Childhood memories, adult tastes inspire chefs holiday menus

Three prominent Bay Area chefs are drawing inspiration from Jewish food of the past to create their ideal Rosh Hashanah dinner menus. For sausage king Bruce Aidells and deli owner Robby Morgenstein, it’s personal memories of family meals. For former restaurateur and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein, it’s the result of her research into historically Jewish Mediterranean food.

Aidells, the founder of Aidells Sausage and author of 11 mostly meat-centric cookbooks, grew up in a Los Angeles household that alternated holiday meals between grandmothers — one who made brisket and the other who made roast chicken.

Morgenstein, owner of Miller’s East Coast Deli in San Francisco and San Rafael, comes from a family of professional cooks in Baltimore: His mother and grandparents were Jewish caterers, and cousins were involved in the Jewish delicatessen business.

Goldstein, the author of some two dozen cookbooks, didn’t have a tradition of High Holy Days meals growing up in Brooklyn. But as chef and owner of Square One in San Francisco, she began researching Mediterranean Jewish food at the request of customers, and continued to do so for her cookbooks.

Bruce Aidells, who divides his time between Kensington and Healdsburg, was studying endocrinology as a graduate student when he discovered his passion for cooking. That led to being a chef at Berkeley’s Poulet restaurant in the ‘70s, and in 1983 founding the gourmet sausage company that still bears his name (he left to pursue other interests in 2002).

Bruce Aidells

He has authored a number of cookbooks — Aidells calls his latest, “The Great Meat Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Buy and Cook Today’s Meat” (2012), “a reference for the rest of your life.”

He is “done with cookbooks,” he says, and now spends his time writing for cooking magazines and consulting for food companies, and volunteering as a small-business mentor for the nonprofit SCORE (formerly known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives).

When he was growing up, it was brisket and roast chicken for the two nights of Rosh Hashanah. Twenty-five to 30 family members would crowd the table at Aidells’ maternal grandmother’s house, where brisket was the holiday meal of choice. That side of the family still continues the tradition in Los Angles.

His father’s mother, who once owned a Jewish deli, was a larger influence on Aidells’ Jewish cooking. Her Rosh Hashanah menu included tsimmes, potato kugel and a roast chicken Aidells still raves about.

“I can’t give you a recipe,” he says. “She made chicken soup with the chicken first. She’d buy a Rhode Island red, and cooking it that way got it nice and tender; then she roasted it with onions.”

She also was renowned for her knishes stuffed with pot roast. “Grandma used to come over and make a year’s worth of knishes in a day. She was the ‘knish lady’ and I learned how to make them from her.”

Those knishes “would definitely be on my [ideal] Rosh Hashanah dinner menu,” Aidells says.

He would also serve his Mediterranean Brisket, which tastes similar to the one he had growing up, except the newer version has sun-dried tomatoes and red wine.

Aidells’ interest in Middle Eastern cooking would also be reflected in his tangy Caramelized Spiced Carrots. Another side dish he’d make would be Hungarian-inspired Sauerkraut and Cabbage Braised in Dark Lager, with the bite of brine and spice. Instead of a potato kugel, Aidells would quarter and roast new potatoes in rosemary and olive oil, and toss with salt and pepper.

“We always had matzah ball soup and gefilte fish,” he adds. He’d serve the soup but not the fish — “I hate the stuff,” he confesses.

Dessert was always sponge cake with ice cream, or angel food cake with strawberries. But Aidells thinks his paternal grandmother’s dried fruit compote made with apricots, prunes and golden raisins would be good with either cake, and make a nice finish for this holiday meal.

“Our customers like us for our very traditional and old-fashioned taste,” says Robby Morgenstein of Miller’s East Coast Deli. The roots of the Ashkenazi cuisine and the atmosphere at his two delis reach back to Morgenstein’s childhood, when his mother, Rae, would serve chopped liver, matzah ball soup, brisket, roast vegetables, yellow rice, tsimmes, and a sweet kugel dessert to her husband, three sons, daughter and extended family.

Robby Morgenstein

“We had this big brass coffee tray on a stand in the living room and she would make this huge buffet of dips and spreads. When you walked into the house you saw all this,” he says — and that was before you sat down to dinner.

“My mother was a great cook,” Morgenstein recalls. “Her mother taught her how to make gefilte fish, and she made the most wonderful meatballs and cabbage — one of my favorite things of all time as a kid. My whole restaurant is based on my childhood.”

His mother was the inspiration for many recipes at Miller’s, and his family’s connections to a Baltimore delicatessen gave the restaurant its name. (A cousin owned the original Miller’s Deli in Baltimore.) Morgenstein first opened in San Francisco in 2001, but building issues and the economic climate took their toll. Miller’s reopened on Polk Street in 2004.

The San Rafael shop opened in 2012. It is larger, has more seating and features more of the traditional Eastern European Jewish foods, such as smoked fish, than the S.F. location.

The High Holy Days keep Miller’s extremely busy, with customers ordering potato kugel, matzah kugel, tsimmes, apricot-braised corned beef and other items to go from the deli’s a la carte and catering menus for Rosh Hashanah dinners, as well as smoked fish platters for the Yom Kippur break-fast.

“Both days of Rosh Hashanah we get hit pretty hard after services,” with folks coming in for a nosh or late lunch, Morgenstein says. Evening diners tend to be local hotel guests rather than his regulars.

In recent years, Morgenstein has been too busy at the delis to cook for himself in his Novato home, but his ideal Rosh Hashanah dinner menu would include chopped liver, matzah ball soup, brisket like his mother used to make, a green vegetable, maybe a sweet tsimmes and a kugel for dessert.

Perhaps because her mother was an uninspired cook, Joyce Goldstein didn’t grow up in the thrall of brisket, tsimmes and other Eastern European specialties. It was the time spent traveling, cooking and eating in Italy and around the Mediterranean that influenced and led Goldstein to start a cooking school, work at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and open Square One Restaurant in San Francisco in 1984.

Joyce Goldstein

Until it closed in 1996, Square One featured dishes from throughout the Mediterranean region — not just Italian or Provençal cuisine but Turkish, Spanish, Greek, Moroccan and more.

But Goldstein didn’t really investigate the Jewish traditions within these cuisines until customers began requesting it.

“When I had Square One, I had customers who didn’t want to cook for Passover and wanted me to, so I started researching,” she says. “I did this to keep my customers happy.” The byproduct of those requests is a series of cookbooks on the traditional Jewish foods and food-related customs of Italy and the northern and southern Mediterranean regions. “There is a vast repertoire of delicious recipes out there,” Goldstein adds.

Her newest project, still in the “early early stages,” is a “Mediterranean Jewish cookbook for the Jew who wants to eat healthy food with a broader palate.”

The most recent of Goldsteini’s 26 books, “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (University of California Press, 2013), is both the inside story and a history of the birth and development of California cuisine, with nearly 200 interviews with chefs, purveyors, farmers and others.

Goldstein will be traveling on Rosh Hashanah this year, so she won’t be cooking for her children and grandchildren in her San Francisco home. But she did offer a menu for the High Holy Days, mostly featuring Mediterranean recipes. “I’m just not an apples and honey girl,” she jokes.

“I’d make a matzah ball soup because the kids like it, and maybe chopped liver. I make a mean chopped liver but don’t make it often.”

For a fish course she’d serve a Moroccan dish of fish steaks in a golden saffron sauce with cilantro that’s traditional for Rosh Hashanah and is pictured on the cover of her cookbook “Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean” (Chronicle Books, 2002).

The main course would be her Algerian Tagine of Chicken with Quince. It is a traditional New Year’s dish in that region and highlights quince, a fruit just coming into season by Rosh Hashanah (although apples can be used instead). She would also serve couscous and spinach sautéed with pine nuts and raisins. Dessert might be a sweet phyllo pastry or an Italian hazelnut cake that Goldstein’s family enjoys with strawberries and blood oranges.

Bay Area pros offer recipes for New Year’s feast

Robby Morgenstein’s Matzah Balls

Makes about 36

8 eggs

1⁄2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups matzah meal

1⁄4 tsp. baking powder

1⁄4 tsp. granulated onion

Salt to taste

Ground white pepper to taste

Beat eggs in bowl and stir in oil. In a separate bowl, whisk together the matzah meal, baking powder, granulated onion, salt and pepper. Add all the wet ingredients to the dry ones at one time. Very gently mix with a wooden spoon just until the ingredients are combined, being very careful to not overmix the batter, which would result in very dense knaidlach (matzah balls).

Cover and let the mixture rest for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. Gently roll into 1-inch balls and simmer, covered, in salted water or chicken stock for 30-45 minutes until tender all the way through.

Morgenstein Family Brisket

Serves  4-6

4 lb. brisket (or use an 8-10 lb. brisket and double the  recipe)

1 tsp. salt plus additional to taste

1 tsp. ground black pepper plus additional to taste

2 tsp. granulated onion

1 lb. peeled onions, cut into eighths

1 lb. small roasting potatoes, scrubbed

1 lb. celery stalks, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 Tbs. tomato paste

1 cup red wine

1 cup beef stock, divided

1 Tbs. Wondra Quick Mixing Flour

Meat thermometer or instant-read thermometer

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Trim fat cap to ¼-inch. Combine salt, pepper and granulated onion and rub all over meat. Scatter onions, potatoes, celery and carrots on bottom of flame-proof roasting pan. Place brisket on rack over vegetables. Place pan in center of oven. (If using a meat thermometer insert it in the thickest part of the brisket now.) Roast for several hours (timing will vary depending on meat, oven, thickness and other conditions). Check meat thermometer or with instant read thermometer in thickest part and remove brisket from oven when the thermometer reads 187 degrees. Wrap brisket tightly in aluminum foil, letting it rest for at least 30-45 minutes before carving.

Remove vegetables from pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm to serve with meat.

Remove fat from roasting pan and discard. Put roasting pan on top of stove (over two burners if necessary). Deglaze over medium-low heat with tomato paste, red wine and all but 2 Tbs. of beef stock, scraping up any browned-on bits. Bring to a simmer. Mix flour with remaining stock until smooth and stir in. Simmer until desired consistency is reached.

Slice the brisket against the grain in thin slices. Serve with vegetables and sauce.

Mediterranean Brisket

Adapted from “The Complete Meat Cookbook” by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly

Serves 8, with leftovers

8-10 lb. whole beef brisket, with the deckle (fatty edge) left on

2 tsp. salt, plus additional to taste

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus additional to taste

2 Tbs. oil from sun-dried tomatoes (see below)

3-4 medium onions, thinly sliced

2 cups canned tomato puree

1⁄3 cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and chopped

2 bay leaves

11⁄2 tsp. dried thyme

2 cups of beef stock

2 cups dry red wine

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the brisket all over with 2 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. black pepper. Heat oil in a large oven-proof and flame-proof Dutch oven or roasting pan over medium-high heat. Brown the brisket on all sides. Remove meat and pour off all but 1 Tbs. of fat from pan. Put in onions, tomato puree, sun-dried tomatoes, bay leaves and thyme and stir well to combine. Put brisket back into pan and spoon some of the onions and tomatoes over the top. Add stock and wine and bring to a simmer.

Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and put on the lid to form a tight seal. Bake for 31⁄2 to 4 hours, or until it is fork tender (timing will vary). Peel back the foil to check. (You can also cut off a small slice and taste it.)

Remove meat to a platter and cover loosely with foil to keep warm. Degrease the sauce and taste for salt and pepper and add if needed.

To serve, cut meat into 3⁄8-inch slices, napped with sauce. Or refrigerate sliced meat and sauce separately to serve the next day. Before serving, remove any congealed fat and then reheat the meat gently in the sauce.

Algerian Tagine of Chicken with Quince (or Apples)

Adapted from “Saffron Shores” by Joyce Goldstein

Serves 6

2 lbs. quince or tart, firm apples, peeled, cored and cut into eighths

Pomegranate molasses as needed

1⁄2 cup peanut oil

41⁄2-5 lbs. chicken, cut into serving pieces

3 onions, chopped

1⁄2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

Salt to taste

Cook the quince in simmering water to cover until they are tender and have turned pink, 35-45 minutes. Set aside in their poaching liquid. Add a bit of pomegranate molasses if the quince’s color has not come up or if using the apples.

In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat the oil over high heat and brown the chicken on all sides. Set aside. In the fat remaining in pan, sauté the onions over medium heat until golden, 15-20 minutes. Stir in the nutmeg and cinnamon and cook 5 minutes longer. Add the chicken and any accumulated juices, cover pan and braise for about 20 minutes. Add the cooked quince and some of the quince liquids. Simmer 15 minutes longer or until chicken is tender. Season to taste with salt.

Bruce Aidells’ Caramelized Spiced Carrots

Serves 14-16

11⁄2 cups pomegranate molasses

1⁄4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1 tsp. ground cumin

1⁄2 tsp. ground cardamom

1⁄4 cup freshly grated ginger root

1⁄4 tsp. Aleppo pepper, chili flakes or ground cayenne red pepper

1⁄2 cup water

1⁄4 cup lemon juice

4 Tbs. olive oil

41⁄2 lbs. carrots, peeled and stems trimmed (See Notes)

4 Tbs. butter cut into smal dice, or 4 additional Tbs. olive oil

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste


3⁄4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (see Notes)

3⁄4 cup toasted pine nuts

1⁄4 cup chiffonade basil leaves (see Notes)

1⁄4 cup chiffonade mint leaves (see Notes)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix together pomegranate molasses, nutmeg, cumin, cardamom, ginger, red pepper, water, lemon juice and 4 Tbs. olive oil. Mix with carrots. Toss with diced butter or additional oil. Divide carrots and cooking liquid onto 2-3 rimmed baking pans, making sure the carrots are in a single layer. (You will need room to stir so don’t overcrowd.)

Roast for 10 minutes, then stir, roll and baste, spooning the sauce over the carrots. Add a little water if they are too dry. Repeat every 10 minutes until carrots are sticky and tender. (About 40-50 minutes). Taste and sprinkle with salt and pepper as needed.

Garnish with seeds, nuts, basil and mint just before serving.

Notes:  Aidells recommends using a variety of carrots including maroon, Belgian white, yellow and red in addition to the standard orange. To get fresh pomegranate seeds, cut pomegranate in half horizontally. Hold cut-side down over a bowl and smack smartly with a large wooden spoon. Remove any small pieces of inner membrane before serving. To chiffonade fresh herbs, stack leaves and tightly roll (like a cigarette), then slice very thinly across the thin end of the roll.

Sauerkraut and Cabbage Braised in Dark Lager

Adapted from “Real Beer & Good Eats” by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly

Serves 8

1⁄4 lb. pastrami, diced

1-2 lb. head of green cabbage, thinly sliced

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

1 carrot, split and thinly sliced

1-11⁄2 lbs. sauerkraut, drained

1⁄2 tsp. caraway seeds

2 Tbs. Hungarian paprika

1⁄2 tsp. dried thyme

1 Tbs. tomato paste

1 tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

1 cup dark lager

Salt to taste

In a large, non-aluminum pot or Dutch oven, fry the pastrami over medium heat until lightly browned. Add cabbage, onions and carrot. Cover and cook until the vegetables begin to wilt, stirring occasionally (about 10 minutes). Stir in the sauerkraut, caraway seeds, paprika, thyme, tomato paste, black pepper and lager. Cover and simmer over low heat for about 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours, until everything is tender. Add more beer if needed. Taste for salt before serving.

Hazelnut Sponge Cake

Adapted from “Cucina Ebraica” by Joyce Goldstein

Serves 8-10

10 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar, divided

Grated zest and juice of 1 orange

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

11⁄2 cups finely ground toasted and skinned hazelnuts (see Notes)

6 Tbs. matzah cake meal, sifted

2 Tbs. potato starch

Pinch of salt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

Sliced strawberries and oranges, optional

In bowl, combine egg yolks, 1⁄2 cup of sugar, orange and lemon zests and juices. Beat with electric mixer until thick and pale and it holds a 3-second slowly dissolving ribbon when the beaters are lifted.

In a second bowl using clean, dry beaters, beat egg whites until foamy. Gradually beat in the remaining sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whites into the egg-yolk mixture, then fold in the hazelnuts, matzah cake meal, potato starch, salt and vanilla. Pour batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan and smooth top.

Place in a cold oven. Turn on oven to 325 degrees and bake until a toothpick inserted into center of cake emerges clean, about 45 minutes. Invert cake (still in pan) onto a wire rack. Let cool completely, then lift off pan and transfer cake to serving platter. Serve with sliced strawberries and oranges, if desired.

Sliced strawberries and oranges:  Mix 3 cups sliced strawberries with 2 cups halved orange or blood orange sections.

Notes: To toast, skin and grind hazelnuts, preheat oven to 350 degrees and place about 1⁄2 lb. shelled hazelnuts (also known as filberts) in a single layer on ungreased baking tray(s). Place in center of oven and roast for about 10-15 minutes until lightly colored and the dark brown papery skins are blistered. Remove from oven. Wrap nuts in a kitchen towel and let sit for 1 minute. Rub nuts in towel to work off skins (some bits will remain on). Let cool completely. Place cool nuts in food processer and pulse on and off until they are ground into a cornmeal-like consistency. Measure ground nuts and use as directed. — Recipes compiled by Faith Kramer

on the cover

photo/courtesy bruce aidells

Bruce Aidells, chef and founder of Aidells Sausage Company

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].