My Bubby’s Passover

Savory Recipes, Spring • 14 Apr 2008


I recently wrote up an emotional piece on my grandmother and my family’s Passover traditions. In honor of my wonderful bubby in all of her natural, emotional glory, here is my profile (which includes some fine, flavorful Passover recipes!):

Eighty five year old Shirley Cohen of Albany, New York is a Passover Seder pro, having hosted the holiday for family and friends for the past four decades. She has experienced a lot of changes in her family in that time- including the birth of nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and the death of her husband Sam two years ago. Yet, through the ups and downs of family life, one thing always remained constant: the joy of her annual Passover Seder.

The daughter of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York in the early 1900’s to escape anti-Jewish riots, Mrs. Cohen poured all her energy into planning and carrying out her annual Passover menu, just as her mother had when she was growing up. To her, events were always about the food. When friends came over, out came the food; when a meeting was held in her home, out came the food; even when her kids’ stomachs ached, out came the food.

“My life’s experience is that so much good stuff happens around food,” says Mrs. Cohen.

The teaching in the Cohen household took place during the Seder, rather than in the kitchen. Her grandchildren sat and learned about Jewish history, history that finds symbolism in the consumption of the food. Her view was that this was the learning experience.

“With my food, I want to add to the good feeling of life, to share my cooking with my family, to have my grandchildren get that special feeling by eating my food.”

Her husband, whom she met at a Zionist rally during World War II when he was a young soldier soon to be shipped off to the Pacific, led the Passover rituals, and engaged in an annual Passover speech: an offering about his love of his wife, his three daughters Mira, Naomi, and Paula, and his grandchildren. He also focused upon his love of Jewish culture, and his appreciation of religious freedom all families found in America. And of course, he always remembered to praise his wife’s cooking, always naming her grandchildren’s Passover favorites: her fluffy matzo balls, her sublime chicken soup, her tender brisket, her silken lemon meringue pie with matzo meal crust.

For the Cohens, both intellectuals with a strong sense of identity, Passover Seders became a cornerstone of self-expression.

Mrs. Cohen, a vibrant woman with short, wavy grey hair and pensive eyes, continues to love Passover for the opportunity it affords for individualism. “It’s a good holiday. Every Seder tells an interesting story about a family. You can make it anything you want,” she says.

Over time, she altered some of the culinary traditions of her mother’s Seder, an evolution that includes a tangy, sweet picked carp to replace gefilte fish, a dish she never enjoyed. She has also recently incorporated an orange onto the Seder plate; this represents women’s growing equality in the Jewish faith. One year, she also switched to reading a Haggadah, the written order of the Passover story- the history of Jewish liberation from slavery in Ancient Egypt- written in a feminist bent.

“My Seders always had meaning on a male level, but now also on a female level, another positive step towards freedom in Judaism,” says Mrs. Cohen.

There have been other changes too. Following Mr. Cohen’s death, for the first time in forty years, this year, Mrs. Cohen’s will celebrate Passover outside her home, at her daughter Paula’s house in New Jersey.

Mrs. Cohen’s feels sure her daughter can create a holiday like her own, one that conveys “the feeling of warmth and enthusiasm that went into our Seders.”

Shirley’s Sweet and Sour Fish
“I’m not a big gefilte fish fan,” says Shirley Cohen, “so I like to make this instead.” Carp is a traditional Jewish food and often served at a Passover Seder, or as a component of dishes such as gefilte fish. Ask your fishmonger to slice the fish for you, to avoid a big mess at home.

3-4 pound whole carp, cut into 3 inch pieces, heads and tail removed, with bones.
3 medium onions, sliced thickly, in rounds
3 stalks celery, with leaves, cut in 3 pieces
8 whole cloves
2 tablespoons purchased pickling spice mixture
1 1/2-2 tablespoons salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup white vinegar
1 lemon, sliced thinly
Enough water to barely cover the fish

1. Line a heavy bottomed soup pot with onion, celery, cloves, and pickling spices. Arrange fish in one layer on top. Pour sugar, vinegar, and salt on top of the fish, add the water and bring to a boil.

2. When the water begins to boil, add lemon slices and simmer for 25 minutes, uncovered. Refrigerate in liquid, until cold.

Yield: Serves 6 to 8.

Shirley’s Floating Matzo Balls
“Some people cook their matzo balls in chicken stock, but I cook mine in water. It makes them much lighter,” says Shirley Cohen. Light and fluffy matzo balls are the crowning glory of a good chicken soup and Mrs. Cohen says, “there’s no excuse for hard matzo balls, which we call “sinkers” in our family.”

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons chicken stock or water

1. Mix together vegetable oil, eggs, matzo meal, salt and chicken stock or water. Mix well. Refrigerate mixture for 30 minutes. While the mixture is chilling, fill a 4 quart stockpot three-quarters full of water, add 1 tablespoon of salt, and bring to a rapid boil

2. Roll mixture into golf ball sized balls. When the water comes to a rolling boil, simmer matzo balls at medium heat for about 30 minutes. Remove matzo balls with slotted spoon and store on cookie sheet until ready to add to chicken soup.

Yield: Makes about 8 matzo balls.

Shirley’s Sure-Fire Chicken Soup
A lot of traditional Jewish chicken soups do not use tomatoes. “My mother never did this,” says Shirley Cohen, “but I find it gives the soup a nice, round flavor.

3-4 pound whole chicken, washed and cut into 8 pieces
1 large onion, peeled and quartered
3 large parsnips, peeled and cut into 3 inch pieces
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3 inch pieces
1 medium white turnip, peeled and quartered
5 medium tomatoes, diced
10 dill sprigs
4 quarts water
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

1. In a 5 quart soup pot, add chicken and 4 quarts water. When the water begins to boil, add onion, parsnips, carrots, turnips and tomatoes. Simmer for an hour and a half over medium heat.

2. Remove soup from heat and add dill, salt and pepper to taste. Let the soup cool in refrigerator and once cool, skim off fat.

3. Reheat soup and serve broth with the cooked carrots and matzo balls.

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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