Chefs reach beyond Traditional Jewish cuisine, experimenting with Ashkenazi dishes

“We are working on babynbsp;beef.”

With these words, chef Anthony Rose triggered a chorus of whispers, which rippled through the auditorium in Toronto’s Reuben amp; Helene Dennis Museum in the Beth Tzedec Synagogue: “Baby beef? Bear in mind, babynbsp;beef?”

Rose was talking at Heymish amp; Hip, an October panel about Jewish food in Toronto, and playing to an audience full of gray-haired gourmands. As memories of the forgotten staple of Toronto Jewish delis were stirred, the audience had difficulty stayingnbsp;quiet.

“I have talked to 80-year-old butchers and 80-year-old deli men about baby beef,” said Rose, the chef and owner of a ton of Toronto restaurants such as Rose amp; Sons, Fat Pasha and Schmaltz Appetizing, in an interview. “No one really understands what itnbsp;was.”

They know the fundamentals, of course: Baby steak was a deli item like corned beef or pastrami but made with veal brisket rather than beef, and notorious for its cryptic rednbsp;outside.

Most agree that it was particular to Toronto, though some experts claim it came via New York. It appeared in the 1940s and became a staple of Jewish delis throughout the city. Then, lately, it gradually vanished as veal pricesnbsp;spiked.

But baby beef — along with other Jewish dishes, most notably Ashkenazi specialties (the food of Jews hailing from Central and Eastern Europe) — are increasingly appearing on restaurant menus, as hamburgers reach beyond matzo ball soup and corned beef to present a new generation of diners to old-school dishes that evoke homey — or “heymish” in Yiddish — feelings. Think chopped liver, gefilte fish, kishke and de’tcha, every someplace between gray and brown on the color spectrum, and much more unappetizing into the ear and eye than thenbsp;continue.

Examples of the new face of Ashkenazi cuisine abound, from the more traditional explorations of deli in Wise Sons in San Francisco, Mile End in New York, and Sherbrook Street in Winnipeg, to cheffier interpretations at Abe Fisher at Philadelphia and Mishiguene at Buenos Aires.

“I think it’s cyclical — after it becomes something which you can’t get, folks suddenly notice they are missing it,” David Sax says, reflecting on the resurgence of Jewish cuisine in the years after the launch of the book, rescue the Deli, in 2009. “However, there are also larger food tendency forces at play. You had the development of different chefs going back to their roots, so Jewish chefs that were cooking in various distinct kinds of restaurants were like ‘Hey, why are not I cooking my familynbsp;things?'”

And as Jewish chefs seem deeper into their culture, they are rediscovering over just the easy classics. “Jewish food was a much broader thing when this fantastic tide of immigration occurred 130 odd years back,” Sax explains. “These other interesting foods existed that did not last as the cuisine stinks. So I think there is an interest from a culinary standpoint of digging in and bringing thosenbsp;back.”

Nowadays, imaginations have turned to more esoteric, less readily assimilated ingredients andnbsp;dishes.

When Rose first embarked on this route before opening his first restaurant, Rose am Sons, placing Jewish things on the menu was “a cheeky throwback,” he says, as he served things like matzo ball soup alongside diner classics larded withnbsp;bacon.

Over time however, Rose’s cooking has hewed closer and closer to his Jewish roots as he started Fat Pasha, focusing there mostly on Middle Eastern Jewish cooking, and Schmaltz Appetizing, where he celebrates the Ashkenazi customs of all manner of smoked fish and other bagel toppers — not only lox, but also lesser-known options like herring, whitefish andnbsp;carp.

Recently, he has been pushing Rose amp; Sons at a more overtly Jewish leadership also, experimenting heavily with deli, such as that Toronto fascination, baby beef. “It is great, but people do not know baby beef unless you are of a certain generation, so it is not a massive seller such as pastrami or corned beef,” Rose says. His customers have a tendency to skew younger than those in the Heymish amp; Hip occasion, nonbsp;uncertainty.

The same is true for a tongue sandwich Rose points to as one of his favorites, in addition to options like herring and carp at Schmaltz. “There is definitely some stubbornness to keeping them around,” he says. “But it is just amazing stuff and we need more people to trynbsp;it.”

As a veteran restaurateur, Rose gets the luxury of maintaining a few popular things on his menus but for newer business owners such as Raegan Steinberg and Alex Cohen, the married couple behind Montreal’s year-old Arthurs, the calculus is somewhat different. When the pair decided to start a restaurant, Steinberg’s old manager at Joe Beef, Fred Morin, advised her to serve what she knew best and keep it simple, so she did just that, drawing on her Ashkenazi roots fornbsp;inspiration.

“We had things like pickled salmon and smoked whitefish and folks were just not as receptive to those super-classic dishes as we expected,” Steinberg says. Likewise, their chopped liver — really somewhat non-traditional because it was always more of a smooth French-style chicken liver mousse as opposed to the rough-chopped original — did not sell as it was plated as a basic deli scoop with pickles andnbsp;onions.

Rather than giving up on liver, Cohen — who serves as head chef — recently decided to upgrade the dish even farther to better fit their youthful lunch and brunch audience. So, chopped liver in Arthurs now means an on-trend toast containing that same smooth liver, topped with a prune and strawberry jam, fried onions, radish and a bit of malt vinegar. Earnings are on thenbsp;rise.

The elegant liver toast was a product of Steinberg and Cohen’s training in kitchens like Joe Beef, but other dishes at Arthurs have turned into a spin thanks to Cohen’s Moroccan Jewish upbringing. ” Raegan took the Jewish food she grew up with,” Cohen says, “and then I made it that the Jewish food I wanted it tonbsp;be.”

Within that frame, the stodgy Ashkenazi sweet-and-sour cabbage soup — average Eastern European “grandma cooking,” as Cohen says — is reimagined through the lens of Moroccan harira, borrowing its hot spice mix that includes turmeric, cumin andnbsp;ginger.

1 classic Steinberg and Cohen acknowledge they’ve yet to find a way to create their own is gefilte fish. “Perhaps a terrine,” Steinberg suggests. “People in Quebec love terrines.” But across town at Espace Culinaire Fletchers at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, manager of food programming Kat Romanow has found success using a slightly different approach for this much-maligned fish forcemeatnbsp;mix.

Gefilte fish has such a poor reputation because it turned into this thing where everybody just saw fish balls floating in a jar,” Romanow says. “It is not the most attractive thing.” But two of the most popular dishes in Fletchers are centred around their home made version: gefilte fish tacos and a clubnbsp;sandwich.

Gefilte fish is typically served cold with prepared horseradish, so Romanow wanted to play off those traditional tastes in the sandwich. The key, she says, is the gefilte fish — ready basically like a fish meatloaf — is served hot on challah using a lemon-horseradish mayo, together with romaine lettuce and tomatoes. “When Jews come in they are always quite surprised and sometimes really skeptical until they try it,” she says. “I believe other people don’t have the identical reaction because they are like ‘Oh, it is a fishnbsp;sandwich.'”

Romanow has a keen understanding of this distinction because she really grew up Catholic and is currently in the final stages of converting. “I came to Judaism through academia,” says Romanow, who earned a master’s degree in Judaic studies with a focus on Jewish food from Concordia University. “Food was the way Inbsp;learned.”

So it’s not surprising that inspiration for the gefilte fish tacos in Fletchers came from study Romanow ran into Mexican-Jewish cuisine. “They do not do gefilte fish tacos, but they do a gefilte fish a la Veracruzana,” she explains. “It is a dish that came from a combination of Mexican and Ashkenazi cooking. So from having been exposed to this, the concept of tacos camenbsp;up.”

Rose, too, really enjoys the process of exploring the dishes of his childhood, saying it’s really caused him to move closer to serving classic variations as opposed to focusing on reimagined takes. “We don’t need to think beyond the box,” he explains. “We sort of want to believe ‘lost art’ — things that we are not doing anynbsp;more.”

And so he is currently exploring some of the more forgotten dishes of this Ashkenazi cooking canon. There is the baby beef, obviously, but also things like de’tcha, a calves-foot jelly, and kishke, basically a sausage of matzo meal, vegetables, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and seasoning stuffed into beef gut that Rose plans to function griddled instead of cooked in gravy as is typical. “It is one million times better,” henbsp;states.

As a business owner as opposed to a historian though, there is ultimately the question of if it is possible to market griddled kishke — a brown on brown dish which can not be saved by any Instagram filter — to today’s diners. “It lands in the exact same place with baby beef or tongue in which people are like, ‘Why can I order that?'” Rosenbsp;says.

“But we will keep trying. You’ve tonbsp;attempt.”

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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