Certain culinary knowledge lives inside the minds of our parents or grandparents, and this knowledge is rarely ever written down. Even when we ask repeatedly for a recipe, we often get vagueries and estimations instead of exact quantities. For Passover this year, I've turned three of those imprecise memory-recipes into detailed, replicable ones.
When I think about Passover, the first recipe that comes to mind is matzo ball soup. Some people prefer their matzo balls to be light and fluffy, while others prefer firm and dense. In my family, the matzo balls are fluffy most years, but inexplicably dense other years—despite the fact that the same person cooks them every year. (This is where a written, standardized recipe comes in handy.)
I've tried to walk a fine line in my recipe for them, with matzo balls that hold their shape (slightly firm) yet still feel soft throughout (fluffy). The flavor of the matzo balls is enhanced by the savory drippings of a freshly roasted chicken—that schmaltz is the secret ingredient. The bones of the chicken are then used to make a fortified stock that is warming and deeply satisfying.
Gefilte fish is another essential part of the Passover meal, even though it can be highly controversial: Some people love it, while others refuse to try it. If you’re a skeptic, you should know that there is a huge difference between homemade gefilte fish and the stuff sold in glass jars at the supermarket. (I've tasted the jarred version at other people's seders, but my family always makes homemade. For some reason, my father will buy the jarred gefilte fish about a week before Passover. Maybe this gets him excited for the holiday?)
Those who prepare them from scratch are rewarded with a chilled and poached fish dish that highlights the mild, sweet flavor of whitefish. Put a little horseradish on top, and you'll see why gefilte fish has become (and has remained) a Passover tradition.
The cooking method used to make gefilte fish hearkens back to a time when poverty forced families to grind fish and mix it with matzo meal and sautéed onions in order to stretch small quantities farther. The result is a fish patty that is humble, but also moist and flavorful. Poaching the gefilte fish in a stock that's been reinforced with fresh thyme and leeks, and folding whipped egg whites into the ground fish mixture before poaching, brings out the flavor of the fish and ensures a soft and pleasant texture.
The final recipe, Passover brisket, is inspired by one of the matriarchs of my family, Libbie Miller. Her brisket is an example of how, when recipes get passed down verbally through generations, certain details may get lost. The more I tried to learn the precise details about Grandma Libbie’s brisket, the harder it became to differentiate it from my aunt’s neighbor’s brisket (thanks, Chris Rubenstein!).
In the end, I took inspiration from both of their recipes and created something new yet familiar. Her brisket, which is exceedingly juicy and tender, is rubbed with sweet paprika, topped with lots of onions and garlic, and cooked for hours. When the brisket comes out of the oven, the roasted onions and garlic are blended with the brisket juices to create a sauce that shines with the sort of savory depth that can only be achieved by hours of slow-cooking.
I think that it can be easy to take certain traditional dishes for granted.
They—this soup, gefilte fish, and brisket included—appear on the table year after year, and their taste and appearance is familiar to us. It's important we ask family members how these dishes are made, write down the recipes, and try to cook them ourselves—and one day we'll be able to teach someone else how to make them.
What are your family's Passover traditions? Share them—and the menu, and how you've adapted it yourself—in the comments.