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Brisket Power

Searching for ways to attract young Jews, a Boston group asked some chefs to reinvent traditional Jewish dishes. Never underestimate the ability of good food to attract a crowd.

Joan Nathan
February 24, 2011

In the late 19th and early 20th century, middle-class Jewish communities in southern Germany, and their immigrant counterparts in the United States, would hold balls for the young adults several times a year. These parties were social events, but they were also occasions for the young people to meet potential mates—and, in no small part, to reconfirm their Judaism. These highly anticipated events were the predecessors of JDate.

Today, one of the challenges that professionals within the Jewish world say they face is creating interesting events during which young people can connect and explore Judaism. Food is a wonderful vehicle to do just that; never underestimate the power of a homemade cheesecake to attract a crowd. As one community organizer from the Centre Bernard Lazare in Paris told me: “People listen to lecturers more attentively if they know a little food will be served.”

The New Center for Arts and Culture in Boston, a Jewish nonprofit that plans events at venues around the city, is one organization that has embraced the power of food. Recently I spoke at “Beyond Bubbie’s Kitchen,” an event for Prism, the Center’s program that targets people in their 20s and 30s.

Prism invited 15 well-known chefs from the Boston area, many not Jewish, and asked them to reinvent a traditional Jewish dish. Chefs like a challenge, and this certainly was one. They set up stations in an event space at Moakley Courthouse in South Boston, serving food that night to about 300 people. Prism produced a pamphlet for attendees that traced the history of the traditional dishes and included the chefs’ thoughts on their reinterpretations. The event was inspired, in part, by the increasing popularity of Jewish food in mainstream American cuisine, says Lynne Krasker, Prism’s director: “It is important to understand why we eat Jewish foods at certain times and to understand their significance within culture and society,” she said. “One of the reasons we chose non-Jewish chefs was to see how they perceived Jewish food.”

Japanese-born Ting Yen, chef at Oishii in Chestnut Hill, prepared a yam tempura maki appetizer, which he said was inspired by the carrots and yams he often found in side dishes prepared by his Jewish chef friends. His dish resembled a modernized, reinvented, Japanese version of carrot tsimmes.

Steven Brand of Cambridge’s Upstairs on the Square chose a braised lamb knish, a Sephardic take on an Ashkenazic classic. “I love to eat knishes,” he wrote in the Prism handout, “but I thought it might be fun to update the traditional style and recipe to make it more interesting.”

Michael Madden, of the Asian-inspired restaurant Om, also in Cambridge, made a cold-smoked cherry-wood salmon with a potato apple galette. “It was a pleasure to get away from Asian food for a change,” he told me.

To me, the most creative and tasty of these appetizers was a caraway and matzoh cake with Arctic char, Vermont fromage, and micro-greens prepared by Michael Scelfo, chef at Russell House Tavern. He told me he is a big fan of Jewish food, and he wanted to create a version of a matzoh cake “using local and sustainable ingredients—matzoh, smoked fish, caraway, and cream cheese. The flavors are traditional but the presentation is modern.”

For the main course, Julio de Haro from Estragon took an unusual approach to brisket, the zelig of the food world. Spanish-born de Haro braised his brisket in pomegranate juice and served it topped with a confit of onions. “Pomegranate is integral to southern Spanish cuisine,” he said. “We wanted to incorporate it somehow. Granada happens to be the Spanish word for pomegranate”—and, of course, there was a large Jewish population in Granada until the Inquisition.

Also on the menu that night: kasha varnishkes with real gribenes, cracklings made of poultry skin; rolled pasta made of rye; duck pastrami; poppyseed oreo cookies; a chocolate tamale that was a play on cheese blintzes; and an extraordinary croquembouche made of a supple honey caramel and choux pastry.

This last dessert, inspired by teiglach, was my favorite. Teiglach, a traditional Lithuanian dessert served on holidays, is made out of dough that’s boiled and covered in honey, but the result is often hard and unwieldy. The reinvented dessert was prepared by Siberian-born pastry chef Diana Kudajarova, from the restaurant Journeyman in Somerville, and her Singaporean husband and business partner, Tse Wei Lim. “We picked teiglach having never tasted it,” Tse wrote, “because we loved its connection with family, community, and celebration. Picking bits of honey-covered dough out of a giant pile sounded like great fun to us. But the experience of eating actual teiglach, once we made it, didn’t quite live up to the potential.” So they used cream puffs instead and used honey to bind them together. The result was delicate, honey-scented, and delicious. I found a version of teiglach that I actually like—and maybe even a way to reconnect with my own Judaism!

The Recipes

Brisket Braised in Pomegranate Juice

Caraway & Matzoh Cake With Smoked Fish, Fromage Blanc, & Micro Greens

Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.

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