Passover In New York
New Recipes and Shopping Tips
As a non-Jew who married into a Jewish family, I have my own answers to the Passover question, "why is this night different from all other nights?" To begin with, the cook in me can't help but notice we're eating foods not served any other day of the year. Like gefilte fish with beet horseradish. Okay, so I don't love it and once a year is enough.
But I understand why for many, Passover is a favorite holiday. It's loved for its messages of renewal and optimism and the chance to gather around a table with family and friends, to raise a glass and share a symbolic, satisfying meal.
When you live in an ecumenical family and are an outsider to a faith, ritual or custom that others have practiced all their lives, you can bring a wider-eyed curiosity and self-consciousness to things that others know instinctively. I particularly love how Passover foods are metaphors. That there is sweetness and bitterness on the plate. And in my family, like many others, I love the conflicts over whose recipes for traditional favorites (matzo balls, haroset, brisket) are the best.
It's risky to make suggestions for the traditional Seder meal because the definition of "traditional" varies greatly. What is familiar to a family of Eastern European descent will be different than that of a Sephardic Jew from North Africa. Some will serve roasted meats while others will not; some will have favorite dishes made with rice and artichokes while others must have beef brisket. Two of the only foods that seem to be at every Passover dinner are matzo and haroset, but even these have multiple spellings -- matzoh/matza/matze or charoset/charoses. We Irish Catholics don't have such variances, thanks to our imprimatur and nihil obstat (that's a little Latin joke).
So absent childhood Seder memories and having no grandmother who suffered the arguments about whether or not to add sugar to the gefilte fish recipe, I can only make suggestions about buying groceries and cooking.
Passover Shopping and Cooking Tips
- If you're making your own gefilte fish from traditional fish like carp or pike, keep in mind that these freshwater fish are not usually kept in stock. So call your fishmonger in advance to make sure they're available. If the fishmonger requires you to buy a whole fish, buy two times the weight of what you'll need filleted: for example, if you need 2 pounds of pike for your recipe, buy 4 pounds of whole fish. Ask the fish monger to fillet and grind the fish for you, reserving the head and tails for the stock.
- While I think gefilte fish is the most distained Passover food, there are ways to be innovative with flavor while remaining authentic. Maybe this is the year to start a new tradition with gefilte fish made with salmon, a fresh water fish. In 1996 in The New York Times Florence Fabricant offered a recipe for Salmon Gefilte Fish that is an appealing alternative. We've adapted her recipe for you.
- Need a good fish monger? New York has several so search our merchant database for one near where you live or work. Among our best are Dorian's Seafood on the Upper East Side, Citarella (multiple locations), The Lobster Place (Chelsea Market and Greenwich Village), Marino & Sons in Astoria, and Fish Tales in Cobble Hill.
- If you want ingredients that are kosher for Passover, many of the city's bigger groceries, like Fairway and Zabar's, will set up special sections for holiday groceries. You can also shop at one of the kosher markets, such as The Kosher Marketplace on the Upper West Side, Park East Kosher on the Upper East Side, and Pomegranate in Brooklyn.
- I think my favorite Passover food is haroset, a mixture of finely chopped apples and other fruit, nuts and spices, held together with a little honey and red wine. I can happily make an entire meal of a good haroset piled on squares of matzo. Instead of apples, others are made with pears, dates or dried fruit; some are all raw while some have cooked ingredients. As with everything in the meal, tradition informs the recipe. But a suggestion: because the haroset is often raw and popular with both children and adults, this is a good time to seek out locally grown fruit and organic nuts. Every ingredient is very evident in the mixture's flavor and texture, so choose thoughtfully and take the time to chop the fruit in appealing, equal-sized pieces.
- Choosing your Passover wine can be a challenge since many are frankly, not very good. I used to have a brother-in-law who hosted large crowds for Passover meals but his wine choices were always too sweet for my husband and me. Our solution was to contribute bottles of a favorite Italian kosher wine, reserving one for ourselves that we'd keep hidden on the floor between our chairs. He is no longer our brother-in-law but I don't think the furtive wine keeping had anything to do with it. But back to your Seder -- nearly every New York wine store has a kosher selection and many are excellent so maybe this is the year to try something different.
- We have some special Passover recipes this year at The City Cook. James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Barbara Kafka has shared her recipe for chicken soup, inspired by her grandmother, Dora, but perfected in Barbara's own kitchen. It's from Soup, A Way of Life, a book that any soup-loving city cook should have in their cookbook library.
- Barbara Kafka's chicken soup recipe calls for noodles but you can easily add matzo balls, either your own recipe or the one from the 2nd Avenue Deli that author Arthur Schwartz shared with us last year. You can also listen to our podcast with him about Passover cooking, something he knows quite a bit about, along with his James Beard and IACP award nominated book, Jewish Home Cooking.
Finally, we always love to visit Alan Kaufman, one of The Pickle Guys, at his Essex Street shop on the Lower East Side. Alan has spent his career making pickles and other traditional favorites of the many Jewish immigrants who once lived in the neighborhood. We've got a podcast about pickles with Alan in our Media & Podcast section. But when we went to do the recording, we found him out on the sidewalk, outside his garage-like, barrel-filled shop, getting ready to grind fresh horseradish for Passover -- an "only in New York" image we had to capture.
Have a sweet Passover.