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.
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.
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.
"The seder to me is the most important meal of the year," Nathan said.
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
Preheat oven to 325 degrees
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.
Cover and bake for about three hours, basting often with pan juices.
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."
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.
When ready to serve, reheat the gravy.
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.