Cookbook Profile

The Jewish Kitchen
An Excerpt from Jewish Holiday Cooking

by Jayne Cohen


"We remember the fish which we did eat freely of in Egypt..." —Numbers 11:5


And in Rome, Poland, and New York, too. Throughout the Diaspora and in Israel, fish has been a cardinal fixture of Jewish cuisine.

Fat golden carp, set thrashing in bathtubs on Thursday, metamorphosed into savory gefilte fish come Friday morning. Gleaming red and gray mullet and sweet-fleshed sole were fried and marinated for elegant cold Sabbath lunches. Stewed or roasted, sauced with fresh green plums or spicy gingersnaps, the choicest fresh fish graced the festive meals.

And during the workaday week, there was preserved fish: smoked, salt-crusted, or brined-herring, mostly, and anchovies. Later there was salmon in all its permutations, including canned, which in America was quickly adopted for the ubiquitous dairy meal, salmon croquettes.

Not all fish are kosher. Permissible fish must have fins, and scales that are visible to the naked eye, overlap, and can be detached from the skin. So not only are all shellfish, like shrimp, lobster, clams, and oysters forbidden but also swordfish, catfish, skate, and shark, among others, because they lack true scales. Rabbis have debated for centuries whether the scales of the sturgeon conform to the strict laws of kashrut; today most observant Jews refrain from eating it.

"...the feast was worthy of a king. There was fish that brought to mind the biblical verse about the great whales." —Chaim N. Bialik, The Short Friday

But fish that are kosher require no special treatment in the Jewish kitchen. They are free from the stringent laws of slaughter and preparation that govern meat and poultry. Anyone-fishmonger or home cook-can kill a permissible fish, and it needs no soaking and salting to ritually purify it. And fish are considered pareve; like vegetables and grains, they may be eaten at meat or dairy meals and cooked and served in either meat or dairy pots and dishes. (However, observant Jews refrain from eating fish and meat together in the same dish, like veal seasoned with anchovies, or gefilte fish poached in chicken broth. Traditionally, after a fish appetizer, they will cleanse their palates with a bit of bread, a sip of wine or whiskey, or, in more luxurious surroundings, even a tart sorbet, before tucking into a meat course.)

According to Jewish mystical tradition, eating fish is not merely practical—it is fraught with magical optimism. Ever since the biblical blessings in Genesis to "be fruitful and multiply" and "fill the waters of the sea," fish have symbolized fertility and immortality, abundance, and prosperity. Dining on fish brings a taste of Paradise, a mystical means to preview the exquisite serenity of the Messianic Age. For according to the legend in the Book of Job, the Levia than, a monstrous fish embodying evil, will be defeated when the Messiah arrives, and the righteous will feast upon its flesh.


"There is no joy without meat and wine." —BAbylonian Talmud: Pesachim 109a

"The best of milky foods is a meat dish." —Sholem Aleichem

Meats and Poultry

A Brief Discussion of Kosher Meat and Poultry

Just like humankind, animals too are sacred to God, and while permission to partake of their flesh was finally granted to Noah (Genesis 9:3), there has always been a pervasive sense among Jews that meat is at once imbued with God's holiness and tainted by the profanity of blood.

A precious gift, meat is so highly esteemed that it will grace the Sabbath and holiday feasts that honor God. It is a food so special it should be eaten only if it is craved. But before it can be savored, meat—more God's food than any other—must be strictly regulated more than any other food. These regulations are kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws that determine what is kosher, or fit to eat.

Many reasons have been suggested for the specifics of kashrut-why certain animals are permitted and not others, why meat and milk may not be eaten together, and so on. A few of these explanations are economic and environmental (the pig would not flourish in the arid Middle East; the pig is more likely to transmit trichinosis in warm climates, etc.); some are cultural (the Jews wanted to differentiate themselves from the surrounding people and their pagan practices). Some or all of this may be valid. But I believe the initial restrictions derived from the simultaneous sense of wonder and revulsion at consuming flesh and the concomitant need to reconcile meat-eating with God's universe by subjecting it to God's laws.

Kashrut determines not only what meats-indeed, even what cuts of permissible meats-may be eaten, but also, to some extent, how they are to be prepared. So to fully understand Jewish cuisine, it is worthwhile briefly examining these dietary regulations.

The permitted mammals include only those that have split hooves and chew their cud: cattle, sheep, goat, deer, antelope, gazelle, and buffalo. Prohibited are the pig, horse, hare, rabbit, and camel, among others. Of poultry, no birds of prey may be eaten.

These permitted animals must be healthy; the shochet (ritual slaughterer) checks before and after slaughter to make sure there are no signs of sickness or damage. If, for example, it is found after slaughtering an animal that it had lesions on its lungs, the animal would be considered treyf (unfit to eat).

The strict procedure for ritually slaughtering meat and poultry was designed to be less painful to the animal. An extremely sharp, smooth knife is drawn across the throat. Poultry, of course, is easier to slaughter this way than mammals. It is joked that the giraffe, a kosher animal, has never been eaten by Jews because it is impossible to determine where to draw the knife on the throat. Because all animals must be slaughtered according to kosher ritual, hunting is forbidden: deer, buffalo, quail, and pheasant must be farm raised. (The Israelites used nets to catch the large flocks of quail that fell, exhausted by their long, migratory flight, near the camp in the wilderness.)

While all parts of poultry may be eaten, only certain parts of mammals are allowed. The sciatic nerve, located in the thigh area, must be removed-a very difficult and costly process that would necessitate hacking up the tenderest, most expensive cuts, rendering them impossible to sell as prime meat. So Ashkenazi and most Sephardi butchers do not sell the meat from the hindquarters; instead, it is sold to nonkosher butchers. Tender cuts like leg of lamb, porterhouse, and sirloin steaks, which come from the hindquarters, are proscribed.

Animal blood is strictly prohibited ("No soul of you shall eat blood." Leviticus 17:12). To purge meat and poultry of blood, they must be soaked in cold water for thirty minutes and covered with coarse salt for one hour (a process usually carried out today by kosher butchers). Instead of being soaked, the liver, an extremely bloody organ, must be sprinkled with salt and broiled until it changes color before it is eaten or cooked further in a recipe. (These processes will draw out most of the blood; the residue of blood in the tissues will provide moisture to the meat.) The brief salting extracts impurities; like brining, it imbues kosher meat with an appealing, lightly seasoned taste and concentrates the meat flavor. Kosher chickens produce clearer soup and they are consistent prizewinners in taste tests.

Kosher meats are sold very fresh: the koshering process is performed no longer than seventy-two hours after slaughtering. Unlike nonkosher meats, they do not develop the full-bodied flavor and tenderness that comes with aging.


Cooking Jewish Meats

The Jewish cook, faced with the least tender cuts of meat, made tougher still from lack of aging, often gravitated to parts with lots of connective tissue that would soften with slow braising, like brisket and flanken. Long, gentle cooking produced meats that were completely cooked through, with no trace of blood. If meats were roasted, broiled, or saut�ed, they were usually served well-done, not rare. (Kashrut does not require that meats be cooked until well-done. After the meat has been properly soaked, salted, and rinsed, it may be cooked any way-or not at all. Served in fine kosher steakhouses, like Le Marais in Manhattan, steak tartare, chopped raw beefsteak, is perfectly permissible. But, perhaps because of the strong taboos against consuming blood, most traditional Ashkenazi Jews have refrained from eating rare meat.)

Sometimes ornery cuts of meat were minced, then combined with saut�ed fennel, eggplant, masses of shimmery onions, or other imaginative ingredients to make them tender and tasty.

Jewish cooks concocted beautifully flavored sauces, savory with garlic, onions, and leeks, or sweet and sweet-sour from fragrant spices, such as cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, and exotic, fleshy fruits like prunes, pomegranates, and quinces. They coaxed the tough and dry to aromatic succulence.


The Gravy Boat

Flavorful sauces remain to this day an integral part of Jewish meat cooking; brisket and similar cuts want a mantle of gravy to keep them moist and tasty. These are simple pan sauces, developed organically in the course of slow-cooking the ingredients together. I reduce the pan liquids to concentrate the flavors. Then I add body by pureeing some of the aromatic vegetables, like carrots and onions, and the sweet, mellow chestnuts or other special ingredients braised with the meat. You'll find delicious flour-free pan sauces here, derived, for example, from the whole garlic cloves, tomatoes, and honey used in preparing the meat.

I find that slow-cooking sometimes flattens the flavor of a sauce. So just before serving, I rejuvenate the sauce by stirring in more of the fresh herbs starring in the dish, or chopped parsley or chives, some grated lemon zest or a drop of juice, a bit of raw garlic puree, a tart-sweet jolt of pomegranate molasses, even a generous grind of fresh pepper. Reheat just to combine flavors. To add silkiness, try a little artichoke puree (available jarred).

To reheat meats, bring the sauce to a simmer, add the meat slices, and warm slowly until the meat is heated through. If you have only a small amount of sauce, reserve it for serving, and heat the meat in a little simmering broth.


Removing Fats

Many Jewish cuts contain a fair amount of fat. And slow, moist cooking methods like braising draw out the fats in the meat and distribute them in the pan sauce.

To defat this sauce, take the meat out of the pan and keep it warm. Strain the cooking liquids from the solids, like carrots, garlic, and other aromatics. If the liquid looks fatty, you might want to line the strainer first with a few sheets of paper towels (this will also blot up some of the grease from the cooked vegetable solids with which you will be thickening the gravy).

If you have the time, you can cool this liquid, then refrigerate it or pop it into the freezer for a while, until the fat solidifies-then you can scrape off the fat.

In the real world-mine at least, of last-minute everything-that is rarely practical. So pour the strained liquid into a tall glass or two or a special gravy skimmer, if you have one. Allow it to rest a moment, and you'll notice most of the clear, light fat rising to the top. Carefully dip a small ladle or large spoon into the layer of clear fat to remove it and discard. Continue until you have spooned out as much of the fat as possible. (Or pour out the fat through the top spout of your gravy skimmer.)

If you accidentally stir the top layer of grease down into the gravy, let stand briefly until separated again, then continue removing the remaining fat. Should the gravy still be fatty, strain it again through a couple of thicknesses of paper towels. For desperate degreasing measures, fill the strainer with ice (you'll want whole cubes here, which will melt less, not ice pieces). Quickly pour the cooled gravy through-the fat should be trapped on the ice.

Nothing beats a warm brisket sandwich on sour rye, savored in a quiet, clean kitchen after the maelstrom has been set to rights. So always remember to put aside enough gravy and meat for late-night noshing.


Buy Jewish Holiday Cooking


Jewish Holiday Cooking:
A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations


The Jewish Kitchen


This page created April 2008