If you want to learn the real history of a Jewish family, look no further than the dinner table.
Everyone has a recipe that goes back a few generations, and even though they may all be matzah ball soup or brisket, somehow each bubbe’s recipe tastes slightly different (the secret ingredient is love).
And if there is one skill that is passed l’dor vador in a family, it’s eating. There are plenty of holidays throughout the year that encourage using this skill in excess, such as Rosh Hashanah.
So to bring a little bit of our own holiday tables to you, the Exponent staff shared some of their own family’s traditions below for the upcoming holidays.
To say I’m inept in the kitchen is a tragic understatement. But over the years, I have learned to replicate one or two of my mother’s Jewish recipes, including her very flexible formulation for Rosh Hashanah tzimmes.
It’s actually the only dish I’ve ever cooked for a large dinner party, the success of which was unfortunately compromised by the side dish I prepared: avocado mashed potatoes. Word to the wise: Your guests may turn wary if their potatoes are green.
My mother, Linda Spikol, got her tzimmes recipe from her step-grandmother, Pauline Green, who married a man (her grandfather) who had seven daughters. So you know she spent a lot of time in the kitchen (and also probably a lot of time pulling her hair out).
Sometimes my mom makes her tzimmes with brisket, as below, and sometimes she makes it with chicken. Most of the ingredients are negotiable, she told me. The key, she said, is to “complicate” the dish in order to “cut its tooth-achy sweetness.” The measurements for some of the ingredients below are not precise.
There are two parts to the recipe here, as my mom prepares her tzimmes with caramelized onions, which she generally makes the night before.
Caramelized Onions for Tzimmes
2 large red onions, sliced
½ stick butter
Paprika to taste
Garlic salt to taste
Put the oil, butter, paprika and garlic salt into a pan until the mix bubbles, then add onions.
Stir regularly, preferably with a wooden spoon, every few minutes. Keep turning the onions until they are distinctly browning but not burning.
Cool, then refrigerate.
Tzimmes with Meat
3 lbs. first-cut brisket with fat on, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 cups prunes, pitted
2 handfuls blonde raisins or cranberries
2 peeled McIntosh apples, sliced
2 cups orange juice
1 box chicken broth
2 large sweet potatoes, cut into chunks
6 unpeeled carrots, cut into coins
1½ lbs. Idaho potatoes, cut into chunks
¼ cup honey
½ cup port wine, red wine, or sweet vermouth
Brown sugar to taste
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
Heat the oil and onions as a base. Add the brisket and brown on all sides. Stir in the fruits and vegetables, except the prunes and the orange juice, chicken broth and honey. Put the mixture into a 5-quart Dutch oven to simmer.
After a half-hour, stir in the cinnamon-sugar, brown sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Keep covered and simmering, stirring regularly, until everything is soft but not mushy. Add the prunes toward the end, so they don’t get too soft.
Add wine and continue to simmer until it’s ready.
My paternal grandmother, Pauline Levitsky, was quite the baker, although the tales of her gefilte fish from her days in Wynnefield, which she made for both Passover and the High Holidays, were legendary in my family.
My mother and aunts tell stories of how the house always stunk when she made gefilte fish — and how they knew to go to a friend’s house when they came home from school and saw her wearing the “gefilte fish dress,” which was butterscotch yellow with white stripes.
Although MomMom, as I knew her, claimed to wash the dress several times after each wearing, the dress always retained some odor. It was banished to a metal locker in the basement.
If that weren’t bad enough, my mother and aunts were horrified that my grandfather used to suck on the fish bones afterward to extract the remaining pieces of fish.
But the gefilte fish story doesn’t end there.
Years later, long after MomMom had stopped making her own gefilte fish, she continued to serve it at holidays. And she’d always get annoyed (not that it took much) when my father referred to it as “filthy fish,” which always got the kids’ table laughing and chiming in about “filthy fish.”
Unfortunately, the gefilte fish recipe (if there ever was one) was lost to time, but here’s one for her brownies, which were always welcome when I was at college.
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup flour
¼ teaspoon salt
6 ounces chocolate chips
⅓ cup butter
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift the baking powder, flour and salt together.
Beat the eggs and sugar. Meantime, melt the chocolate chips and butter together.
Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture, then stir in the chocolate and butter. Add the vanilla and stir together.
Pour the mixture into a greased 8-by-8 inch pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes at 375 degrees.
I come from a long line of “secret family recipes” that I’m pretty sure my father tweaked on his own from watching the Food Network, but that in itself is a family tradition, right?
Some recipes actually are written on notecards and stashed away in a box deep within the medicine cabinet, but most of the ones my dad recreates are from memory (or the internet).
When my family moved to Florida, we linked up with other families at our synagogue and have hosted Rosh Hashanah dinner ever since.
And in those 17 years, Southern-style barbecue pot roast and kosher chicken wontons have come and gone, but the one consistent that everyone always raves for is chopped liver.
Chopped liver is basically the gefilte fish of dips — people either love it or hate it. (Our dog especially loved it because he got the leftover chicken gizzards for dinner. Whether or not that changes your opinion on chopped liver is up to you.)
My dad rarely makes the same thing twice, but this recipe does come from my grandmother and has since been doctored several times. (Apparently her original recipe lacked cognac, which I find hard to believe.)
1-1½ lbs. chicken liver
4 hard cooked eggs
1 large onion
¼ cup schmaltz or olive oil (more if needed)
Fresh herbs (tarragon, rosemary or thyme, to your taste)
Salt to taste
Pepper (I like a lot)
2 tablespoons cognac
Rinse the liver and trim the membrane. Chop the onion and saute it in schmaltz or oil; adjust with salt and pepper. Cook it until it’s just golden brown, then remove it to a bowl. In the same pan, add the trimmed liver and cook it until it’s no longer pink, adding salt and pepper.
Using a food processor with a chopping blade, blend together the liver and onions. Add the herbs to combine. Grate the eggs separately (I use a knuckle buster).
In a large bowl, mix the liver-onion mixture with the egg and add the cognac. Taste for salt and pepper.
The mixture should be a little more pâté like than traditional chopped liver, but it’s good either way. If it’s a little too dry, add mayonnaise to moisten.
Every year, you can always expect a few staples on my family’s Rosh Hashanah table: sweet and sour meatballs, brisket, and a variety of kugels, including a spinach kugel.
I learned that this kugel was originally made by my grandmother (whom I call MeMe, different from a meme you see on the internet). One year, my mom took over and has ever since — MeMe said because my mom did such a good job, she was giving it over to her.
Unfortunately, that tradition will end with me since I am absolutely no use in the kitchen. Last week, I burned a grilled cheese sandwich, if that gives you an idea of my cooking “skills.”
However, what I lack in cooking enthusiasm I make up for in eating, and this kugel is one of my favorites. It’s also a favorite of many of my friends, Jewish and non-Jewish.
When my mom brought up Rosh Hashanah leftovers to me in college once for a taste of the holidays that I missed because I was in class and couldn’t make it home, my five roommates so devoured the meatballs and kugel enough that my mom started making extras to bring up so I could hold Rosh Hashanah dinner for my Jewish-by-association roomies.
The spinach kugel was a standout for them as much as it is for my family (and, if you’re like me, you can easily pick out the mushrooms).
MeMe’s Spinach Kugel
12- ounce package medium egg noodles
1 envelope onion soup mix
1 box of frozen chopped spinach (thawed and drained extremely well)
¼ lb. margarine, melted
1 cup liquid non-dairy creamer
Sliced mushrooms, (drained
Dash of pepper
Cook and drain the egg noodles, add the melted butter and stir to coat the noodles. Beat the eggs, then add the creamer and a dash of pepper to the beaten eggs, and stir well. Add the mixture to the noodles and stir well. Then, one ingredient at a time, add and stir in the soup mix, well-drained spinach and mushrooms.
Pour it into a greased casserole dish and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.