Passover: Food + Cocktails + Bay Area Restaurants

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My favorite comment about Wise Sons’ Saturday-only deli came from my sister, who wrote on Facebook, “Your grandfather, may he rest in peace, he didn’t eat at delis that popped up. He married a balaboosta and SHE cooked for him.”

Too true! Growing up, everything at our Passover Seders was made from scratch in my grandmother Fae’s kitchen, from the gefilte fish to the brisket to the spongecake. (The exception was Passover brownies, which my 7-year-old self loved to whip up from the box of Manischewitz mix. My grandmother was a true balaboosta–Yiddish for perfect housewife & mother–and she knew how to keep a kid out of her hair when she was busy making chicken soup for 20.)

I had high hopes of finally making my own gefilte fish (chilled fish balls, typically made from carp, pike, and whitefish mixed with onion and matzoh meal and poached in fish stock, a kind of Mitteleuropa quenelle) from scratch this year. My mother even sent me the recipe she’d used, torn out of her well-splattered copy of From My Mother’s Kitchen by longtime New York Times writer Mimi Sheraton. Time and deadlines, alas, will preclude this from happening for Monday’s Seder, but sometime during the rest of the week, who knows? I could have a carp swimming in my bathtub yet.

Gefilte fish cupcake.
Gefilte fish cupcake. Photo: J. Pollack Photography

However, you don’t need to make your fish balls to present Stefani Pollack’s fabulous (or terrifying) Gefilte Fish Cupcakes from The Cupcake Project. Just buy a jar of fish balls, mash them into a cupcake liner, and top with a big, tempting swirl of…wait! That’s not strawberry icing, it’s HORSERADISH WHIPPED CREAM! Oh, the horror. As my friend Molly said, just start saving for the kids’ therapy now.

Passover, like Thanksgiving, only happens once a year, and so I’ve found that people really don’t need something new and wild on the table, especially during the first two festive Seder nights. (The holiday itself goes on for 8 days, so I can understand that you might want to get a little crazy by the 5th or 6th night.) I can vouch for the deliciousness and complete ease of Gourmet’s brisket recipe with one suggestion: Ditch the brisket, get the chuck roast. The weird, webby-stringy texture of brisket has always put me off, along with its tendency to dryness. Moist, slow-cooked chuck roast, by contrast, falls apart in perfectly succulent shreds at the poke of a fork. This is an especially good dish for Passover, because it’s easily made ahead of time. In a heavy covered pot, it can keep warm in a slow oven for the time it takes to do the blessings and hide the afikomen.

I used to give myself major tsuris trying to reproduce the perfection that was Grandma Fae’s spongecake, until I realized that, tradition aside, what everyone at my table really wanted was flourless chocolate cake, made with good chocolate, finely ground almonds, and lots of eggs whipped to fluffiness. This, plus strawberries, a few macaroons and maybe some jelly rings, is all anyone will have room for.

But what about after the Seder? A few days of leftovers, and then, it’s a week of Atkins, with only matzoh and potatoes for starch, since all other kinds of bread and grains are forbidden during the holiday. By day five of crumbling tuna-on-matzoh sandwiches, I can well understand why Robin of Doves & Figs might want to soak her matzoh in wine before frying up a Drunken Passover Grilled Cheese.

And then, you probably want to get out of the house and let someone else do the cooking. If you’re not strictly observant of the kosher-for-passover dietary laws, several Bay Area restaurants are doing menus this week inspired by Passover dishes from around the world (if by “around the world” we mean Italy.)

From April 19 through April 26, Delfina will be featuring its annual array of Passover-themed dishes. They’re not doing a Seder, just adding a rotating selection of special seasonal items to the regular menu. Selections will change daily, but you can probably count on finding some kind of brisket, fried artichokes (a classic of Roman Jewish cuisine), veal tongue, chef-owner Craig Stoll’s family recipe for matzoh ball soup, and an “edible Seder plate” with farm egg salad, charoset (apple-walnut dip) and lamb-shank crostini. (But going to Delfina while forgoing pasta? That would take more willpower than I can muster.)

Maror Cocktail
Maror Cocktail. Photo courtesy of The Sipping Seder

And finally, let’s not forget the required drinking. Yes, four glasses of wine are mandated at each Seder, but in between, why stick to Manischewitz (or even Baron Herzog) when you can knock back a beet-and-horseradish Maror cocktail instead? As Irwin Keller writes in his introduction to The Sipping Seder,

The seder asks us to retell the story of the exodus from Egypt as if we had been there in person. It’s hard to imagine enduring generations of slavery and a slew of plagues, only to flee our homes in the dead of night and run straight into the sea with the world’s fiercest army in hot pursuit. If we managed somehow to survive the experience, what would we do when at last we reached safety? Perhaps we lack the fortitude of our ancestors, but we can easily imagine being ready for a good stiff drink. Maybe two.

The six cocktails on the site, each of which corresponds to a ritual item on the Seder plate, are the inventions of Rob Corwin and Danny Jacobs. Even better, they’re currently working with Umberto Gibin, co-owner of Perbacco, to debut the cocktails at the downtown restaurant during Passover. (To make your own, try searching out our local Distillery No. 209‘s kosher-for-passover gin, made with sugarcane instead of grain.

Perbacco will also be continuing its tradition of offering an Italian-style Passover meal cooked by executive chef Staffan Terje with former Square One chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein on the 3rd night of Passover, Wed., April 20.

Wise Sons is doing a pop-up Traditional Passover Seder at Coffee Bar Monday, April 18 and Tuesday April 19. Tuesday is sold out but reservations for Monday are still available. Saul’s in Berkeley will be hosting a prix fixe Seder dinner on Friday, April 22, while Firefly in San Francisco’s Noe Valley will turn its whole menu into a celebration of Passover dishes from April 18-26. Mission Beach Cafe will also offer a Passover dinner on April 25. Palio D’Asti is doing a “What Would Jesus Eat?” Holy Week mash-up from April 18-23, whipping up dishes from Italian Passover and Easter traditions.

And to that, l’chaim!

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Category: cocktails and spirits, events, holidays and traditions, kids and family

About the Author ()

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. Last year, she worked as an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists' residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and worked as a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. She has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years, interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
  • Shell

    Gefilte fish cupcakes? What fresh, fishy hell is this? Even when carefully prepared, gefilte fish has always struck me as merely a vehicle for eating heaps of head-clearing, garishly fuschia horseradish. The slippery, dense, fishy footballs are bad enough under the best horseradish; but dressing them up as cupcakes? That is cognitive dissonance worthy of a psychotic break.

  • http://pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com Michele Anna Jordan

    Really engaging story, Stephanie. And I love the cupcake photo–it’s perversely wonderful! I can envision all sorts of evil (in a good way) fun with it.