Channeling and Updating Bubbe, Cook Recreates Passover Memories
Linda Morel, JTA Email Edition, March 31, 2005
The first time Tina Wasserman prepared gefilte fish for Passover, it smelled up her whole house. The fish was past its prime, but it wasn't spoiled, so "it didn't make my family sick," she says. But still, the experience was so horrifying that she didn't attempt to prepare gefilte fish again for many years. Wasserman, who is Reform Judaism Magazine's food columnist, has learned a thing or two about gefilte fish since then. First, you must buy fresh fish. Now that seafood is so popular, that's much easier to do now than it was in the 1970s, when Wasserman started out. And she's discovered that there's no need to boil fish patties for three hours, as old-fashioned recipes instructed. In fact, Wasserman suggests cooking gefilte fish for a mere 25 minutes. As she talks about gefilte fish, Wasserman laughs. She knows that the thought of cooking it makes some people gag. But that's the result of commonly held misconceptions, she believes, and lists those incorrect ideas: The house smells for days. Fish heads are scary. Scales stick to fish. The jarred kind tastes better. "Well, I can't help you if you prefer the jarred variety, but I can resolve the other issues," she says. Fresh fish isn't stinky at all, Wasserman says. Instead, it smells like the sea. Nonetheless, she suggests making the poaching liquid in advance, to lessen the time you and your kitchen are exposed to the scent of fish. Moreover, "if you don't like the jelly with the fish, then you can skip the whole head and skin process," she adds. And if you ask the store to fillet the fish, you won't have to deal with the scales.
Wasserman, who earned a master's degree in food and fashion merchandising from New York University, has been a cooking teacher for 33 years. She taught first in her native New York, and for the past 25 years she's taught in Dallas, where she lives. When she teaches, she says, she tries to think of everything that can go wrong and offers her students tips on avoiding those pitfalls, along with faster alternative preparation methods and substitute ingredients. "When it comes to gefilte fish, you can take my basic recipe and use fish that's indigenous to your part of the country," says Wasserman. In Texas, people add snapper because it's not bony and tastes good. Though sea bass is gelatinous, its flavor is delicate and slightly sweet. Ocean trout also adds interesting nuances. She presents much of this wisdom on her Web site, Cookingandmore.com.
Wasserman tries to rekindle peoples' traditions without assaulting their memories. "I can't tell someone, OK, you recall a dish's flavor this way, but I can guarantee it wasn't that way," she says. One thing she can know for sure is that your bubbe's gefilte fish tasted fresher than fish from a jar. "From the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to teach cooking," says Wasserman, who got her start teaching at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan when she was in her mid-20s. Back then, someone suggested that Wasserman start Passover workshops. "Why on earth in New York do you need classes on Passover cooking?" Wasserman remembers thinking. "But much to my surprise, students came." And they're still coming. Until then she had not realized how many people have lost their family recipes for such popular holiday foods as matzah balls and tzimmes. One of Wasserman's abiding passions is finding recipes of memory, the foods people grew up on and now no longer know how to make. "One reason why I enjoy writing for Reform Judaism Magazine is that it gives me the opportunity to study old recipes and cookbooks," she says.
She seeks to rescue recipes from the dustbin of history. She's particularly interested in recipes from places with small or dwindling Jewish populations. This is how she found the Garosa-Charoset, a Sephardi recipe from Curacao. Not only does she love teaching it to students, she serves at her own seders. This charoset, made of a medley of dried fruits, nuts and orange juice, exudes a zesty tropical taste. "Throughout the centuries, Jews have moved across the globe, spreading their food habits with them," says Wasserman, and she sees it as her job to help keep those cultures alive. For example, by featuring Syrian spiced meat with eggplant and prunes on her Web site, Wasserman is keeping a part of that culture vibrant. The divinely piquant recipe is an excellent choice for Passover because it can be prepared ahead of time and re-heated. "This dish stays well for a number of days in the refrigerator, and its flavor continues to get better each day," she says.
Garosa Charoset From Curacao
2 ounces pitted dates, preferably Medjool
2 ounces pitted prunes
2 ounces dark raisins
2 ounces dried figs
2 cups unsalted peanuts
1/2 cup cashew nuts
Grated zest from 1 medium-sized lemon
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons cinnamon, plus additional for coating
1-2 tablespoons sweet Passover wine
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Combine dates, prunes, raisins, figs, peanuts and cashews in a food processor work bowl. Pulse on and off until the contents are fairly small. (NOTE: Ashkenazi Jews customarily do not eat legumes, which include peanuts, on Passover.) Add the zest and remaining ingredients. Continue to process until mixture is moist and relatively smooth and firm.With palms, roll mixture into one-inch balls. Sprinkle some cinnamon on a small plate. Roll each ball in cinnamon to coat well. Place in one layer on a flat plate, until ready to serve. Refrigerate if making in advance.
Yield: 3 dozen balls (or more)