Chef channels bubbe for Passover recipes

new york | 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 says. But still, the experience was so horrifying that she didn’t attempt to prepare gefilte fish again for many years.

Wasserman, who is Reform Judaism Magazine’s food columnist, has learned a thing or two about gefilte fish since then.

First, you must buy fresh fish. Now that seafood is so popular, that’s much easier to do now than it was in the 1970s, when Wasserman started out. And she’s discovered that there’s no need to boil fish patties for three hours, as old-fashioned recipes instructed. In fact, Wasserman suggests cooking gefilte fish for a mere 25 minutes.

As she talks about gefilte fish, Wasserman laughs. She knows that the thought of cooking it makes some people gag. But that’s the result of commonly held misconceptions, she believes, and lists those incorrect ideas: The house smells for days. Fish heads are scary. Scales stick to fish. The jarred kind tastes better.

“Well, I can’t help you if you prefer the jarred variety, but I can resolve the other issues,” she says.

Fresh fish isn’t stinky at all, Wasserman says. Instead, it smells like the sea. Nonetheless, she suggests making the poaching liquid in advance, to lessen the time you and your kitchen are exposed to the scent of fish.

Moreover, ‘if you don’t like the jelly with the fish, then you can skip the whole head and skin process,” she adds. And if you ask the store to fillet the fish, you won’t have to deal with the scales.

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, where she lives.

When she teaches, she says, 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.

“When it comes to gefilte fish, you can take my basic recipe and use fish that’s indigenous to your part of the country,” says Wasserman. In Texas, people add snapper because it’s not bony and tastes good. Though sea bass is gelatinous, its flavor is delicate and slightly sweet. Ocean trout also adds interesting nuances. She presents much of this wisdom on her Web site, cookingandmore.com.

Wasserman tries to rekindle peoples’ traditions without assaulting their memories. “I can’t tell someone, OK, you recall a dish’s flavor this way, but I can guarantee it wasn’t that way,” she says. One thing she can know for sure is that your bubbe’s gefilte fish tasted fresher than fish from a jar.

“From the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to teach cooking,” says 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 Wasserman 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 tsimmes.

One of Wasserman’s abiding passions is finding recipes of memory, the foods people grew up on and now no longer know how to make. “One reason why I enjoy writing for Reform Judaism Magazine is that it gives me the opportunity to study old recipes and cookbooks,” she says.

She seeks to rescue recipes from the dustbin of history. She’s 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,” says Wasserman, and she sees it as her job to help keep those cultures alive.

For example, by featuring Syrian spiced meat with eggplant and prunes on her Web site, Wasserman is keeping a part of that culture vibrant. The divinely piquant recipe is an excellent choice for Passover because it can be prepared ahead of time and re-heated. “This dish stays well for a number of days in the refrigerator, and its flavor continues to get better each day,” she says.

Deluxe matzah farfel kugel is pure comfort food, and it is like a moist bread stuffing, says Wasserman.

“But if underbaked and overwatered, it resembles a doorstop! Now if that’s the way your bubbe made it, who am I to tell you it’s wrong?”

In all seriousness, Wasserman claims that the trick to this dish is adding warm broth to the other ingredients. “Also make sure that the mixture looks runny when you pour it into the casserole,” she adds.

Although she doesn’t recommend assembling ingredients in the casserole and holding them for hours before baking because you’ll end up with a mess, you can bake the kugel covered with foil. Uncover it during the last 15 minutes to brown and serve immediately, or prepare it in advance and reheat uncovered in the microwave.

“Do not reheat in the oven as you’ll lose track of time and it will dry out!” she warns.

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 says. But Wasserman is a second-generation American, and many of her Dallas students came from families that lived in this country for three or four generations.

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.

She was raised in a Conservative household. When she was in college, if friends had a question about kosher food, she reports, they said, “Go ask Tina. She knows everything.”

“Today I keep kosher because of tradition,” she says, amazed at what you can do with kosher food. And she doesn’t mean high-fat, low-flavor dishes but wholesome, delicious cuisine.

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 says. “But that’s my joy.

“I love helping people recreate holiday memories or find new ones to call their own.”

Homemade Gefilte Fish (The Easy Way) | Makes 8 to 12 patties

Poaching Liquid:
4 lbs. 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 lb. yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 bouquet garni (bay leaf, plus thyme, marjoram and summer savory or parsley to taste) wrapped in cheese cloth
2-3 quarts water

Fish:
2 medium yellow onions
1 carrot
1/4 cup very loosely packed fresh parsley
2 eggs
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 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 garnish 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.

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, about 1-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. Garnish with reserved carrots.

Deluxe Matzah Farfel Kugel | Makes up to 24 squares

3/4 cup, plus 1 Tbs. 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
11/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. paprika
2 eggs, well beaten
21/4 cups chicken broth, warm

In 3/4 cup oil or chicken fat, saute 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 x 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.

For a sweeter kugel, use 3/4 cup onion, 1 1/2 cups of apple chunks and orange juice in place of all or part of the broth. Leave out celery and mushrooms.

Syrian Spiced Meat With Eggplant And Prunes | Serves up to 36

2 lbs. ground chuck meat
2 tsp. ground allspice
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. kosher salt
Pepper to taste
3 Tbs. vegetable oil
6 medium onions, halved lengthwise and then cut into fourths
4 large red potatoes, cut into eighths
12 oz. pitted prunes
1 large eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch slices
2 6-oz. 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 2 hours, or until the potatoes are tender and dish is thickened.

Ashkenazi law prohibits eating rice during Passover, but if you’re Sephardi, serve this dish with rice flavored with some pine nuts and sauteed onions.