Yes, Passover started at sundown on Monday. For a Jewish girl like me it's Pesach and time for Elijah's cup. For most of you it just means you'll see a display with matzoh at the grocery store, probably not far from the Easter candy.
I always thought once I lived in Brooklyn I'd eat a lot of Jewish food. Prior to my move there in 2003 I'd lived most of my life in Arcata, then in the Hudson Valley and in Edinburgh, Scotland; hardly torrid hotbeds of Jew diaspora. Growing up here in Humboldt I listened to my mother's anecdotes of Chicago in the '50s and watched a lot of Woody Allen, and I came to equate tzimmes and kishke with loud voices, endless hand-wringing, and intellect. That's the life for me, I thought!
The first place I lived in New York was Williamsburg, now known primarily for its embarrassment of hip bars, American Apparels and high rents. Back then, we white kids hadn't yet succeeded in pushing the less stalwart parts of the Hassidic community over to Bushwick, and the glittering dusty streets were furry with tall hats and dark with wigs. I was thrilled at the proximity of so many of my distant brethren. Oddly, they didn't seem to warm to me. Intimidated by my stunning good looks, perhaps? Or was I behind the times in wig trends? Sadly, neither was the case; I just needed to be escorted by a man. Once I was, they still weren't bubbling over with enthusiasm, but they'd at least respond to direct questions (by him).
On a recommendation we checked out Glatt Supermarket, which smelled funny and was dusty. I'd just been to Israel so I knew which kind of halvah was safe, and we got some excellent Brooklyn-made baba ganoush and a few boxes of matzoh. Then we walked over to Gottlieb's Restaurant, a kosher Ashkenazi joint on Roebling St. Timidly maneuvering past tables of wagging beards and muttered Yiddish, we seated ourselves and ordered cholent from the friendly young Hassidic waiter.
Cholent is a hearty stew made of beans and barley and brisket, sort of like baked beans but not quite as sweet. On the Sabbath, when observant Jews are not allowed to cook, it's a very popular dish historically because it can be made on Friday and cooked slowly for 24 hours. It's one of those dishes that improves over time.
Jewish cooking varies considerably the world over, but slow-cooked dishes -- as well as sweet and sour because of vinegar's preserving properties, plus sugar to cut the acidity -- are ubiquitous, no matter the nation or century, since observant Jews are forbidden from cooking on the Sabbath. Gottlieb's cholent was good, cheap, and nourishing: melting meat and sugar-tinged beans, with sharp dill pickles on the side to cut the stodge.
The Hassidic community of Williamsburg, I came to realize as I wandered the aisles of Glatt and perused the menu at Gottlieb's, has a different cuisine from that of the traditional American reformed Jew. There are plenty of overlaps, of course -- kishke, matzoh, noodle kugel, pickles. But the Hassidic community has more international influences -- Middle-Eastern in particular. There is notably less luxury. That may simply be a Brooklyn vs. Manhattan thing. In the great Jewish delis in Manhattan there is shmaltz on every table, and cole slaw, and chopped liver, and pumpernickel-rye, and corned beef, and most of all, abundance.
When you order a bagel and lox at the Carnegie Deli what you get is a bagel absolutely subsumed under an inch of dairy-free cream cheese (kosher!) and a huge, glistening mountain of buttery lox the color of a Hawaiian sunset, festooned with garlands of crisp red onion and rounds of tomato, bombarded with shrapnel of pepper and capers, poked with pickles and embraced by a lettuce leaf. I'm lucky if I can eat a quarter at one sitting. The generous portion offsets the sting of the exorbitant price ($22.95!). In contrast, the Hassidic stores and delis that I observed served fare that was less Borscht-Belt, more Jerusalem: hummus, kabobs, stuffed grape leaves; and prices and portions were smaller (my cholent at Gottlieb's was $5). Israeli imports abound.
Really, the most vivid difference between eating out at American-Jewish delis and Hassidic places for me is that of familiarity of culture. Hassidic restaurants feel like traveling to a different country; the food is recognizable but somehow different. It's like eating someone else's mom's meatloaf for the first time. The silverware looks funny. I'm kind of nervous about ordering the kugel; it looked suspicious somehow (those better be currants!). Of course all of this is what makes eating out interesting. Live on the edge, Jew-style; that's my motto.
I include below a simple and wonderful Parsley and Tahini Salad I loved to eat in Tel Aviv. This recipe is adapted from Joyce Goldstein's Sephardic Flavors. It's a very vibrant, healthy dish and an excellent springtime tonic.
Sometimes, though, I like a staid, homecooked meal. Matzoh Brei was an old standby for late-night breakfast when I went to college. The ingredients keep well; it's cheap and easy and, best of all, yummy, buttery and familiar. Its origins are Ashkenazi and it's a common breakfast food during Passover, when, of course, you're only supposed to eat unleavened bread. Some Jews (Hasidic) won't eat it during Passover, though, because it's gebrochts, matzo that has come into contact with water. Same thing with matzoh ball soup. Go figure.
Parsley Tahini Salad
2 cups chopped parsley
1/4 cup chopped scallions or chives
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts or chopped walnuts
6 warmed pita breads, cut into quarters
1/4 cup tahini
6 T. water
juice 2 lemons
salt and pepper to taste
Whir up dressing ingredients in a blender. Taste -- enough salt and lemon are crucial in this dish. Adjust if necessary. Toss salad with dressing; serve by scooping with pita.
2 eggs, beaten, in a shallow wide dish
1 tablespoon butter
salt to taste
In a sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Meanwhile, break the matzoh into large-ish pieces and soak in the beaten egg for a minute or so. Pour into sauce pan, sprinkle with salt and lightly fry until egg is set and a little browning has commenced.
If you want savory, serve with ketchup and ground pepper. You could also add some minced onion in with the egg. For sweet, sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with jam.