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It's Passover: Ole!

April 9, 2009 By:
Linda Morel, JE Feature
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During Passover, most American Jews forgo the zesty tacos and tortillas they savor the rest of the year. But what if someone knew how to prepare Mexican food without flour or leavening? What if these recipes were served during the holiday's eight days in an upscale restaurant?

"Several years ago, I began experimenting with the infusion of Mexican ingredients and Jewish foods," says Julian Medina, chef and owner of Toloache, a contemporary Mexican bistro in Manhattan's theater district.

He started small, offering guacamole with matzah, instead of the usual chips. Then his creativity blossomed into a complete holiday menu, featuring chipotle-braised brisket, and matzah-ball soup seasoned with aromatic herbs and jalapeño peppers.

Why would a chef from Mexico City who had dazzled clients at Maya and Pampano -- two of Manhattan's best Mexican restaurants -- turn to Jewish cuisine for inspiration?

Although Medina was born a Catholic, he converted to Judaism. Six years ago, when he was dating the Jewish woman who would become his wife, he started spending holidays with her family. In fact, it sparked a curiosity about her religion that continued to grow the more he learned about Jewish rituals.

From the beginning, he was intrigued by each holiday's traditional fare, as he tasted the foods that his future mother-in-law prepared. And it wasn't long before he started seasoning Jewish recipes with the flavors of his youth; he began to explore both Sephardi and Ashkenazi cooking.

"This is what chefs do when exposed to cuisines that excite them -- they conduct research to develop new recipes," he says. "Food is never static. It changes every day."

His Matzah Tostada recipe was influenced directly by Sephardi cuisine, as were the Matzah Tortillas that accompany his brisket, a signature dish of Ashkenazi fare.

Many of his recipes benefit from the blending of both cuisines. While Julian's matzah-ball soup bears the stamp of Ashkenazi cooking, it's seasoned with cilantro and jalapeño and finished with a squeeze of lime. His roasted halibut is served with a Passover cauliflower pancake -- reminiscent of a latke made from cauliflower rather than potatoes.

Soon after Medina opened Toloache, which is named for a flowering plant used in Mexican love potions, friends asked him to serve a Passover menu at the restaurant.

Typical of many New Yorkers, they adore fine dining, but were not inclined to cook. However, that didn't stop them from craving foods related to the seder, which they knew Medina would bring to a new level.

He responded by offering a dazzling Passover menu, from first course through a dessert of Matzah pudding with roasted bananas.

Four years ago, 10 people were his first holiday patrons, arriving with friends, family and kosher wine, recalls Medina.

Word traveled, and customers flocked to Toloache for Jewish foods with a piquant twist.

"I still can't believe the menu has become so popular," says Medina, explaining that articles about his Mexican-Jewish fusion have been published in The New York Times, among other city newspapers and magazines.

On the first and second nights of the holiday, some customers bring kosher wine and read the Haggadah, performing an entire seder. Others simply relish Passover food Mexican-style.

And during Passover week, nearly 100 people order holiday fare at Toloache as an alternative to cooking at home.

While the kitchen is not made kosher-for-Passover, Medina's recipes conform to the Passover laws of kashrut. By sharing his recipes, Medina has offered home cooks the option of turning one of the holiday's eight nights into a celebration of Mexican Jewish food.

The holiday is now even more meaningful, as Medina is the father of a 1-year-old daughter.

While she's too young to recite the Four Questions, she's already tasted matzah tortillas -- served with chipotle salsa, of course!

 
Matzah Tortillas

(Pareve)

2 cups matzah cake meal
1 tsp. salt
1 cup warm water
1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional oil for frying

Place the matzah cake meal, salt, warm water and 1 tablespoon oil in a bowl.

Mix the ingredients very well with your hands, until you form a soft dough. With your hands, form 11/2-inch balls. Roll balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape.

Preheat additional oil on a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame.

Fry the matzah tortillas until browned.

Makes 1 dozen.

 
Matzah Tostadita, Yucatan-Style

(Pareve)

Fish Ingredients:

1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 lb. smoked sea bass or any white fish
salt to taste

Tostadita Ingredients:

2 cups matzah cake meal
1 tsp. salt
1 cup warm water
1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional olive oil for frying

Salsa Ingredients:

1/2 cup small red onion, diced
2 Tbsps. fresh horseradish, grated
1 small seedless jalapeño, chopped
2 Tbsps. lemon juice
2 Tbsps. orange juice
1/2 Tbsp. honey
salt to taste

To Prepare the Fish Mixture: In a bowl, mix the rice vinegar and orange juice. Emulsify the olive oil by whisking it into the vinegar mixture.

Toss liquids with smoked fish and season well with salt. Place fish mixture in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

To Prepare the Tostaditas: In a bowl, mix the matzah cake meal, salt, warm water and 1 tablespoon of oil well with your hands until you form a soft dough.

With your hands, form 11/2-inch balls. Roll the balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape.

Using 2 tablespoons of oil, preheat a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame.

Place the matzah tortillas on griddle. Cook on both sides, until they are nice and soft. Then pour additional olive oil into a frying pan.

Preheat the oil to 300°. Fry the tortillas in oil until crisp.

To Prepare the Salsa: Mix the onion, horseradish and jalapeño, lemon juice and orange juice with the honey.

Season well with salt.

Serve the smoked fish with matzah tostaditas, topped with the horseradish salsa.

Serves 6.

Linda Morel writes from New York. E-mail her at: lindam212@aol.com.

 

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