Islander combines ancient tradition with fearless innovation
Fresh ideas are blended with ancient culinary traditions year-round in Sara Salzman’s cozy Galveston kitchen, but the season of Passover holds special importance.
As her family members gather for this centuries-old celebration in mid-April, the dishes being prepared for their annual Seder dinner not only tell the story of one of the most important events in Jewish history, but also reflect her own lifelong love of exploring new ways to prepare old favorites.
Although Salzman declares she’s “just a home cook,” her expertise is recognized by not only family and friends, but the island’s Congregation B’nai Israel, where she has led a series of classes titled Jewish Culinary Connections.
Connections is an important word in Salzman’s culinary style, and in her classes she made a special point of introducing dishes representative of regions not usually thought to be Jewish.
“Jewish people — whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform — live all around the world today, and what they put on their tables varies widely with the location,” she said. “What Americans traditionally think of as Jewish dishes are usually of Eastern European origin, but there are Jewish people cooking in China, India and Africa — and wherever this food preparation is taking place, it is being adapted to the religious practices of its people, the flavor preferences of that area and the products available.”
As an example, Salzman cites the traditional recipe for charoset, an important part of the Passover Seder celebration.
“Most commonly, this is a combination of apples, walnuts, honey, wine and cinnamon, but there are places where you can’t get apples, so figs and dates are substituted,” she said, adding that sometimes it’s necessary to adapt recipes, but other times it’s just part of wanting to create something different.
For her own Seder, Salzman, a Reform Jew, brings out special tableware she uses with a combination of traditional foods used in the ceremonial retelling of the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt after being liberated from years of slavery under the pharaoh.
An Elijah’s cup is used to hold the wine reserved for that prophet whose return is always an anticipatory element in the Seder meal, and a more recently introduced Miriam’s cup is filled with water in recognition of a legend that Moses’ sister, Miriam, was able to find water in the wilderness during the Jewish people’s search for the Promised Land.
In addition to matzo, an unleavened bread served wrapped in a napkin, Salzman’s special Seder platter with decorative indentations holds the other symbolic foods that usually include a lamb shank, horseradish, parsley that is dipped in salt water, a boiled egg and charoset.
A hearty family dinner with more wine usually follows the commemorative Seder, and this meal often includes such additional dishes as matzo ball soup, a beef or poultry entrée and a variety of chilled vegetable salads.
Beyond the traditional Seder foods, other favorite recipes in Salzman’s repertoire include an adventuresome recipe for brisket that calls for 36 cloves of garlic and an old-world version of chopped liver, for which she uses an old-fashioned, hand-cranked meat grinder that once belonged to her mother.
Salzman’s willingness to combine culinary tradition with fearless innovation is a trait for which she credits her father.
“My father just loved being in the kitchen,” she said. “He cooked with a special joie de vivre, and especially enjoyed using leftovers in unexpected ways — he was especially known for such novel creations as his ‘cream of refrigerator soup’ and ‘cream of yesterday soup.’”
Salzman’s kitchen spans time and culture. Occupying an area that was probably originally built as a back porch for her 1880s Kemper Park home — a slightly sloping floor and beadboard ceiling hint at its original identity — the room is arranged in an efficient U-shaped configuration. Solid maple cabinetry lends a traditional ambience along with affording ample storage for Salzman’s plentiful supply of heavy-duty cooking tools and equipment.
Rustic, multi-toned tiles in earthen colors have been arranged in geometric patterns to frame the kitchen’s wide work counters topped in polished granite with an unusual rosette veining.
Occupying a central location, Salzman’s sturdy, well-used range includes a large oven and six top burners, one of which features an oversize center grid to accommodate the large cooking equipment so necessary for her culinary adventures, a passion that her adult son, Ari Schwartz, now shares.
On a recent sunny afternoon, as she and her son discuss the pros and cons of their differing methods of preparing matzo brei, she is obviously pleased that he is continuing the family tradition of innovative cookery and repeats her father’s two major bits of culinary advice: “You’ll never do anything interesting if you are not adventurous, and don’t be afraid to throw the whole thing in the trash and order a pizza.”
Sara Salzman describes this as Jewish French toast, and her son, Ari Schwartz, considers it among his specialties.
3 large matzos, broken into quarters
3 tablespoons butter or schmaltz (see instructions below)
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak pieces of matzo in hot water for 1 to 2 minutes, just until moistened through. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible, then break matzo up into smaller pieces.
Lightly beat eggs in a large bowl. Add matzo pieces and stir very gently. Over medium heat, melt butter or schmaltz in a skillet and pour the matzo-egg mixture into the skillet. Cook until set, then flip over like a pancake.
Continue to cook until the bottom is set and serve at once with powdered or cinnamon sugar, jam or maple syrup, or just enjoy it by itself.
A rendering of chicken fat, schmaltz is preferred to butter in many Jewish kitchens, especially when the combining of meat with dairy products is forbidden. Considered by many to be the magic ingredient in many recipes of Jewish origin, it is prepared by simmering a combination of finely chopped skin and other trimmings from a plump chicken in enough water to cover until the water evaporates, the trimmings begin to turn a golden brown and no white fat is visible.
At this point, the crispy pieces of skin — now known as gribenes — are removed with a slotted spoon, and the remaining rendered fat — now known as schmaltz — is poured into a container and stored in the refrigerator or freezer until needed.
Sara Salzman reports that gribenes is sometimes referred to as “Jewish popcorn,” and her family members line up when she’s cooking schmaltz because they know this tasty treat is on its way.
Servings: 8 to 10
4 medium apples, peeled and chopped
1 cup walnut pieces
1⁄4 cup honey
1⁄4 cup sweet red wine (Salzman suggests Manischewitz)
1⁄2 tablespoon cinnamon
Mix together the apples, walnut pieces. Add wine, honey and cinnamon to taste. Serve with other traditional Seder foods such as matzo, horseradish and parsley.
Servings: 8 to 10
1⁄2 pound pitted dates
1⁄2 pound chopped walnuts
1 large orange, peeled and quartered
2 large bananas, peeled
1⁄2 cup sweet red wine, such as Manischewitz
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄8 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Orange zest for garnish
Using a food processor, chop together the dates, walnuts and orange. Place in large bowl. Add mashed bananas to fruit and nut mixture and combine. Add wine, cinnamon, cloves and lemon juice. Mix well and garnish with orange zest.
Servings: 6 to 8
2 large cucumbers
1⁄3 cup minced scallions
1⁄4 cup white vinegar or lemon juice
Pinch of sugar
Fresh ground black pepper
Peel cucumbers and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds from interior and discard. Coarsely chop cucumbers. Place in serving bowl and combine with the remaining ingredients. Chill before serving.