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Forget family obligations—the second night of Passover belongs to James Beard. Since 2011, the James Beard Foundation in New York City has curated a seder-inspired meal, turning the kitchen over to some of the country’s most talented chefs. This year is, delightfully, no exception.
On April 11, the Beard House and Jewish Food Society will co-host a second night Passover dinner that celebrates Mexican-Jewish cuisine. The meal will be collaborative, bringing together three Mexican-Jewish chefs: cookbook author and television personality Pati Jinich; sweets maven Fany Gerson; and Rafa Zaga, a sous chef at Marea. Together, they will bring their families’ rich food traditions to the table, showcasing a cuisine that is at once comfortingly nostalgic, excitingly innovative, and deeply tied to Mexico’s agricultural and culinary heritage.
Mexico’s Jewish history dates back to the early 1500s, though the majority of the Jewish community immigrated there much later—in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Mexico is home to around 50,000 Jews (both Ashkenazi and Sephardi in origin), the majority of whom live in Mexico City. The communities are fairly insular, attending synagogue and going to school in close proximity to one another. But in the kitchen, Mexican influences and ingredients have found a home.
“The first thing you will see on my grandmother’s table is three different sauces: one with avocado, some kind of Arabic sauce, and a Mexican salsa,” said Zaga, whose family immigrated from Syria to Mexico in the early 1900s. The Syrian-Jewish dishes he grew up eating on the Sabbath and holidays often incorporated indigenous Mexican ingredients, like adding lime and chiles to rice-stuffed grape leaves—a technique he will replicate for the Beard dinner. Zaga will also prepare the meal’s main dish, his grandmother’s stuffed lamb saddle, which is simmered in a complex sauce flavored with tamarind (a beloved ingredient in both Syrian and Mexican cooking).
Jinich, meanwhile, will turn to her family’s Eastern European background for the meal. “Since arriving and beginning to cook in Mexico, Jews have kept the soul of the dishes they are preserving, but enriched them with Mexican sauces and seasonings,” she said.
The brisket hors d'oeuvre she will make for the seder, for example, is slow cooked with bitter Pasilla chiles, fresh tomatillos, and dark Mexican sugar. And her gefilte fish a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-style), gets simmered with tomatoes, olives, capers, and pickled chiles. “I didn’t make it up,” she said. “If you go to any Ashkenazi home in Mexico, this dish will be there.”
Gerson, who also comes from Ashkenazi roots, is most widely known for Mexican-inspired desserts. Her flourless chipotle-chocolate cake with roasted tomatillo sauce and hibiscus meringue with passion fruit crema will close out the Beard dinner on a sweet note. But for the dinner, she will also go savory, tackling perhaps the most iconic of Passover dishes: matzo ball soup.
Like many Mexican-Jewish chefs, she garnishes the soup with avocado, fresh cilantro, and finely chopped white onion, and serves lots of fresh lime alongside for squeezing. But the real secret (chiles) is in the broth. For the dinner, Gerson will flavor her soup with jalapeño for a subtly spicy kick. But for something even more dramatic, she suggests tossing in a dried chipotle along with the typical carrot and celery aromatics.
My take on Gerson’s Mexican-inspired matzo ball soup follows that advice, splitting and deseeding the chipotle before adding it to the soup pot. It’s a 5 second alteration that makes all the difference—the resulting hint of chocolatey smoke amidst the schmaltzy broth is truly revelatory. A Passover miracle, served piping hot.
- 1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds)
- 2 large carrots, peeled and halved crosswise
- 1 parsnip, peeled and halved crosswise
- 2 stalks celery, halved crosswise
- 1 large white onion, peeled, and halved through the root
- 2 medium leeks (white and light green parts), end trimmed, halved through the root, and rinsed
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1 dried chipotle chili, split lengthwise and seeds removed
- 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro, stems okay
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 4 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup matzo meal
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley, optional
- 2 tablespoons seltzer water
- For serving: Lots of lime wedges, finely chopped white onion, fresh cilantro leaves, and finely chopped avocado