You just don’t mess with a dish like fricassee. I used to cook it with my grandmother so I could watch and learn from her to master exactly how it’s made. Now, I make it exactly the same way.
5. Ethan Kosbar | Moderne Barn in Armonk, New York
When I lived in Israel, my dad and I would shop for the Sabbath on Friday evenings, prior to sunset, and I distinctly remember the chocolate poppy seed babka. It’s still, to this day, one of my favorites. This dish isn’t strictly connected to a particular Jewish holiday but it does represent the Jewish culture and I’ve recently added it to the menu at Moderne Barn. People traditionally dip apples in honey to represent a sweet new year during Rosh Hashanah. At Moderne Barn, I serve fried apple fritters with salted honey ice cream, which is a twist on that tradition, and something I love to make with my family.
6. Tony Maws | Craigie on Main in Boston
My grandmother, Baba Hannah, cooked the classics and cooked them well. Braised brisket, a capon, latkes, kugel, kasha varnishkas and tsimmes were all regular attendees to the holiday table. For a treat she would make stuffed derma, or kishka, which is a beef intestine stuffed with matzoh meal, schmaltz and some buckwheat. This was my favorite; I couldn’t get it anywhere else living in suburban Boston, which made me look forward to derma even more. I think back and I begin to see where my love for the soulful, original nose-to-tail dishes came from.
At Craigie on Main we make a great Kasha Varnishkas with our own buckwheat pasta (instead of store-bought bow-tie pasta) tossed with toasted buckwheat groats, chicken confit and foie gras cream. This dish makes me smile.
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Mike Solomonov photo by Alicia J. Rose