Wednesday, March 28, 2012


The concept of having a cocktail party during Passover is one that is not often considered given all the dietary restrictions, but that doesn’t mean it is an impossible undertaking.  There are many fine kosher for Passover wines, and recently I discovered a brand of gin that is K for P as well. So, bring on the martinis!
Now that we have the drinks out of the way, deciding what small tidbits to serve (and which can be served) is easy. There are many holiday friendly cheeses that could find their way on a lovely cheese platter. Scatter some dried fruits such as figs and apricots around, and add some bowls of spiced almonds and cashews (peanuts might be a no-no for some folks). Corn is not a Passover-sanctioned food, so corn chips are out, but potatoes are on the approved list. You can pair homemade potato chips (or store-bought ones) with a caramelized onion dip like this one, and your guests will be thrilled. For some color, the bowl of dip can be placed in the center of a platter of beautifully blanched asparagus spears, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, and broccoli florets.  Since this party is in a no-meat zone--cheese, that is dairy, is being served, and we are not mixing milk and meat products here--a variety of fresh salsas, both sweet and savory would also be flavorful additions. They can be served with sheets of whole-wheat and egg matzohs that have been broken into random shards.
A new addition to my cocktail party this year will be savory sables (sa-blays), buttery cocktail cookies. The recipe is a variation on the theme from the monthly #baketogether group that is initiated by Abby Dodge. Abby’s original recipe called for Parmesan cheese and a bit of cayenne pepper. I have taken the liberty of making it kosher for Passover by substituting a combination of matzoh cake meal and potato starch for the flour. I’ve also added a Latin flavor substituting Manchego, a Spanish sheep's milk cheese and smoked paprika (pimenton). In the preparation of making this dough, Abby introduces a technique called “fraisage." It is typically used when making pie dough and other flaky doughs and creates layers of flour and butter. It is not too difficult to master, and it makes the world of difference in the texture. 

While the cake meal/potato starch mixture does not create as sandy a texture as the traditional flour, I think this is still a pretty darn good kosher for Passover stand-in. In fact, these sables are good enough to serve outside a cocktail party--with just a glass of one of those great Passover wines that are in the markets now.
  • 1 1/3 cups (6 ounces) matzoh cake meal
  • 1 Tbsp. potato starch
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Manchego cheese (or other sharp kosher for Passover cheese)
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or more to taste) smoked paprika (pimenton)
  • 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 7 slices, well chilled
  • 2 tablespoons + 1 1/2 teaspoons very cold water
To make the dough:
1. Put the matzoh cake meal, potato starch, cheese, salt and paprika in a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the butter pieces are slightly larger than pea size, about 10 to 12 pulses depending on your machine. Drizzle the water evenly over the flour mixture. Pulse until the dough begins to form moist crumbs that are just beginning to clump together, about 8 or 9 more pulses depending on your machine.
2. Dump the moist crumbs onto the unfloured counter and gather into a pile. With the heel of you hand, push and gently smear the crumbs away from you until they start to come together in a cohesive dough. Two or three ‘smears’ should do the trick. Using a bench scraper, gather the dough together and turn it about 45 degrees and give it one or two more smears.  Gather the dough together and shape the dough into a 7 1/4-inch long cylinder. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very firm, about 3 hours, or up to 2 days.
3. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F.  Line two large baking sheets with parchment. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut the logs into 1/4-inch slices and arrange about 1 inch apart (they don’t spread much at all) on the prepared sheets. Bake, one sheet at a time, until nutty brown around the edges, 16 to 18 minutes. Serve slightly warm or room temperature.
4. The dough can be shaped and frozen for up to a month and then thawed for about an hour on the counter or in the refrigerator overnight. Likewise, tuck the baked and cooled sables in a heavy duty zip top bag and stash them in the freezer. Thaw at room temperature and warm them for a few minutes at 325°F to refresh the flavors.

Monday, March 26, 2012


This was definitely the Where’s Waldo of winters here in Boston. And since this was my first “winter” here--one I anticipated with much trepidation, I am not complaining. (In fact, I would like to think that my presence here is partially responsible for the warmer temps.) Now that we have officially arrived at Spring, that for a few days seemed more like Summer, I don’t think we can accurately predict exactly what’s going on. I do worry about our eco-system and how the very unnaturalness of it all will affect our flora and fauna long-term. That is yet to be seen, and I only know that I will be anticipating next winter with even more fear than before, since Mother Nature will essentially be owing us one.
Although the past week had been downright balmy, the weather that followed over the weekend was nasty and cold.  Judging from the extended forecast, Summer (and Spring) won’t be back for at least a little while, so it is safe to assume that a bowl of hot vegetable soup will still be a welcome addition to the menu.  Many years ago, my mom had a go-to soup that was delicious and easy to prepare as long as she had an onion, a potato, a few fresh vegetables in the fridge, and a can of Campbell’s Vegetarian Vegetable Soup. I think my favorite go-to soup is even tastier and it doesn’t require the canned soup and all the sodium that went with it.  Like Mom, I always try to have certain staple ingredients on hand at all times: onions, garlic, and carrots and celery. These veggies can be added, not only to soup, but to pasta sauces, meatloaf, and stir-fries.  I also make sure to always have at least one bag of mixed vegetables in the freezer. These come in handy when the carrots and celery in the fridge have seen better days.
To make the soup: Add one large, diced onion to three tablespoons of olive oil that have been warming in a large saucepan. Once the onion has softened add three cloves of minced garlic to the pot and cook until fragrant (but not long enough for the garlic to brown). Give your pepper grinder a few turns and add about a teaspoon of salt to the mixture. Crumble in some dried thyme or oregano, and if you've got some fresh herbs, chop them up and add them as well.
Now is your turn to get creative. Chop up whatever additional vegetables you may have in your fridge or pantry--white potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash--and add them to the pot. (About six cups total will do.) Stir all with a wooden spatula making sure to scrape up all the caramelized oniony bits on the bottom. Add to that four cups of water, chicken stock or vegetable stock. If you have some demi glace de poulet, add a spoonful of that. Dump in a can of crushed stewed tomatoes if you’ve got one, or a cup of tomato sauce will do as well.  Allow the mixture to come to a slow boil and then turn it down to a simmer.  For some extra flavor you might want to add a small nubbin of Parmesan or Romano cheese. Allow the soup to simmer for about 30 minutes, until all the vegetables have softened. Once that happens you can add a hearty handful of chopped spinach (fresh or frozen), and cook for a little while longer. Taste for additional seasoning, and add a thimbleful of balsamic vinegar for some zing, if desired.
Fish out the chunk of cheese. Get some soup bowls, and enjoy. A little spoonful of freshly grated parmesan on top would be lovely.  Now you are fully equipped to wait it out until Spring really arrives.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


On an almost-Spring Sunday, that seemed more like Summer, I and a few other Boston Brunchers met in the indigo-tiled kitchen of a lovely home in Cambridge. We came to swap stories about food (what else?), blogging (we’re all bloggers), and restaurants, and to hear from our hosts, The Farm School, and learn about their amazing programs
Situated on 300 acres in Athol, MA, The Farm School is an educational school where non-farming people experience first hand how to be close to the earth. Their programs for youngsters and their teachers dealing with the work and care of a farm are all hands-on.  So successful were these programs, that they are now a national model of how to engage children in work and the land. In addition, they provide a year-long “learn to farm” residential training program for adults where subjects such as Animal Husbandry and Marketing are also included. We need to be encouraging and instructing more people in this country on how to farm, and how to do it properly and sustainably, and this program sounds like an amazing way to do just that.
The Farm School CSA which began in 1999, serves 150 families who pick up their shares at two drop-off sites in town, one for pre-boxed shares, and one arranged market-style. My knowledge of CSA’s was very limited when I lived in California. SInce moving to New England I have developed a huge love and appreciation of them. You definitely get a different perspective of agriculture and the fruits and vegetables you are eating when you can actually meet and talk to the people who are growing your food. The taste and quality does not compare to supermarket produce. (They also have a meat CSA.)
And since a large part of Boston Brunchers’ get-togethers deals with BRUNCH, the Farm School did not disappoint in that department. We were served a tremendous meal (on just-cut maple slab “plates”) that showcased the delicious (excuse the pun) fruits of their bounty. Pork belly, braised in Maple Mead, that was tender and unctuous, bacon that tasted like candy, eggs with yolks that were as orange as pumpkins and creamy as butter, and sauteed spinach that was earthy and sweet, although we were assured no sugar was added. The meal was topped off with thick squares of Bread Pudding made with Brioche from Iggy’s Bakery

I highly recommend you check out The Farm School website, and go visit the farm. And then think about becoming a member of their CSA, where you can develop a deep intimate relationship with people who actually grow the food you eat.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


My dad was not a cook. He built skyscrapers in New York City, and his strong hands were more comfortable wielding the heavy steel of a hammer or a saw, than the gentle curves of a metal whisk. He was more adept at hoisting large wooden planks than swirling a wooden mixing spoon inside a soup pot.  I’d never seen him bake a cake or make a goulash like my mom, but for many years during my childhood, he rose even earlier than usual--which was at the crack of dawn--during Passover and prepared Matzoh Brei for my sister and myself. Matzoh Brei can be defined as Jewish French Toast with the matzoh substituting for the bread. Most Jewish households, regardless of whether they strictly observe the dietary restrictions of Passover or not, have their own way of preparing the dish. Some like it savory, in the shape of a pancake or a frittata, a little more on the eggy side, a little less. We had our own specifications and Dad’s way met every one of them. I have no idea where he got his recipe. It may have been my mom’s but hers never seemed to taste the same. And even when he would sometimes prepare it for us on the weekends, that Matzoh Brei just wasn’t as perfect.
Because his weekday ritual occurred so very early in the morning, we never saw him in his cooking mode, not even a glimpse. By the time we awakened, he was long gone, having taken the subway into the city. The wonderful breakfast treat he left behind was often on the stove, in a well-used nonstick skillet, covered with an inverted green milk-glass dinner plate. (This was our Passover dinnerware. And in spite of the fact that it was used every year for only eight days and nights, eventually, the entire set dwindled down to a mere few soup bowls.) 
While Dad’s prowess forty and fifty stories above the streets below was based solely on precision, his techniques in the kitchen were less so. Measuring spoons and cups were not for him. He would pour warm water into a metal mixing bowl (a “shissel”) and add the matzohs whole, breaking them up into random shapes with the back of his hand. We girls loved the smaller bits that became browned and crispy as they were fried, so Dad made sure we had lots of them. He soaked the matzoh pieces just until they became soft--too soft would be disaster. While they soaked and the pan was heating, he would take a large spoonful of “schmaltz,” rendered chicken fat, from a jar in the fridge. This was his secret ingredient; it was a staple in our house. (Dad would also slather it on his rye bread with abandon--he obviously was not too concerned with cholesterol, and I’m not certain whether he had reason to be anyway since he was always the picture of health.) 

The cream-colored dollop of fat would hiss as it plopped into the hot pan, eventually melting and coating the bottom. As it heated, it made low popping noises. The softened matzoh was gently combined with beaten egg, and then the yellow, glistening pieces were dumped into the hot, hazy fat. Once the entire concoction was browned, he would flip it and then brown the other side. Only then did he break up the pieces again with the back of a wooden spatula, and douse the top with a healthy shake of sugar. That snowy dusting soon became a crunchy, caramelized coating that my sister and I loved so much.
My dad was not a very demonstrative man, and to the outside world he may have even appeared gruff. He showed us love in more ways than I can say, but they were on his own terms. Back then I never thought about what he thought as he prepared this dish for us in the darkened kitchen while everyone else slept, and the sound of the clock ticking was the only sound he heard. This act was not one of obligation, but as I realize now, it was an act of sincere love--and just another way of him showing us, on his own terms.

As I said, my dad really didn't adhere to a recipe when making his Matzoh Brei. The closest one I found is from Joan Nathan's "Jewish Holiday Cookbook." It is a little light on the egg-to-matzoh ratio, and makes for a crispier end product. (That's how we liked it!) Additionally, butter or vegetable oil can be substituted for the chicken fat. (I will tell you that since I left my dad's house, schmaltz has never darkened my dooorway, but I am seriously considering making some just for this purpose.) If butter is used, the meal becomes a dairy meal, and in a kosher home such as ours was, it could not be served with any meat products. Just as Dad's version could not be served with any products containing milk.

                                                 MATZOH BREI

3 matzohs
2 whole eggs, beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. chicken fat, butter, parve margarine or vegetable oil
1/4c. granulated sugar
cinnamon, cinnamon/sugar, for topping

Pour warm water into a large mixing bowl. Place the matzohs in the bowl and break into pieces. Allow to soak for a few minutes. Drain and gently squeeze the matzohs dry.
Pour the fat of your choice into a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat.
Place the matzohs back in the bowl. Add the beaten eggs, salt, and half of the sugar. Mix well, without crumbing the matzoh.
Brei and the pieces have all browned, turn mixture out on a large platter.
Serve with additional sugar or cinnamon/sugar, if desired.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef [Book]

During the past few months I have been taking a “Food Memoir” writing class, and I've been enjoying it immensely. Not only has it reawakened my interest in writing, but it has introduced me to a wonderful group of people with whom I can now share my feelings, thoughts, and drafts on all things Memoir. Another aspect of the class has helped expand my world of published food memoirs. One of the most recent I have read has been “Blood, Bones & Butter” by Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of the much-lauded New York restaurant Prune. If my writing was one-tenth as good as Ms. Hamilton’s, I would be “money,” as they say.
In this beautifully written book, Ms. Hamilton details her journey, with all the literal and metaphorical twists and turns, that would eventually lead her to the present. It is a truly engaging story, sometimes blatantly gritty and infuriating, sometimes heart-wrenching, and it is crafted to perfection. The pages are virtually dripping with imagery so vivid, you feel as though you are in the story. There were many chapters that left me detesting the author, and thinking that I would never want to set foot in her restaurant. And just as often another chapter would bring me right back to wishing I could dine there immediately. This tale does very little to endear the reader to the writer, but I do recommend this book to lovers of food and lovers of good writing.