Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.
I was on a walk in my Oakland neighborhood a few months ago when I passed a sidewalk box of older cookbooks, free for the taking. Without even seeing their titles, I knew exactly what they were just by their colors, lettering and cover designs.
If you’re of my generation and your mother was a fantastic self-taught home cook like mine of blessed memory was, there were a few canonical cookbooks in her collection. I was certain that the person who left this box — let’s be honest, it was probably a woman — was a contemporary of my mother’s.
Along with a Jewish baking book or two were three of the most recognizable culinary tomes of my mother’s time: “The Moosewood Cookbook” (by Berkeley resident Mollie Katzen), published in 1977; “The New York Times Cookbook” by Craig Claiborne (my mother’s first edition was published in 1961, so it could have been a wedding present), and “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, which came out in 1979.
I inherited them when she died, and all three have the kind of splattered pages found in any well-loved cookbook. My mother sent me off to college with “Moosewood” and its companion, “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,” because I was a vegetarian in those years. But when I think back to my mother’s Rosh Hashanah table, it is a dish from “The Silver Palate” that I think about most.
This dish is so well-known and beloved — and, quite frankly, written to death about — that I don’t even have to name it. (It’s Chicken Marbella.) There’s nothing specifically Jewish about it, except that it includes prunes — and prunes are automatically Jewish, aren’t they?
According to a 2013 Tablet article, Chicken Marbella was one of three dishes Rosso and Lukins offered when they opened their takeout shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1977. It was inspired by a trip the women took to Spain, where green olives were ubiquitous, and Morocco, where tagines often have olives and dried fruit, giving the eater sweet and salty bites in the same dish.
Lukins was Jewish, Rosso was not, so the combining of dried fruit with meat was familiar to Lukins and totally foreign to Rosso.
For those who lived through the 1980s without ever managing to eat Chicken Marbella, the recipe calls for marinating the chicken for a day or more in a mélange of prunes, capers, juice from said capers, green olives, garlic, brown sugar, red wine vinegar and white wine.
Of course, my mother was far from alone in her love for this dish, but what’s interesting is how prevalent it was on Jewish holiday tables. Numerous Jewish publications have written about the phenomenon. In addition to the article in Tablet, I found one in the Forward and another in The Nosher with the headline “It Isn’t Rosh Hashanah at My House Without This Chicken.” Jewish cooking doyenne Joan Nathan offered her own version in her 2005 book “The New American Cooking,” and Israeli British chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi offered a redo in his 2018 cookbook “Simple,” with dates taking the place of the prunes. His version is now a favorite of mine.
Because I couldn’t interview my mom about why she loved the dish so much, I called Sarah Neiman, one of her close friends with whom we used to do the holidays and who now happens to live in San Francisco.
Sarah cooked the dish just as often as my mom did. She said she had changed the type of olive called for in the recipe, but continued making the dish up until a year or two ago.
“I’ve never had anyone not like it, which is kind of amazing when you think about a recipe,” she said.
As the pandemic drags on and the wildfire season wreaks havoc, comfort food seems like just the thing to focus on this Jewish new year.
When we did our Zoom seders, we were early enough in the pandemic to believe we’d be able to gather again by Rosh Hashanah. Now, of course, we know that our Rosh Hashanah dinners will look very much like our Passover seders did. We may be tired of home cooking by now. We may be saddened about celebrating the holidays again with just our immediate families or, worse, without them. Or we might be thinking about how holiday dinners sustained us in our childhoods.
We asked three Bay Area Jewish food professionals to reflect on dishes they remember from their family Rosh Hashanah tables. For caterer Jeffrey Weinberg, it was his mother’s chopped liver. For chef Ari Feingold, it was his mother’s standard Shabbos and holiday chicken. For chef Beth Needelman, it was lox on Rosh Hashanah morning. In reading these reflections, maybe something will spark warm memories of your own — and if you’re lucky, not only of the food itself, but of the loved one who made it special.
Watch how Mom does it
Jeffrey Weinberg, owner of Sunnyvale-based JW Catering, remembers chopped liver as a staple on his holiday table growing up.
Weinberg, who started a new Jewish deli concept during the pandemic called the Marvelous Matzah Experiment, has worked as a caterer for years and taught his cooks to make many dishes the way he likes them. But when he wanted them to learn how to make chopped liver, he asked his mother, Mitzi Weinberg, who lives at Rossmoor, to come show how it’s done.
While Mitzi remembers her own mother making it in a big wooden bowl using a red, double-bladed chopper, these days Mitzi uses a Cuisinart. And while her mother used calves’ livers, she prefers chicken. She also doesn’t caramelize her onions, as many cooks do, preferring to sauté them until just translucent. “I’m not a fancy cook,” she said.
Mitzi wrote out the recipe for this piece, but normally she does it by feel. “I’m 75, I’ve been making it for a long time,” she says. She stresses the importance of not overblending the liver and onions so the mixture doesn’t turn mushy, and says seasoning shouldn’t happen while it’s still hot because the flavor changes as it cools. Mitzi added that she served the chopped liver on a bed of lettuce and used cherry tomato halves as a garnish. She also always bought honey in the bear-shaped squeeze bottles to send home with her guests.
To order the chopped liver, visit jwcatering.com/marvelous-matzah-experiment.
Mitzi’s Chopped Liver
- 12 jumbo eggs
- 2 lbs. chicken livers
- 2 large sweet onions
- Vegetable oil for sautéing
Boil eggs till hard-boiled. Use a food processor to chop eggs and set aside.
Sauté livers until fully cooked but not dry. Sauté onions till translucent. Drain liver and onions and combine them in a food processor. Pulse until coarse consistency is achieved. Important! Inspect very frequently to avoid overprocessing. Do not overprocess!
Combine the chopped eggs with the processed liver and onions in a bowl. Let cool for a couple hours in a refrigerator. Then season with salt, a little at a time. It may be necessary to grate more onion into the mix for taste. Enjoy!
Gravlax for a sweet year
A holiday salad made with gravlax is Beth Needelman’s tribute to her paternal grandfather, who fled the pogroms in the 1890s and came to America, where he maintained his love of pickles, salty-cured salmon and sour cream for the rest of his life.
“Lox was and still is an early morning High Holiday treat for my family,” says Needelman, whose upbringing in Poughkeepsie, New York, was not particularly religious, but getting together with family for the holidays was a must.
Needelman, a chef with the Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group, is behind another new concept to come out of the pandemic, Schmaltz in San Francisco. She has reinvented many Jewish dishes, giving each her own modernist spin. She is doing both meal kits, which require light cooking at home, and finished dishes, some with special themes, such as a Moroccan Jewish meal for Shabbat.
One of the dishes that will be included in the meal kit in the coming weeks is a salad made with gravlax.
Though lox generally is considered more of a breakfast or lunch food, Needelman has worked with Hi Neighbor chef and partner Jason Halverson to turn lox into an evening salad to complement their Rosh Hashanah meal kit.
“Since the gravlax is made with sugar, it adds the required sweetness for the new year,” said Needelman. “It’s also incredibly easy to make.”
Order from Schmaltz on Doordash.
Gravlax with Roasted Beets, Whipped Mascarpone, Cucumbers and Dill
- 2½ lbs. salmon fillet, skin on, pin bones removed
- ½ cup kosher salt
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- 3 lemons, zested
- ½ Tbs. black peppercorns
- ½ Tbs. whole coriander seed
- ½ Tbs. dill seeds
- 1 lb. cooked beets, medium diced and julienned
- 3 Persian cucumbers, sliced
- ½ cup mascarpone, whipped
- 1 bunch dill, picked
- 1 bunch chives, cut into batons
In a small bowl, combine the salt, sugar and lemon zest.
Using the side of a knife or a blender, crack peppercorns, coriander seeds and dill seeds. Add the spices to the bowl with the salt, sugar and zest.
Place plastic wrap over a large baking dish, extending wrap at least 4 inches over the dish on each side. More than one piece of overlapping plastic wrap may be used.
Distribute half of the cure mixture lengthwise over the plastic wrap. Place the fish skin side down into the cure. Cover the flesh side of the fish with the remaining cure mixture. The flesh of the fish should be opaque and fully covered in cure mixture.
Using the remaining plastic wrap, tightly cover the fish. The fish should be fully covered in plastic wrap.
Press the fish, evenly distributing pressure. Items such as a small cutting board or baking dish topped with heavy cans placed on top of the fish work well for this step.
Place fish in the refrigerator for a total of 12 hours. At the 6-hour mark, flip the fish over and continue to press.
Once finished pressing, remove the fish from the plastic wrap. Rinse the fish under cold water to remove any remaining cure and then dry using an absorbent towel. Place the fish on a baking sheet flesh side up and return to the refrigerator uncovered for 3 hours.
To plate, starting at the tail of the fish, thinly slice the flesh at an angle (leaving skin behind). Distribute the gravlax slices evenly across a serving platter. Add beets, cucumbers, dollops or quenelles of mascarpone, dill and chives to garnish.
A crispy chicken proposition
Chef Ari Feingold grew up in Philadelphia. He began his career in food in the Bay Area by coordinating the food vendors at the Outside Lands music festival and then opened Straw in San Francisco, the only carnival-themed restaurant in the country. Straw recently closed, and Feingold is now chef and co-owner of Proposition Chicken, with locations on Market Street next to Hayes Valley and on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue.
Chicken comes either rotisserie or fried, and matzah ball soup is always on the menu. An Israeli salad with tahini dressing is a standard side for the chicken.
“We ate a much simpler version of this chicken every Friday night and on all of the High Holidays,” he said.
Feingold’s mother is Israeli-born, and he grew up in a kosher home. His grandmother was Hungarian, which he suspects is why paprika was the most commonly used spice in his childhood home.
“The chicken and most other food I grew up eating on Shabbat and holidays had salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder,” he said. “I’m not even sure that I realized other spices existed. And we never bought olive oil because it was too expensive, so we used exclusively vegetable oil. Since the chickens were kosher, they were presalted.”
While his mother cooked her chicken in an oven, and the restaurant uses a rotisserie, the color is very much the same, due to the paprika.
At the restaurants, Feingold has upgraded to olive oil with spices “for a deeper, fuller flavor, but the smell and color is the same, mostly because of the paprika.”
To order from Proposition Chicken, visit propositionchicken.com.
Ari Feingold’s Holiday Chicken
- 3-lb. chicken
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 Tbs. paprika
- 1½ tsp. cumin
- 2½ Tbs. kosher salt (we like Diamond)
- 1 Tbs. black pepper
- 1 Tbs. garlic powder
- ¾ tsp. cayenne
Salt bird at least 24 hours before cooking (about 1½ Tbs. for a 3-lb. bird).
Leave uncovered in fridge on the bottom shelf on a platter large enough so the sweat doesn’t contaminate anything else around the chicken. This step ensures very crispy skin and flavor that doesn’t just hit the skin but penetrates the meat.
Preheat oven to 425.
Butcher the chicken. Whisk together paprika, cumin, remaining 1 Tbs. of salt, pepper, garlic powder and cayenne and slowly pour into oil, whisking heavily. Rub the chicken pieces with the mixture. Brush generously before and during the cooking process. (It should be the color of a beautiful sunset when going into the oven.)
Take out of the fridge about 30 minutes before cooking, so you aren’t putting super cold chicken in the oven.
Place chicken on lightly greased roasting pan with a bit of space between pieces so it doesn’t steam and skin stays crisp.
Lower oven to 350 as soon as you put the chicken in (adjust if using a convection oven). You will lose significant heat on that first open, so the 425 preheat accounts for that. Cook until internal temperature is 160.
If breasts seem done before dark meat, you can either cover them with foil for the beginning of the process if you want all the chicken to come out together, or you can simply take them out of the oven early. A rule of thumb is that if the juice is clear, the bird is done.
Every oven is different, so this usually takes about an hour, but it can change a lot depending on many variables. I typically check at the 30-minute mark and adjust if needed, by flipping the pan 180 degrees, moving the rack up or down or adjusting the temperature.
Let the chicken rest out of the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes so it stays juicy. It will keep cooking outside of the oven.
Top with fresh cut chives (chop very small) after roasting is complete. If you want to get fancy at the end, use all that spiced schmaltz from the pan to make an excellent sauce, or roast veggies in it.