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Jewish Journal

Gourmet Memories

Four top L.A. chefs dish about the ways they cook meaning into the holidays.


by Adeena Sussman

September 19, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Nicki B. Reiss: Private Chef

Nicki B. Reiss: Private Chef

Rosh Hashanah is filled with promise of many kinds -- the prospect of a fresh start for the year to come, the opportunity to celebrate with friends and family, and the thrill of enjoying delicious food whose ingredients express the potential for sweet things ahead. For four of Los Angeles' top Jewish chefs, the holiday also offers up the chance to share their recollections -- and recipes -- from a lifetime spent preparing and enjoying great meals. Tradition inspires their daily work and also the dishes they've chosen to share

Nicki B. Reiss: Private Chef

Just back from six weeks as private chef to "American Idol" founder Simon Fuller in the south of France, Nicki B. Reiss already had the Jewish New Year on the brain.

"It's always a major event in our family," said Reiss, 30. "I know wherever I am in the world, I am always going home for Rosh Hashanah."

Reiss, who had her bat mitzvah at Stephen S. Wise Temple, grew up in a food-centric Jewish household, with a "fabulous-cook" mother and a father who owned several commercial bakeries. "But don't get the wrong idea -- the pastries were so bad, I had to go to school just to learn to make them better," she said, laughing.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York in 1996, she did stints in San Francisco, New York and the Bahamas with top chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Jean Georges Vongerichten. Then she headed back to Los Angeles in 2001, where she cultivated a celeb-heavy client roster that includes Mariah Carey and Billy Bob Thornton.

Still, that doesn't get her out of cooking at home.

"Ever since she was in culinary school, we would literally get her off the plane and put her in the kitchen," said her sister, Shaynee. "We wouldn't even let her sit down before we sent her to work."

After temple, Reiss' extended family -- parents, grandparents, cousins, pets -- gather at her parents' Encino home for a crowd-pleasing meal, often starring her mother's kugel.

"It has everything bad in it, all the things you're not supposed to eat," said Reiss admiringly of the noodle dish filled with sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, brown sugar -- and even Cocoa Krispies.

This year, Reiss will be making the sweet-and-savory glazed short ribs described below, and maybe the walnut-apple cake that is a family favorite. She also prepares lighter salads and soups for balance.

Simple, creative presentation completes the picture. Reiss drapes a central buffet table with pieces of color-coordinated fabric, then creates a dramatic platform for serving platters by covering boxes with more fabric. Centerpieces can include vases filled with dried branches, floating candles -- even tiny crabapples suspended in water.

"Fresh flowers in small bud vases, colored glass pieces and marbles hidden into the folds of the fabric all add a personal touch," she said. "It looks great and people love it."

Her short ribs are a twist on the traditional style that results in a flavor that balances contrast between spicy and sweet. She loves to serve it with mashed potatoes or whipped parsnips. Or perhaps sticky rice and sautéed spinach topped off with apple rings.

Spicy Honey Glazed Short Ribs With Fried Apple Rings

2 tablespoons grape seed or neutral oil

5 pounds beef short ribs, preferably organic (ask your butcher to trim them of sinew and fat)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 shallots, peeled and sliced

8 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced ginger, peeled and sliced

4 tablespoons honey

4 pieces star anise

4 1-inch pieces ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

4 cinnamon sticks

1 tablespoon white peppercorns

6 Fresh Thai chilis, sliced and seeded (leave the seeds in if you like it extra spicy)

1 bunch parsley stems, leaves reserved

1 bunch cilantro stems, leaves reserved

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1/3 cup low sodium tamari sauce

3 cups water

Fried Apple Rings (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Heat oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over high heat. Season ribs with kosher salt and black pepper. In batches, add ribs to pot and sear on all sides, making sure not to overcrowd. Remove the ribs to a sheet tray or cookie sheet. To the same pot, add shallots, garlic, ginger, honey, star anise, cinnamon, peppercorns, chilis, parsley stems and cilantro stems. Stirring until liquid develops a nice golden color, about seven minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine, tamari and water. Add the ribs back to the pot and bring to a slight boil. Then cover with the lid or foil. Bake for about two and a half hours or until falling off the bones. Remove the ribs from the braising liquid, keeping liquid warm over very low heat. Skim the excess fat off the top of the liquid and discard. Strain the liquid through a sieve into a saucepot and reduce liquid by one-third. Return the short ribs and coat them with the sauce; bake for 10 minutes or until heated through. Chop up some parsley and cilantro leaves to sprinkle over the dish.

Makes four servings.

Fried "Apple" Rings

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 large egg

1 cup panko or dry breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1 large granny smith apple, cored and cut into 8 rings

1 cup canola oil, for frying

Preheat oven to 325 F. Put flour, eggs and panko or breadcrumbs into three separate dishes. Mix a pinch of salt and pepper into each of the three dishes. Add the cinnamon to the panko dish. Dredge each piece of apple into the flour mixture and shake off the excess. Then dip the apple into the egg, make sure it is completely coated, and allow the excess egg to drip back into the pan. Then roll it in the panko. Set on baking sheet. Add oil to a sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add the rings, two or three at a time, and fry until golden brown, about two minutes per side. Drain on a paper towel. Keep warm in the oven until ready to serve with short ribs.

Serves four.

Upside-Down Walnut Apple Cake

1/3 pound (about 1 cup) walnuts

1 cup sugar

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

2 eggs

1 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 cup apple sauce

1 tablespoon Calvados or other apple liqueur (optional)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

Walnut Butter

3/4 cup butter

1 cup dark brown sugar, packed well

1/2 cup chopped toasted walnuts

Melt the butter. Remove from the heat and whisk in the brown sugar and the nuts. Store in the refrigerator.

Yield about two cups

2 Rome or McIntosh apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small cubes

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Lightly toast the nuts on a cookie sheet, about eight minutes, and let them cool completely. In a food processor, grind the nuts with the sugar until very fine. Using a mixer, cream the butter, then add the sugar mixture. Beat until fluffy, about five minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix until incorporated. Add the sour cream and vanilla. Mix in the apple puree and apple liqueur. Stir in the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt to make a smooth batter. To bake, cover the bottom of the cake pan with some of the warmed walnut butter (to warm, microwave approximately 30 seconds). Sprinkle the apple pieces over the walnut butter, then spoon the batter over the apples.

Bake until just set, about 35-40 minutes. Keep warm in a low oven and invert into a serving plate at the last minute.

Serves 12-14.

Suzanne Tracht: Jar

On Rosh Hashanah eve, the reservations tend to skew a little earlier than normal at Jar, chef Suzanne Tracht's perennially popular restaurant on Beverly Boulevard.

"We always get a huge pre-temple crowd on New Year's," Tracht said. "The food is real comfort fare, similar to what many of my Jewish customers grew up eating."

Her haute-yet-haimish fare includes her take on succulent pot roast, crispy veal cutlet, fork-tender braised lamb shank, silky mashed potatoes and luscious house-made applesauce.

"We sort of know who's there for the holiday," she said.

As a child in Phoenix, Rosh Hashanah meant "being able to take off from school." The downside was "never-ending services with my parents." The payoff came after temple when Tracht and her family would head home for a traditional feast: Brisket with rich gravy, kasha varnishkes, matzah ball soup, and several varieties of moist honey cake.

"My mom loves to bake, so there would always be an apple kugel," Tracht said.

These days, Tracht's focus has to be on cooking for people outside the family. Her restaurant's name -- Jar -- a self-effacing acronym for "Just Another Restaurant," belies the eatery's reputation for tough-to-get tables, not to mention its top Zagat rating. Still, on Rosh Hashanah she makes the time to put together a festive luncheon for her two children, Max, 12, and Ida, 11, and a group of friends and relatives.

"I love cooking at home, especially on holidays," Tracht said. "It's all about being with family. I usually incorporate sweet potatoes for a sweet new year, then some braised meat for continuity's sake." And, of course, apples and honey.

When it comes to honey, Tracht heads to the farmer's market for hard-to-find varieties such as buckwheat, which she treasures for its dark color and pungent, malt-like flavor. This and other flavors show up in creative dishes at Jar around Rosh Hashanah and all year long. Honey serves as an alluring glaze for autumnal roasted kabocha squash, and as a key ingredient in dipping sauces. And on Mozzarella Mondays -- the cheese-centric evenings she co-hosts with good friend Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Campanile fame -- buricotta cheese (southern Italian fresh mozzarella), is served with oat biscuits, spicy walnuts and honey for a surprising juxtaposition of creamy, savory and sweet. It's tantalizing proof that for Tracht, breaking with convention is sometimes as important as hewing to it.

Still, she sticks to other traditions: "Now I drag my kids to temple with me on Rosh Hashanah."

Kabocha Squash With Sage, Leeks and Honey

1 large or 1 1/2 medium kabocha squash (about 3 pounds)

olive oil

kosher salt

1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter

1 1/2 or 2 leeks, washed, with bulb and greens removed

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 tablespoon black pepper

1/4 cup fresh sage leaves (about six to eight leaves)

1 tablespoon honey

Rub the squash generously with olive oil and season well with kosher salt. Pierce three holes in the top of the squash with a sharp object to allow the steam to vent when cooking. Place on a sheet pan and roast in a preheated 350 F. oven for about one hour, or until thoroughly soft and easily pierced with a fork. Remove from oven. When cool enough to handle, cut open the squash, carefully remove the seeds and discard.

Using a large, flat spoon, scoop out all of the flesh and place in a bowl or container, discarding the remaining skin. Cut the leeks lengthwise and julienne into straw-like strips, about 2 inches in length and set aside. This may be prepared in advance and kept in ice water. Heat the butter in a large heavy saucepan and cook over medium heat until the color reaches brown butter stage.

Add the fresh sage leaves and continue cooking until the sage becomes slightly crisped. Add the julienne of leeks and continue stirring until cooked, about two minutes. Add the salt and pepper and stir to blend. Add the cooked squash and continue to stir over heat to mash the squash and to blend all of the ingredients.

Some large pieces of squash may remain, or they can be mashed with a back of a spoon if a smoother consistency is desired. Spoon the squash into a large serving bowl and drizzle the top lightly with honey just before serving.

This dish can be made a day in advance and stored in the refrigerator; but omit the honey until serving. Reheat slowly on stovetop and add the honey at the end.

Serves six to eight.

Jar Pot Roast

1 short rib, about 3-5 pounds, boned and denuded (ask your butcher for help with this)

4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

2 large onions, peeled and roughly chopped

1 bunch celery, roughly chopped

1/2 bulb garlic, unpeeled

1 bay leaf

1 cup sherry

2 quarts chicken stock

1/2 cup vegetable oil

salt/pepper

Optional: Roasted carrots and caramelized onions

Preheat oven to 350 F. In large pan, heat oil to just under the smoking point. Season meat liberally with salt and pepper, then sear both sides in the pan to dark crisp. Remove meat and set aside. Pour oil from pan into heatproof container to cool, and then discard. Using the same pan, add sherry, bring to simmer and reduce by half. Place the carrot, onion and celery in a large braising pan with bay leaf and garlic. Place pot roast on top of vegetable mixture and pour reduced sherry on top of roast. Add enough chicken stock to cover three-fourths of the meat. Cover with foil and place in oven, roasting for three hours.

Remove the pot roast from the oven and cool. Strain the liquid from the vegetables and discard the vegetables from the pot. Place pot roast on serving platter, slice and serve with the liquid. If desired, serve with roasted carrots and caramelized onions.

Serves three to four.

Evan Kleiman: Angeli Caffe

As a child, chef Evan Kleiman looked to Rosh Hashanah as yet another opportunity to satisfy her yen for delicious food.

"I was a little glutton," Kleiman said. "I always looked for any excuse to celebrate a Jewish holiday."

Raised by a nonobservant single mother, Kleiman fondly recalled the holiday meals she pent with friends and family.

"It seemed like everyone's house was a festival of dairy," she says of the raisin-studded kugels, coffee lashed with cream and a seemingly endless wave of sour cream. "The sense of abundance and happiness are the things I always think of when I recall those New Year's meals."

These days, Kleiman is the busy owner of 21-year-old Angeli Caffe -- not to mention the host of Sunday morning's "Good Food" radio show on KCRW and a leader of Los Angeles' burgeoning slow-food movement. Having to juggle these commitments, Kleiman finds her connection to the Jewish holidays has changed.

"My role these days is to fulfill the holidays for others," she said. She sees this job as an opportunity to lend her own touch to the milk-and-honey spreads of her Los Angeles youth: "I enjoy doing vegetarian food for Rosh Hashanah because meat meals prevent me from serving dairy."

As the centerpiece of a sumptuous holiday table, she suggests a plate of three artisanal cheeses, accompanied by small ramekins of sweet chutney, preserves, nuts, dried fruits and other condiments.

"It's a fun and creative spin on the tradition of serving sweet foods this time of year," Kleiman said.

Rich ricotta salata (Kleiman favors Fulvi brand ricotta salata for cheese plates) meets its match in Spanish marcona almonds and a drizzle of organic wildflower honey. Nutty, aged Manchego comes alive when paired with slices of sweet membrillo (quince paste). And an Italian Pecorino Romano marries well with the fig jam Kleiman puts up when the fruit is at its best. To reap the tail-end of summer's bounty, Kleiman suggests an antipasti platter overflowing with fresh vegetables at their peak of freshness, cooked simply to accentuate natural flavors. And while the long days may be ending, the new season brings a favorite ingredient -- chestnuts. In this crepe recipe, rich chestnut flour and dark, intense chestnut honey (both found at farmers markets beginning in October) serve as foils to the lightness of the sweetened ricotta.

Chestnut Crepes With Ricotta and Chestnut Honey

Chestnut Crepes

1 cup milk

2 eggs

1?4 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup chestnut flour

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

pinch of salt

2 tablespoons melted butter plus more for pan

Ricotta filling

Chestnut honey

Ricotta Filling

1 cup ricotta

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup candied chestnuts, minced

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Puree ricotta and sugar together in food processor with steel blade until very smooth. Place in small bowl. Add chestnuts and lemon zest. Refrigerate until ready to use.

In a blender, combine milk, eggs and vanilla. Blend well. Add remaining ingredients. Blend for one minute. Refrigerate batter for at least two hours, or up to two days. When ready to cook, heat a small nonstick skillet or seasoned crepe pan over medium-high heat. Rub pan with paper towel dipped in melted butter. Pour just enough batter in pan to form a thin layer.

Quickly rotate the pan to form a round thin crepe. Cook until crepe is golden, about two minutes. Turn crepe and cook briefly, about 30 seconds. Turn out of pan and repeat with remaining batter. Stack crepes until finished. When ready to serve, fill each crepe with about 2 tablespoons of the Ricotta filling. Either roll crepes or fold like a handkerchief. Lay filled crepes next to one another on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Briefly bake just to warm, about five minutes in 375 F. oven.

Serve crepes drizzled with warmed chestnut honey or your favorite variety of honey.

Roger Hayot: Authentic Cafe

For Roger Hayot, chef/owner of Authentic Café in the Fairfax district, family tradition is literally built in: His father, Abner, ran his kosher butcher shop, Shalom Kosher Meats, on the very same spot where Hayot opened his Beverly Boulevard restaurant in 1986.

"The holidays were always a very busy time for my dad," said Hayot, who helped behind the counter cutting, packing and wrapping. "But one of the fringe benefits was that we always had the best meat for our family."

The Moroccan side of the Hayot clan began westward migration en masse in 1977. By time Roger arrived in 1979, his grandmother, Hanina, and four of her six children all lived on the same block in Hollywood. Living with his grandmother during his first nine months in Los Angeles, he got a first-hand glimpse of authentic Moroccan Jewish cooking.

"Absolutely everything was homemade," he said. Perhaps sensing a culinary kindred spirit, Hanina would often enlist him as a pre-dawn sous chef before Rosh Hashanah and other holidays.

"Some mornings she would wake me at 5 a.m. to grind almonds," he said.

With a minimum of 20 relatives crowded around the table, festival meals were multicourse affairs.

"My grandmother's house was full of great scents, sights and colors," Hayot said. "The smell of cumin, cinnamon, saffron, and garlic would hit you the minute you walked through the door."

To start, she served a lavish spread of homemade salads in ceramic dishes, followed by garlic- and herb-studded Merguez sausage from the butcher shop. The main course was usually a fragrant roast of lamb and couscous. Though apples and honey -- an Ashkenazi custom -- were typically absent, there was plenty of sweet food: flaky, eggy pastry fritters drizzled in warm honey; dried fruits integrated into stewed meat dishes; tea with mint and sugar.

The task of recreating his late grandmother's specialties now falls on one of Hayot's aunts.

"I look forward to those meals because I don't get to eat Moroccan food that much otherwise" he said.

The recipe he provided to The Journal pays a nod to Hanina's honey-drizzled, filo dough-based desserts, while incorporating a favorite fruit, bananas.

Bananas in Filo

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup honey

4 slightly under-ripe bananas, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup brandy or cognac

4 sheets filo dough

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

powdered sugar for dusting

Heat a large, heavy, nonreactive sauté or frying pan over a medium heat. Melt the 4 tablespoons of butter in the pan, but do not let it brown. Add the honey and whisk the mixture until smooth. Let the mixture bubble for about 20 minutes. Place the bananas in the pan and stir with a wooden spoon until all the pieces are coated with the butter mixture. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring the bananas until the mixture bubbles, about two minutes. Add the brandy and continue to cook over medium heat for 40 seconds to evaporate the alcohol (the flavor of the brandy will remain).

Place this mixture in a large bowl in a single layer, and let it cool to room temperature. This can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, covered, for up to one day. If you are planning to bake the pastries immediately, preheat the oven to 350 F; otherwise, do so 15 minutes before baking. Place one filo sheet on a flat work surface, covering the remaining sheets, first with waxed paper, then a damp towel, to prevent from drying out. Brush the sheet with melted butter, then, holding the edges of a short end, fold it in half crosswise and brush the top with more butter. Spoon 1/4 of the banana mixture in the center of the dough, then gather the dough up around the filling to form a small bundle, allowing the edges to fall down around the filled part of the dough. Repeat with the remaining three sheets.

Place the pastries at least three inches apart to ensure even browning on a nonstick or foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle the remaining butter over the tops, then dust with the powdered sugar. Bake the pastries until they are an even, golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes four servings.

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