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“Just in Time for Passover...The Best Matzoh Ball Recipe (and more) from Food Maven Arthur Schwartz”
Jewish Home Cooking is not exactly the sexiest culinary genre. It’s doubtful that Bubby’s House of Brisket and Cholent would get a sizzling reception in the Meatpacking. But it is a cuisine that’s rich with history and memory, and it’s one that Arthur Schwartz, author of “Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food: An Opinionated History with Legendary Recipes,” and “Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania” (among others), lovingly embraces in his new cookbook: Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited ($35, Ten Speed Press).
The first line of his book gives you an idea of the theme of Schwartz’s culinary journey: “Food connects us to our past.” Five words have never been more true. How many of us mark milestones with meals? How many of us are turned back into children when we eat a dish from when we were little, or brought to tears when we start to cook a recipe of someone close to us who’s no longer with us. From where I sit, as much as it is a source of nutrition, food is also a sponge that sops up memories. It can tell a story of one person and the history of a people, and that’s exactly what Schwartz has done in his new book. Schwartz takes us from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the streets of the Lower East Side and brings the history of Jewish food to life with personal stories and loads of lore. As for the recipes, he’s updated them all, making them more suitable for contemporary palates and those with heart conditions. You’ll find recipes for every holiday and every day, from plates of pickled lox with pumpernickel slathered with sweet butter, to moist pot-roasted brisket, sweet and sour stuffed cabbage, and more traditional old world dishes like shlishkas (Hungarian potato dumplings), and of course, the crowned prince of all Jewish meals: chicken soup with (light but sturdy) matzoh balls.
With Passover around the corner, I thought a chat with Arthur about his book and his favorite Passover recipes might be fun. This book makes a great host gift if you’re attending a Seder. It will last a lot longer than that bottle of kosher wine.
Strong Buzz: Where did the idea for the book come from?
Arthur Schwartz: I’ve been asked to write this book several times in my career and I kept putting it off, and now I feel like I have 30- and 20-somethings in my life and they don’t really know about this food. It’s their heritage and I wanted to put it down before everyone forgot about it. People dismissed Jewish food as unhealthy it will kill you. Gentiles are intrigued by it, but Jews put it down and while everyone else is discovering their grandmother’s food we’re saying it’s going to kill you. I worked hard to make the recipes more healthful if necessary. Jewish food tastes better the day after its cooked gives you time to skim off the fat.
SB: Do you think people are going to want to eat this sort of food?
Arthur: Yes. Flanken may have a funny name but it’s short ribs cut in the opposite direction. You pay $42 for Daniel Boulud’s short ribs and we’re putting down Flanken. It’s better than short ribs because it exposes a lot of the fat and it’s tasty. Beef cheeks are something Mario Batali made his career on this is traditional Eastern European meat. Cholent is just like cassoulet. Shlishkas are Hungarian potato dumplings that are identical to potato gnocchi. Also, in the old country Jews were not really meat eaters because could not afford it. But every shtetl had goats and cows so we have great vegetarian cuisine. In the book we have three different kinds of vegetarian chopped liver.
SB: Is this the right time for a book like this?
AS: I think so. My niece is 26 and they’re all getting married now and they want to know about this food. They’re making homes and they want to know what their grandmother’s cooked. I went to my cousin’s house for Hanukah to make latkes and she said, bring the skillet. I said you have four kids how do you not have a skillet? She said, we eat pasta and pizza and do take out. So this book is for them. For a generation that needs this.
SB: How did you begin your research for the book?
Arthur: I didn’t have to do much research. This is the food I was taught as a boy. These are my family recipes just tweaked a bit. My grandmother was born in Brooklyn but her parents were from a schtetl outside of Minsk. My father’s side is Hungarian and it was my Austro-Hungarian grandfather who was a chef and taught me a lot of cooking and how to handle knives. And what five-year old boy doesn’t want to handle a knife?
SB: Since it’s almost Passover, I want to ask you about matzoh balls. What’s the secret?
Arthur: I don’t like sinkers, they’re bad matzoh balls. Though I guess you like what you grew up with no matter how disgusting. I like firm but light matzoh balls and the secret is in the way Abe Lebewohl from Second Avenue Deli used to make them—with baking powder, which allows for a stiff batter that still comes out light. In the old days you couldn’t use it because it was against the spirit of the holiday because of the leavening. But now there is kosher for Passover baking powder. They never deflate so you can make them ahead and they actually freeze beautifully.
SB: What are your other favorite Passover recipes?
Arthur: I love matzoh meal pancakes and make them all year. I don’t know how I lived without matzoh meal all the time. It’s great for breading meats, cutlets or fish and for thickening. You mix eggs, water and matzoh meal with salt or sugar if you want something sweet. If you want to make them fluffy and high you can fold in egg whites. You can make them with grated onion in the batter. They’re delicious even sprinkled with sugar and applesauce. Serve them in oil for meat but they’re fabulous fried in butter for a dairy.
I also have a recipe for matzoh farfel pudding with mushrooms that was something my mother made, but I actually prefer potato pudding which is a recipe I worked on to make it high and light, so that’s a good Passover thing. I would also make the Potted Flanken with Vegetables. Flanken is delicious, it’s not elegant but I don’t know how elegant brisket is. Any supermarket carries it.
SB: What about Passover desserts?
Arthur: In my family we always had my grandmother’s walnut cake, and wine poached pears, which are both in the book. They’re fabulous and I make them all year round. And then there’s a wonderful apple cake in the book, which is not from my family, but I also make that all year. It’s very moist almost pudding-y. The batter is just eggs sugar and matzoh meal layered with apples and cinnamon and walnuts. I made the spicing more sophisticated because I ran out of cinnamon and filled it out with nutmeg, mace, ground coriander, and ginger and now it’s even better.
SB: What was the hardest part of the book?
Arthur: The hardest part was deciding what I had to leave out. I had to leave out a few things, not too many, but since this is my book all I can see is what I have left out, but no one else knows. It’s hard to decide. I put in two pastries for rugelach; I could have done a whole book of kugels.
SB: What was the best part of writing the book?
Arthur: The most gratifying thing was rediscovering this food. I am trying to record a forgotten cuisine, and in fact I guess I am. I had to put it down now before they forget it all. I hope people see that recipes are more contemporary than they imagined they could be.
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