The first time Tina Wasserman prepared gefilte fish for Passover, it smelled up her whole house. The fish was past its prime, but it wasn't spoiled, so "it didn't make my family sick," she said. But still, the experience was so horrifying that she didn't attempt to prepare gefilte fish again for many years. Since then, Wasserman, who is Reform Judaism Magazine's food columnist, has learned a thing or two about gefilte fish.
Wasserman, who earned a master's degree in food and fashion merchandising from New York University, has been a cooking teacher for 33 years. She taught first in her native New York, and for the past 25 years she's taught in Dallas.
When she teaches, she said, she tries to think of everything that can go wrong and offers her students tips on avoiding those pitfalls, along with faster alternative preparation methods and substitute ingredients. She presents much of this wisdom on her Web site, Cookingandmore.com.
Wasserman tries to rekindle peoples' traditions without assaulting their memories. "From the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to teach cooking," said Wasserman, who got her start teaching at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan when she was in her mid-20s. Back then, someone suggested that she start Passover workshops.
"Why on earth in New York do you need classes on Passover cooking?" Wasserman remembers thinking. "But much to my surprise, students came."
And they're still coming. Until then she had not realized how many people have lost their family recipes for such popular holiday foods as matzah balls and tzimmes. She seeks to rescue recipes from the dustbin of history and is particularly interested in recipes from places with small or dwindling Jewish populations. "Throughout the centuries, Jews have moved across the globe, spreading their food habits with them," said Wasserman, who sees it as her job to help keep those cultures alive.
Wasserman is a bit like the bubbe you wished you had, or the one who is no longer here to help you cook holiday foods. When she first moved to Dallas, she taught cooking at a Jewish community center there.
"People figured if I'm from New York, I must know something," she said. But Wasserman, who was raised in a Conservative household, is a second-generation American. Besides her impressive credentials, which include consulting for the largest fish market in Dallas, creating delicacies for the biggest kosher caterer in Philadelphia and acting as Chef Field for the Marshall Field department store chain, the thing Wasserman has going for her in the Jewish cooking world is her knowledge of kashrut. When she was in college, if friends had a question about kosher food, she reports, they said, "Go ask Tina. She knows everything."
When she lived in Manhattan, Wasserman conducted Passover cooking workshops in her apartment. One day, in the middle of a cooking class, Wasserman saw her mother, who then had cancer, entering her apartment. Wasserman was overcome with emotion as she thought, "You've given me Passover traditions -- and now I'm passing them on to people who have none of their own."
More recently, Wasserman, while resurfacing her kitchen cabinets, had to remove all their contents. As her 17-year-old daughter stood in the kitchen, Wasserman clutched a plain box.
"Do you see this box?" she asked her daughter. "If anything happens to me, grab it. It contains all of our family's original recipes."
Wasserman's kitchen renovation is now finished. Though her recipe box is back safely in its place, as Passover approaches she refers to it often. She expects to have about 40 people at the first seder and is preparing every dish she'll serve from scratch.
"With all this going on, Passover at my house is a real trip," she said. "But that's my joy."
Homemade Gefilte Fish -- The Easy Way
4 pounds whole fish (any combination of carp, whitefish, pike, snapper or sea trout)
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths on a diagonal
2 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 pound yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 Bouquet Garni (1 bay leaf, plus thyme, marjoram and summer savory or parsley to taste) wrapped in cheese cloth
2-3 quarts water
2 medium yellow onions
1/4 cup very loosely packed
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup matzah meal
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic, ginger, sugar, dill or whatever your bubbe used to use
Fillet the fish or, better still, have the store do it for you. If you want to make a gelled broth, take home the head and bones.
Reserve the filets.
Rinse out the head of the fish. Make sure any bloody masses are removed. Soak all of the bones and the head in cold salted water to cover for 15 minutes or longer. Drain and discard the water.
Place the bones and head on the bottom of a large Dutch oven and cover with carrots, celery and thinly sliced onion (from Poaching Liquid list). Add the Bouquet Garni and the 2-3 quarts of water to cover. Simmer for 60-90 minutes. Carefully strain the liquid. Reserve carrots and set aside. Discard the head and bones. Cool and divide the broth in half.
To make the fish, grind reserved filets twice in a grinder fitted with a fine blade or process in a food processor, until mixture develops a fairly smooth texture. Remove fish to a large bowl.
Grind or process (from Fish ingredient list) the onions, carrot and parsley. Add to fish.
Add eggs, water, matzah meal, salt, pepper and additional flavorings, if desired. Mix well with a fork until light and fluffy.
Note: to check for seasoning, cook 1 teaspoon of fish mixture in salted water for 10 minutes. Taste and then adjust seasonings, if necessary. Never taste fresh water fish raw!
Shape the fish mixture in your hands to form ovals and gently place in a frying pan to which half the prepared fish stock, about1 inch deep, has been added. Poach covered for 20-30 minutes (depending on size) over low heat or until center of a fish oval appears white. Drain on a cloth towel, then cool in reserved fish broth. Serve with horseradish and garnish with reserved carrots.
Makes 8-12 patties.
Syrian Spiced Meat With Eggplant and Prunes
"The hardest thing about making this sensational dish is finding a pot large enough and heavy enough to hold all of the ingredients and cook them slowly over a low flame," Wasserman said. "Make this dish in advance and then reheat before serving. If the casserole is nice enough, you can serve the recipe right from the dish it's cooked in. But since most attractive casseroles don't hold five quarts, you can transfer some of the layers, as best as you can, from the cooking pot into a large serving dish."
2 pounds ground chuck meat
2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pepper to taste
3 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 medium onions, halved lengthwise and then cut into fourths
4 large red potatoes, cut into eighths
12 ounces pitted prunes
1 large eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch slices
2 6-ounce cans of regular (not flavored) tomato paste
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
In a large 2-quart bowl, combine the ground meat with the allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Distribute spices evenly by mixing first with a fork and then with your hands.
Place the oil in the bottom of a 6-quart Dutch oven or metal casserole.
Place half of the onion slices in the bottom of the pot. Cover with half of the meat, making sure that you press the meat evenly and firmly into the onions.
Scatter half of the potatoes, prunes and eggplant over the meat.
Repeat with the remaining onions, seasoned meat, potatoes, prunes and eggplant.
In a 3-quart bowl, combine the tomato paste with the remaining ingredients, along with salt and pepper to taste, into a smooth sauce. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Gently swirl the pan to allow the sauce to permeate the dish evenly.
Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Keeping the meat at a medium simmer, cook the mixture for two hours, or until the potatoes are tender and dish is thickened.
Ashkenzi law prohibits eating rice during Passover, but if you're Sephardi, serve this dish with rice flavored with some pine nuts and sautéed onions.
As part of a Passover meal with additional entrees, makes 36 servings, but only 10-12 servings as the single entree of a normal meal.
Deluxe Matzah Farfel Kugel
3/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon cooking oil or chicken fat, plus more if needed
3/4 cup diced onion
3/4 cup diced celery
3/4 cup diced fresh mushrooms
1 box matzah farfel
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon paprika
2 eggs, well beaten
2 1/4 cups chicken broth, warm
In 3/4 cup oil or chicken fat, sauté the onion until golden brown. Add the celery and mushrooms. Fry some more until celery is translucent. Add a little more shortening, if vegetables are sticking to the pan.
Place vegetable mixture in a large bowl and add the farfel. Toss thoroughly so that all the farfel is coated with vegetables and fat.
Combine seasonings, eggs and warm broth. Pour over farfel mixture. The mixture should be loose. If needed, add more broth.
Grease a 9-by-13 roasting pan with 1 tablespoon of shortening, preferably chicken fat. Pour in farfel mixture and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden brown.
Variation: For a sweeter kugel, use 3/4 cup onion, 1 1/2 cups apple chunks and orange juice in place of all or part of the broth. Leave out celery and mushrooms. Yield: 16-24 squares, depending on size.