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Jewish Journal

Evan Kleiman revisits her Passover traditions

Jessica Ritz

April 2, 2014 | 2:57 pm

Pollo Arrosto (lemon and rosemary chicken)

Pollo Arrosto (lemon and rosemary chicken)

In an environment that’s all too familiar with short-lived businesses and perpetual change, the sound of a collective, disappointed sigh spread through Los Angeles in January 2012 when restaurateur and chef Evan Kleiman announced she was closing Angeli Caffe after more than 27 years in business. Kleiman remains prominent on the L.A. food scene with her KCRW show, “Good Food,” and the doyenne of the beloved Melrose Avenue Italian restaurant also gave her fans a taste of what they’d been missing a few weeks ago at the Skirball Cultural Center, where she prepared her classic Passover menu

In this culmination event tied to Tent: Food LA, Kleiman partnered with Skirball Executive Chef Sean Sheridan to revisit classic dishes her customers came to expect every year at her Angeli Passovers, this time at a special gathering called “Angeli Caffe Passover Pop-Up.” Here, as at the restaurant, Kleiman served the meal “kosher style” and family style, never as a formal seder, however. 

For my own family, in fact, Passover at Angeli came to represent what the restaurant did best. Kleiman excelled at offering comforting, unfussy, fairly priced food that tasted delicious and was prepared with the utmost care yet offered in an unpretentious ambiance, all under the guidance of her own deep culinary knowledge and generous spirit. 

Angeli was never about Kleiman’s singular culinary ego or advancing a dogmatic agenda she’s built around authentic Italian food and cooking. Instead, Kleiman — a Silver Lake native and Mid-City resident who clearly remembers learning to make hamantashen at the Hollywood-Los Feliz JCC (now the Silverlake Independent JCC) on Sunset Boulevard when she was 8 years old — served as an L.A.-based pioneer in recognizing how a mix of European influences and California ingredients can thrive. Perhaps most significantly, she showed us how food can foster community. 

This mission of creating a genuine food community remains a core component of her continuing work as a cook, educator, writer and host of “Good Food.” It is no wonder she describes herself as a “culinary multitasker.” (Disclosure: I have appeared as a guest on her radio show.) After attempts in the late 1980s and early ’90s to expand the Angeli brand at three splashier locations in West Los Angeles, none of which achieved the longevity of her first venue, she reinvented herself at her original home on Melrose near Poinsettia Avenue, where she continued to cement her role as one of L.A.’s godmothers of food. 

Jordan Peimer, vice president of programs at the Skirball, summarized feelings shared by nostalgic erstwhile Angeli customers, many of them in attendance at the dinner that night. “There are all kinds of reasons I miss Angeli Caffe,” Peimer told the crowd. “I miss seeing Evan at least every month. And I really miss Passover.” 

Kleiman starting doing casual holiday dinners more than 25 years ago to provide a place for her family and friends to go (Kleiman’s mother recently turned 94). During the early years, she took what she confessed to be an overly eclectic approach to menu planning. 

“I flitted around. I would do all-Indian Passover, and then I would do all-Greek Sephardic Passover,” she recalled. “I realized what people really wanted was some Ashkenazi stuff, and some Italianized stuff.” Eventually, her longtime staff knew how to make Pesce en Carpione, the fusion Tortino di Azzime (aka  “mazzagna”), and Kleiman’s unique charoset recipe as easily as Angeli’s signature dishes, such as pizza Margherita and red-beet gnocchi. 

The Skirball meal included huevos haminados, hard-boiled eggs slow-cooked in layers of onion skins in a time-honored Sephardic method. This dish holds a particular significance for Kleiman, who said her “favorite [moment] was when somebody would come up to me and ask, ‘Is it time to start saving onion skins?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, we did it!’ ” 

She took delight in how her staff incorporated this aspect of the Jewish seasonal calendar into the restaurant’s annual rhythms.

Asked why she hosted Passover meals at what was otherwise an Italian restaurant, Kleiman gave an answer that made perfect sense: “The Italian tradition is really interesting to me because it’s neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic. It’s its own separate tradition,” she said. Furthermore, Angeli always served as a venue that allowed Kleiman to explore her interest in other cultures. For many years, for instance, she hosted a weekly prix fixe family supper, each week highlighting a different non-Italian cooking style. 

The Skirball was also host to Tent: Food LA, a weeklong seminar for 20 participants between the ages of 21 and 30, who spent the time immersed in the multifaceted food culture of Los Angeles. Tent is affiliated with the Yiddish Book Center of Amherst, Mass., and operates Jewish cultural programs around the country; programs elsewhere have focused on journalism, music and fashion. This year’s Tent program is only the second one that has been organized in Los Angeles. 

The week’s itinerary included meals at a range of local restaurants, a fruit picking adventure, a pickling lesson, a lecture about the history of cream cheese, a panel discussion with restaurant critics Jonathan Gold and Patrick Kuh, meetings with prominent chefs and food justice activists, a tortilla-making lesson in Boyle Heights and a tour of the San Gabriel Valley. Kleiman collaborated with professor Leah Hochman of Hebrew Union College to curate the week’s events. 

At the Skirball, Kleiman told the attendees, who were also hungrily anticipating their own seders, “It was bizarre to make this meal in a completely different environment without my angels, who were around me for 25 years,” referring to her dedicated crew at Angeli. 

Despite the change in scenery, however, the food proved typically and thoroughly satisfying, and with these recipes, you, too, can re-create Kleiman’s Passover dishes in whatever environment you choose. 

No matter where you serve them, your guests will be very grateful.  


EVAN KLEIMAN’S CHAROSET

  • 2 oranges
  • 1 pound pitted dates
  • 1 pound dried Turkish apricots
  • 1/2 pound mixed raisins
  • 1 cup red Passover wine
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chopped toasted nuts of your choice

Trim off and discard stem end of the oranges; cut in quarters. Pass the dates, apricots, raisins and orange quarters through the coarse blade of a meat grinder. (Intersperse the orange quarters with the dried fruits to loosen the mixture.) Transfer ground fruits to a mixing bowl. Add wine, cinnamon and cayenne pepper. Mix thoroughly. Stir in chopped nuts or use them for garnish. 

Serve in bowls or spoon onto baby romaine lettuce leaves. 

Makes 3 to 4 cups.


PESCE IN CARPIONE (MARINATED WHITE FISH WITH PINE NUTS)

  • 2 pounds white fish fillets, skin on
  • Matzo meal for dredging
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil for pan frying
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
  • Small handful coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley

DRESSING: 

  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup champagne vinegar or good-quality white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 shallot, peeled and minced
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 head radicchio or butter lettuce
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted 

Using tweezers, pliers or your fingers, remove any bones from the fish. Cut fillets crosswise into pieces about 1/1/2 inches wide. Place the matzo meal in a shallow dish; season with salt and pepper to taste. In a large nonstick skillet, heat about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil until hot but not smoking. Lightly dredge the fish in the seasoned matzah meal, add to the pan, and fry until golden. Carefully remove the fish from the skillet and arrange it in a nonreactive baking pan of stainless steel, glass or enamel.

Put the onions in a medium skillet with 1/4 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup water. 

Bring to a boil and cook the onions over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are very tender and golden. First the water will cook off, then the onions will sauté in the remaining oil. 

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Arrange the caramelized onions over the cooked fish, then sprinkle with chopped parsley.

To make the dressing:

In a small bowl or blender whisk together olive oil, vinegar, mustard, shallot, lemon zest, and salt and pepper to taste. (Add a squeeze of lemon juice if desired.) Pour mixture over the fish and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, or up to 3 days. Bring it back to room temperature before serving. 

To serve, separate the radicchio into individual leaves; arrange on serving plates. Lift the fish, topped with the onion mixture, out of the marinade and arrange on the leaves. Garnish with pine nuts.

Makes 8 small first-course servings.


TORTINO DI AZZIME (MATZAH LASAGNE WITH MEAT SAUCE OR ANGELI FRESH TOMATO-BASIL SAUCE)

MEAT SAUCE:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and minced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and minced
  • 1 stalk celery, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
  • Small handful coarsely chopped Italian parsley
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, leaves only, coarsely chopped
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 1 (28-ounce) can imported Italian tomatoes, pureed with juice
  • 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 boxes matzah 

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized heavy skillet. Add onion, carrot, celery and garlic; cook slowly over low heat until onion becomes very soft. Add ground lamb and saute over high heat, stirring frequently to break up any large lumps. Add parsley, basil and rosemary. When the meat has lost all pinkness, add tomatoes, tomato sauce, and salt and pepper to taste; cook over medium-low heat for approximately 1 hour or until sauce is thick and flavors have blended.

To assemble:

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cover bottom of a baking dish with a ladleful of the Meat Sauce. As you take the matzah out of the box to layer it into the baking dish, place it under cold running water for a couple of seconds. Then make a layer of matzah that completely covers the bottom of the pan. 

Cover the matzah with another layer of the sauce, using the back of a spoon or a rubber spatula to spread the sauce evenly. Continue layering matzah and sauce until all ingredients are used, finishing with a layer of sauce. Cover casserole with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven approximately 40 minutes, or until bubbling hot. Can be served hot or at room temperature.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

VEGETARIAN ALTERNATIVE

VEGETABLE LAYERS:

  • 2 onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound mushrooms, stems trimmed, cut into quarters or sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, leaves only, coarsely chopped
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, leaves only, coarsely chopped
  • 2 bunches fresh spinach, washed or 4 bags washed spinach
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 boxes matzah 

In a large skillet, cook the onions in oil and a little water until they are very soft and golden brown. When done, set aside in small bowl. Saute the mushrooms over high heat in oil, adding half of garlic, parsley and basil. When done set aside in small bowl. Saute spinach and remaining garlic in olive oil in a covered pan. Add salt to taste. When done set aside in small bowl. 


ANGELI FRESH TOMATO-BASIL SAUCE

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 to 4 garlic cloves minced
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled tomatoes in juice
  • 4 leaves fresh basil, torn 
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and saute just until the garlic gives off its characteristic aroma. Add the tomatoes and cook over moderately high heat until the tomatoes begin to break down and form a sauce. Stir frequently. Add the basil, season with salt and pepper, and continue cooking over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick. Remove from heat and put sauce through medium disc of a food mill. An immersion blender may be used instead. However, the sauce should have some texture.

To assemble:

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cover bottom of a baking dish with a ladleful of the Angeli Fresh Tomato-Basil Sauce. As you take the matzah out of the box to layer it into the baking dish, place it under cold running water for a couple of seconds. Then make a layer of matzah that completely covers the bottom of the pan. 

Cover the matzah with another layer of the sauce, using the back of a spoon or a rubber spatula to spread the sauce evenly. Place a layer of cooked onions over the sauce. Top with half the sautéed mushrooms. Add half the sautéed spinach. Again, drizzle with sauce. Make another layer of matzah. Continue layering with sauce, cooked vegetables and matzah until all the ingredients are used, finishing with a layer of matzah topped with a layer of sauce. Cover casserole with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven approximately 40 minutes, or until bubbling hot. Can be served hot or at room temperature.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.


POLLO ARROSTO (LEMON AND ROSEMARY CHICKEN)

  • 1 chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds), cut into
  • 8 pieces
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh rosemary leaves
  • 10 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 lemon, peel removed, pith and pulp chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a bowl, toss chicken with oil, rosemary, garlic, lemon juice, lemon pith and pulp, and salt and pepper. Marinate for 1 hour.

Heat oven to 475 F. Arrange chicken pieces in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish; add remaining marinade. Roast, turning once, until cooked through, about 30-40 minutes.

Makes 8 servings.

First published in Saveur magazine.


NO-FLOUR, NO-DAIRY CHOCOLATE COOKIES

  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or coffee
  • 2 1/2 cups semisweet Passover chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper. In bowl of standing mixer or in a large bowl with hand-held mixer, mix powdered sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt at low speed. Add egg whites; beat at low speed until batter is well mixed. Stir in vanilla and chocolate chips by hand. 

Using a spoon or small cookie scoop, spoon batter onto baking sheets, leaving 1/2 inch between cookies, as the batter will spread. Bake until the cookies are cracking on the surface, about 15 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then carefully transfer to cooling rack.

Makes 15 cookies.

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