My Grandmother's Seder

Published March, 2008

Passover favorites with a few twists

There’s only room for Mrs. Cohen in Shirley Cohen’s kitchen. The 85-year-old grandmother of nine, who lives in Albany, N.Y., has made the Passover Seder for her family and friends for nearly 40 years. Although she declines help while she’s cooking, she believes in family tradition and a shared family story. Cohen also believes that her children and grandchildren will find their own kitchens and their own recipes.

Her Seder has been a constant spot of happiness, a mooring in the midst of the joys and sorrows of life, the births, and the deaths. But as constant as both the event and the joy she finds in producing it, her Seders change year to year. Traditions are living things, after all, and like anything alive, they evolve. Certain changes make her hesitate. Today’s families are far-flung, everybody works too hard and most families rotate holidays. Shirley Cohen however, is a member of a generation who couldn’t imagine a traveling Seder.

The daughter of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York in the early 1900s, the table was a place to explore identity and possibility and the Passover night is even more so. Cohen’s table becomes a feast: a lesson in Jewish history, an ode to family history and a way to associate a taste with each lesson.

Her own best memories are linked to food, and she is eager to make meals that will remain with her children and grandchildren. When she cooks, she says, she wants to add good feeling as much as good flavor.

Paying homage to his wife during his annual Seder speech, her late husband always praised her cooking, naming each of the family’s favorite recipes: fluffy matzo balls, sublime chicken soup, tender brisket, silken lemon meringue pie with matzo meal crust. But through the years even these recipes have not remained sacrosanct. She continues to fine-tune and tweak each one. Her mother’s gefilte fish morphed into tangy, sweet pickled carp, for instance.

“I never enjoyed gefilte fish,” says Cohen, a vibrant woman with short, wavy gray hair and pensive eyes. She recently incorporated an orange onto the Seder plate, which has become a modern way of protesting the fabled comment by a rabbi that a woman belongs on the podium of a synagogue as an orange belongs on a Seder plate. One year, Cohen also read a feminist-focused Haggadah, the Passover story.

“My Seders always had meaning on a male level, but now also on a female level, another positive step towards freedom in Judaism,” says Cohen who thinks change keeps tradition alive, and vital.

This year, however, will see the biggest change of all because Cohen plans to pass the mantle.
She will celebrate Passover at her daughter’s house, where she knows she’ll taste a new generation’s creative versions of her family’s favorites.

Matzo Balls
Ethereal matzo balls float lively in this rich chicken broth

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 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-size 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.

Jewish Chicken Soup With Tomatoes
Chicken soup, a traditional dish, with colorful accents: dill and tomatoes

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 to 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 the 4 quarts of 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.

Sweet and Sour Fish With Pickling Spices
A cool carp appetizer with a refreshing citrus bite

“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 to 4 pound whole carp, cut into 3-inch pieces, heads and tail removed, along with bones
3 medium onions, sliced thickly, in rounds
3 stalks celery, with leaves, cut in 3 pieces
8 whole cloves
2 tablespoons 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.