“In today’s reality, most families don’t store a live carp in the bathtub before the holidays, or spend all day preparing labor-intensive foods,” write Elizabeth (Liz) Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz in an online introduction to their forthcoming cookbook, “The Gefilte Manifesto.” They continue: “Under the banner of convenience, the past several decades have seen treasured food traditions stuffed into jars and neglected, gefilte included.
Gefilte fish was once an innovative way to stretch how far one fish could go to feed a family, a powerful symbol of European peasantry. The canned variety, by contrast, is a poignant reminder of how far we’ve strayed from the old days, so much so that gefilte has become synonymous with the outdated, the gray, the antiquated and the Old World.
But we need not accept the extinction of this tradition, or of the robust, colorful, fresh flavors of Ashkenazi cuisine.”
The cookbook, published by Flatiron Books, is due to be released in the United States in the spring of 2016. Its pithy mission statement was articulated by Alpern and Yoskowitz in 2012, the year they opened The Gefilteria, their business in Brooklyn. The business won a great deal of media attention as a boutique-scale wholesaler of artisanal foodstuffs reflecting the Jewish kitchen of Eastern Europe, among them gefilte fish, a variety of pickles, and kvass. The delicacies preserve their traditional Old World character, but have been redesigned and adapted to the culinary language of the 21st century. The book, affirm its authors, is a natural continuation of the road already taken.
“Since the start of this venture,” says Yoskowitz, “our interest has been beyond just producing a few products to sell in stores; [it’s] Ashkenazi cuisine as a whole. We started with gefilte fish, and that process of research and recipe testing to bring a product to market was illuminating for us. It also connected us to our own food heritage in a way that we had not expected. As we researched more and incorporated more Ashkenazi foods into our lives on a day to day level, we were sad to realize that even our family members, who are connected to our personal histories and family stories, only really eat Eastern European Jewish foods on the holidays, life cycle events or the occasional forays into New York City for nostalgia trips.
“Almost immediately after we launched The Gefilteria, everyone began asking us, ‘What’s next?’ They wanted to know if we’d make blintzes or chopped liver to sell in stores. We wanted those same people to take on the challenge and make those foods themselves, not just to wait for us to figure out how to retail them. Hence the cookbook. Liz and I think of it as our call to action, our way to encourage our peers and our parents’ generation to get back into the kitchen and to get more familiar with schmaltz and grains like barley and kasha.”
America’s Ashkenazi renaissance
Jeffrey Yoskowitz was raised in New Jersey; Liz Alpern grew up in Long Island. Both are 29 and come from secular, middle-class families, with a similar socio-economic and cultural background. Alpern “grew up eating a lot of soup and spaghetti and a lot of health foods, like Jeffrey’s family. Since we were in Long Island, we ate lots of bagels and lox, and we ate Jewish deli and blintzes on an occasional basis. Otherwise, Jewish foods were confined to just the holiday table.”
During her university years, Alpern began baking and selling challot, the braided Sabbath bread, from her own kitchen. Later she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked as an assistant to the Jewish food columnist and cookbook author Joan Nathan. Back in New York, she joined a non-profit organization in the field of sustainable global food systems.
Yoskowitz is no stranger to the culinary world. He wrote a university thesis on kosher food in America; studied and specialized in organic farming in Connecticut; wrote articles on gastronomy for newspapers and periodicals like The New York Times and The Atlantic; and, following a year-long stay in Israel, started a blog called Pork Memoirs, about the complex relations between Judaism and the pig (Haaretz Magazine, July 15, 2011).
The two business partners first met in a social setting in Brooklyn, before Alpern’s move to Washington. They renewed the connection when she returned, at a time when “there was a rumbling of change in New York’s food world,” as Yoskowitz puts it. “Our peers were just beginning to think about food and Jewish food in new ways.” One veteran deli that had closed (like so many others) had now reopened; a modern Jewish deli opened in Brooklyn; “and there was a boom in artisanal food happenings in Brooklyn,” that dealt, among other things, with traditional preserving and pickling techniques.
“We both attended the same Jewish food conference… where there were conversations about organic agriculture, do-it-yourself cheese-making, and adding kale to just about every dish, but nobody was even discussing how to adapt these modern sensibilities to the Jewish staples, like gefilte fish, which in the U.S. was a laughingstock of the Jewish food world. We felt like Ashkenazi Jewish food had an undeserved bad reputation, and it was time to change that. In fact, there was a resourceful quality and seasonal orientation that was largely forgotten here in New York. We started with the idea of remaking a modern gefilte fish that was better sourced and made to look bright and appetizing, and there and then, The Gefilteria bloomed as an idea.”
The first venture was a pop-up restaurant that served gefilte fish, two types of horseradish, shots of hot or cold borscht, and several kinds of pickles. A few weeks later – Passover of 2012 – Alpern and Yoskowitz began to make their products, at first in the kitchen of a community synagogue, and sell them, among other places, at high-end farmers’ markets. “People’s initial reaction was one of unbridled enthusiasm… We weren’t just producing gefilte fish, but we were playing with what gefilte fish represents and what it can be… Our packaging was brand new, we sold it by the loaf, more like a pâté.”
The concept unexpectedly resonated with their peers; and many of their parents’ generation were excited that young people should work with that kind of food at all. “There’s a sentimentality that these foods touch upon for many New Yorkers who may or may not be religious, but for whom these foods and flavors represent a distinct ethnic heritage that has slowly been diluted over time.”
The book is the next stage in its authors’ vision and an integral part of the American Ashekenazi culinary renaissance, now at its height, that includes new Jewish eateries, a high regard for the chefs who work in them, and the spillover of ingredients, dishes and techniques into non-Jewish restaurants as well. “We’re drawing inspiration from the Jewish holiday table, as well as the bakery, deli, dairy restaurant, appetizer and pickle shops,” they say. “There will be blintzes in the book, but also a recipe for how to make farmers’ cheese to go inside it, and cultured sour cream to put on top. We feature naturally fermented pickles and sourdough rye starters that can be used to make great rye bread, or a sour rye soup (zurek) or a rye kvass. There will be a focus on resourcefulness: using leftovers from one meal to make another, like stuffing kreplach with beef cheeks from the cholent. We’ll be featuring uncommon quotidian dishes, like pickled grapes and millet porridge. And, of course, we’ll be featuring plenty of classic dishes with our own signature style, so there’ll be corned beef, braised brisket, kasha varnishkes, babka, schnecken, etc.”
The Gefilteria’s carrot citrus horseradish
(yields about 700ml.)
450 gr carrots, washed, peeled, and trimmed
225 gr horseradish root, washed, peeled, and trimmed
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 cup water
3½ tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp grated lemon zest
½ tsp salt
Place carrots in a saucepan and fill with enough water to cover them. Boil carrots until slightly cooked but not mushy (about 5 minutes, although times vary, depending on thickness of carrots). Drain and set aside.
In a separate saucepan, combine water with the sugar and vinegar. Heat until mixture comes to a slow boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and set aside.
Place the horseradish root in food processor with cooked carrots, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt. Use the pulse processor, pouring vinegar mixture in gradually, making sure to stir the ingredients between pulses. You do not want the mixture to be soupy, so add liquid only until the carrot-horseradish mix is fully coated, shiny and moist. Be careful not to put your face too close to the processor while taking the top off. It will be intense!
Place horseradish in a sealed container. Add more vinegar solution if mixture looks dry. Let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours before eating.
Gefilte fish in Jaffa Port
Gefilte fish appears on the menu of Kostitza, an Eastern European-style pub in Jaffa Port, even though – in defiance of modern Jewish American tradition – it shares pride of place with kostitza (pork ribs), weisswurst and kielbasa )types of sausage). Kostitza, named for the delectable meat dish, is a new tavern at the entrance to Jaffa’s ancient port. Among the proprietors are Amir Neuman and Yoav Alon, two genial drinkers who run bar-eateries including Norma Jean and Porter and Sons, and a beer and cider importing company.
“We didn’t want to open just another pub with 50 beer taps,” says Yoav Alon. “We’ve done that. And in the end, the place where we ourselves like to hang out is Ma’ayan Habira in Haifa. It’s a tavern with an Eastern European Jewish orientation, a simple unpretentious atmosphere, and food that goes perfectly with alcohol. I didn’t grow up with that kind of food. I’m half Kurdish and half Kurdish! But with all due respect to seafood and the Mediterranean mezze, nothing beats German, Czech, Russian and Polish food to accompany a drink.”
The menu, which was created with the help of Lior Hargil of Haminzar bistro-bar, features a pleasing mix of dishes that continue to grace the tables of Central and Eastern Europeans, Jews and gentiles alike. Among them are: zakuski, Russian-style appetizers to go with the drinks, including a selection of pickled and smoked fish (the Jewish mezze) or cold meats and sausages; goose leg alongside the pork; kreplach; Alan Talmor’s excellent sausages; wonderful pretzels; and borscht and potato salad.
The new tavern is located in Casa Nova, a beautiful Ottoman Turkish building that once served as a hostel for pilgrims. Many of them would no doubt have been delighted to discover a restaurant like this after an arduous journey aboard a rickety ship. “Like the common plan of inns of the period, I believe they used the ground floor for the animals, and the upper floor to house guests and conduct business," says Alon. A graduate in architecture from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is fascinated by the mazes and mysterious stairways of this impressive building. Beneath the stone arches at the center of the restaurant are large tables and simple wooden benches, designed to encourage the enjoyment of drinking in company. (“We found some of the benches in a Beit Midrash [religious study center] that had closed. I see that as a sign of divine interventiom.)"
On the outdoor wooden deck, which has an idyllic view of the blue Mediterranean, one can choose from a wide selection of beers and small dishes of appetizers. In the interior, excavated out of the hill behind it centuries ago, main courses are served, but only three kinds of beer: light, dark and wheat.
Kostitza, 48 Retzif Ha’aliya (at the northern entrance to Jaffa Port) Tel. (03) 541-3636