March 21, 2002
Remembrances of Passover Food Past
Seder food is not only tasty, it can also bring back memories.
Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine's editor in chief, reminisced about the versatility of matzah brie in her memoir, "Tender at the Bone."
Likewise, Elizabeth Ehrlich wrote of her longing for the salty gefilte fish of her childhood, comparing it to her mother-in-law's sweeter variety in "Miriam's Kitchen," her memoir on kosher cooking.
Although neither of these dishes achieved the renown of Marcel Proust's madeleines, the memories of these authors resonated for millions of readers.
Many people feel passionately about foods associated with Passover, the Jewish holiday claiming the largest number of courses per meal, but not everyone has the talent to weave tasty morsels into literature. Although gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are most often linked to the holiday, there are other foods connected to peoples' cherished memories.
Family and friends who gather for Passover at attorney Lorraine Abraham's apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., anticipate a tangy treat when she ladles soup from a tureen on her table.
Abraham also initiated another Passover tradition -- pickled salmon. Her recipe is practically foolproof. It involves freezing salmon for 48 hours to knock out dangerous organisms, before submerging fillets in pickling brine for several days.
Juggling a demanding career with Passover preparations, Abraham makes the salmon the weekend before the holiday; it holds for at least a week. It is faster and easier to finesse than its competition -- gefilte fish. "I gravitated to pickled salmon 20 years ago, because it's delicious and I'm forever pressed for time." She describes a zesty marinade of spices and thinly sliced onions, claiming she whips up twice as much fish as she needs. Not one spec goes to waste, because her sons, 30-something bachelors, consume leftovers with gusto. "They even love the onions, which they pull from the marinade and place on plain matzah."
While some people dedicate certain foods exclusively to Passover, other families partake in dishes they enjoy all year.
"If you like the crunch of freshly fried latkes, you'll love my potato kugel," says Nelly David, a retired shopkeeper living in Boca Raton, Fla. "When I was a girl in Germany, my mother taught me how to make this recipe." By now it has been passed down through four generations of women in her family.
When David's daughters were growing up, she lit Shabbat candles every Friday night and served roasted chicken, chicken soup and, because her family loved it so much, potato kugel. This delectable dish always graced her seder table.
"My children would die if they didn't have potato kugel at Passover," says Manhattan resident Lynda Sobel, one of David's daughters. She prefers it when her mother visits at Passover because she prepares the holiday kugels.
"If my mother is not here, I make her kugel recipe, but it never tastes the same," says Sobel, explaining that her mother sprinkles in love as she grates potatoes by hand. Sobel cheats and uses a food processor, which turns potatoes watery.
During the flourless chocolate cake craze of the 1980s, I began baking a chocolate almond torte, which achieves its loft from whipped egg whites instead of starch of any kind. Although I always cover my sideboard with a variety of homemade desserts, my torte is so popular that I must bake two of them to get through one seder.
My daughter claims that she could survive without the four kinds of charoset I serve, the special way I brown hard-boiled eggs and soften matzah so it tastes like pasta in vegetable lasagna. But, my daughter said, "It wouldn't be Passover without the bittersweet chocolate of your almond torte."
Yet, before I introduced this dessert, she had adored my marzipan macaroons, meringue cookies and lemon chiffon sponge cake, too. Over the years, I kept collecting recipes and adding more marvelous foods to our family's Passover traditions.
Between ridding the household of leavened foods and the amount of cooking Passover generates, the holiday is labor intensive. This accounts for the popularity of bottled gefilte fish, canned macaroons and packaged foods on supermarket shelves, although manufacturers can never duplicate the magic that people infuse into delicacies they prepare at home.
The events of the past fall have catapulted home-cooked foods to the front burner, as people have become increasingly nostalgic for a less stressful past. Passover, the most cherished of Jewish holidays, is the perfect time to please loved ones by renewing castoff culinary traditions or by adding new recipes to your repertoire. Tantalizing aromas and warm feelings will fill your dining room, and if you're lucky, a budding writer at the table will immortalize your Passover fare.
Pickled Pink Salmon
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
1 1/2 cups water
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salt
3 cloves garlic, whole
1 stalk celery, halved
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
Place ingredients in a saucepan and stir. Boil for five minutes. Cool to room temperature. Remove garlic and celery.
2 pounds salmon, skin and bones removed
2 tablespoons pickling spice
5 bay leaves
2 medium-sized Vidalia onions, sliced thin
Garnish: one seedless cucumber and 3 tablespoons minced dill
1. Freeze salmon for 48 hours.
2. During defrosting, while fillets are still partially frozen but slightly flexible, cut into 1-inch-by-3-inch pieces.
3. Spread a layer of fillets on the bottom of a large glass bowl. Sprinkle with half the pickling spice, bay leaves and onions. Repeat for a second layer. Pour marinade over the top. Cover.
Refrigerate for four days.
4. Drain salmon and remove bay leaves and pickling spice. Serve cold on a platter surrounded by sliced cucumbers. Sprinkle dill over fillets and cucumbers.
Yield: 20 pieces.