Si, Esther, Mexican works for Passover menus, too
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Si, Esther, Mexican works for Passover menus, too

During Passover, most American Jews forgo the zesty tacos and tortillas they savor all year. But what if someone knew how to prepare Mexican food without flour or leavening? What if his recipes were served during the holiday’s eight days in an upscale restaurant?

“Several years ago I began experimenting with the infusion of Mexican ingredients and Jewish foods,” says Julian Medina, chef and owner of Toloache, a contemporary Mexican bistro in Manhattan’s theater district.

He started small, offering clients guacamole with matzoh instead of the usual chips. Then his creativity blossomed into a complete holiday menu, featuring chipotle-braised brisket and matzoh ball soup seasoned with aromatic herbs and jalapeño peppers.

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Julian Medina says he still can’t believe the Passover menu at his Manhattan bistro Toloache has become so popular. Courtesy Julian Medina

Why would a chef from Mexico City who had dazzled clients at Maya and Pampano, two of Manhattan’s best Mexican restaurants, turn to Jewish cuisine for inspiration?

Although Medina was born a Catholic, he converted to Judaism. Six years ago, when he was dating the Jewish woman who would become his wife, he started spending holidays with her family. It sparked a curiosity about her religion that continued to grow the more he learned about Jewish rituals.

From the beginning he was intrigued by each holiday’s traditional fare, as he tasted the foods his future mother-in-law prepared. It wasn’t long before he started seasoning Jewish recipes with the flavors of his youth.

Medina explored Jewish cooking, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

“This is what chefs do when exposed to cuisines that excite them – they conduct research to develop new recipes,” he says. “Food is never static. It changes every day.”

His matzoh tostada recipe was influenced directly by Sephardic cuisine, as were the matzoh tortillas that accompany his brisket, a signature dish of Ashkenazi fare.

Many of his recipes benefit from the marriage of both cuisines.

While Medina’s matzoh ball soup bears the stamp of Ashkenazi cooking, it is seasoned with cilantro and jalapeño and finished with a squeeze of lime. His roasted halibut recipe is served with a cauliflower pancake reminiscent of a latke made from cauliflower rather than potatoes.

Soon after Medina opened Toloache, which is named for a flowering plant used in Mexican love potions, several friends asked him to serve a Passover menu at the restaurant. Like many New Yorkers, they adore fine dining but were not inclined to cook. Yet that didn’t stop them from craving seder foods, which they knew Medina would bring to a new level.

He responded by offering a dazzling Passover menu at Toloache, from first course through a dessert of matzoh pudding with roasted bananas.

Four years ago, 10 people were his first holiday patrons, arriving with friends, family, and kosher wine, Medina recalls.

“I wanted them to feel at home while celebrating Passover,” he says.

Word traveled and customers flocked to Toloache for Jewish foods with a piquant twist.

“I still can’t believe the menu has become so popular,” says Medina, explaining that articles about his Mexican-Jewish fusion cuisine have been published in The New York Times, among other New York newspapers and magazines.

On the first and second nights of the holiday, some customers bring kosher wine and read the Haggadah, performing an entire seder. Others simply relish Passover food Mexican-style. During Passover week, nearly 100 people order holiday fare at Toloache as an alternative to cooking at home.

“People can adapt our Passover menu in any way they want,” Medina says.

While the kitchen at Toloache is not made kosher for Passover, Medina’s recipes conform to the Passover laws of kashrut. By sharing his recipes, Medina has offered home cooks the option of turning one of the holiday’s eight nights into a celebration of Mexican Jewish food.

With his Passover menu becoming so popular at Toloache, Medina now offers Rosh HaShanah and Chanukah dishes infused with Mexican spices.

Medina’s wife suspects that at some point the Medina family was Jewish. Some early settlers in Mexico who had emigrated from Spain were Conversos, Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Perhaps the Medina family had been Conversos. The origin of their name is Hebrew and Arabic. Several Jewish families in Spain have carried the surname Medina. In the Spanish province of Cadiz, in the city Medina-Sidonia, it was customary among Sephardim to be named for the city of origin.

Regardless of his family origins, these days Medina celebrates Passover like most Jews around the world – at home.

“I cook dinner with my wife’s mom,” he says, explaining how he learned Jewish cooking by standing at her side in the kitchen. “Now we plan the menu together.”

Medina’s mother-in-law likes the way he has tweaked her recipes and approves of the foods he has added to the family repertoire.

“Passover is always a special occasion,” Medina says. “There is something awe-inspiring about repeating the story of the ancient Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh’s tyranny in Egypt to the Promised Land.”

The holiday is even more meaningful now that Medina is the father of a year-old daughter. While she is too young to recite the Four Questions, she’s already tasted matzoh tortillas – served with chipotle salsa, of course.

The recipes below are by Medina.

Julian’s Matzoh Ball Soup

Yield: 4 servings

Chicken Soup

Ingredients:

3 quarts of water

Salt to taste

1 whole chicken, skinned and cut into 8 pieces

1 carrot, cut in squares

2 stalks of celery, cut in pieces

1 onion, cut into quarters

3 cilantro leaves

1/2 jalapeño, seeded and cut into pieces

Preparation: In a stockpot, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add chicken and remaining soup ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes. Skim the fat. Strain broth and set aside. (Use caution when handling hot soup.)

Matzoh Balls

Ingredients:

2 large eggs

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

1/2 cup matzoh meal

2 tbsp. chicken broth

Kosher salt to taste

Preparation: Mix all matzoh ball ingredients together and let mixture rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. With wet hands, roll into 8 balls. Do not over roll. Add matzoh balls to soup and simmer for 5 minutes. Check seasoning. If necessary, add kosher salt.

Finishing touches

Ingredients:

1 carrot, peeled and cut into a 1/4-inch dice

1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch dice

2 tbsp. red onion, chopped

1 lime

Preparation: Cook the carrot and zucchini in the chicken soup. Serve 2 matzoh balls per bowl with some chicken soup, carrots, and zucchini. Garnish with a teaspoon of red onion and a squirt of lime.

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Brisket Con Chipotle

(Braised Brisket with Tomato and Chipotle)

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients:

2 lbs. brisket

Kosher salt to taste

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 tbsp. garlic cloves, chopped

1 onion, chopped

6 plum tomatoes, cut in quarters

1/2 tbsp. cumin

1/2 tbsp. dry oregano

1 bottle red wine

4 cups of water

3 tbsp. chipotle pepper puree (available in supermarkets)

1 bay leaf

Garnish: 1 red onion, chopped, and 1 avocado, cut into six slices

Preparation: 1. Season the brisket with salt. In a roasting pan, heat the oil until it’s smoky hot and sear the brisket well, all around.

2. Transfer it to a platter. Lower the flame and sauté the garlic, onion, tomatoes, and the rest of the ingredients (except the garnish). Season and let the mixture cook for 10 minutes.

3. Return the brisket to the roasting pan. Cover and cook in a 350-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, or until very tender. Cool brisket to room temperature. Slice the brisket and reheat in the same sauce. Serve 2 matzoh tortillas (recipe below) per plate, filled with braised brisket and garnished with chopped red onion and a slice of avocado.

Matzoh Tortillas

Yield: 12 tortillas

Ingredients:

2 cups matzoh cake meal

1 tsp. salt

1 cup warm water

1 tbsp. olive oil, plus additional oil for frying

Preparation: Place the matzoh cake meal, salt, warm water, and 1 tablespoon oil in a bowl. Mix ingredients very well with your hands, until you form soft dough. With your hands, form 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape. Preheat additional oil on a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame. Fry the matzoh tortillas until browned.

Matzoh Tostada Yucatan Style

(Crispy matzoh tortilla, achiote-smoked sea bass salad, and horseradish-jalapeño salsa)

Yield: 6 servings

Smoked Sea Bass

Ingredients:

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1/4 cup orange juice

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 lb. smoked sea bass or any white fish

Salt to taste

Preparation: In a bowl, mix the rice vinegar, and orange juice. Emulsify the olive oil by whisking it into vinegar mixture. Toss liquids with smoked fish and season well with salt. Place fish mixture in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Matzoh Tostaditas

Ingredients:

2 cups matzoh cake meal

1 tsp. salt

1 cup warm water

1 tbsp. olive oil, plus additional olive oil for frying

Preparation: 1. In a bowl, mix the matzoh cake meal, salt, warm water, and 1 tablespoon of oil very well with your hands, until you form soft dough.

2. With your hands, form 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape.

3. Using 2 tablespoons of oil, preheat a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame. Place matzoh tortillas on griddle. Cook on both sides, until they are soft. Then pour additional olive oil into a frying pan. Preheat oil to 300 degrees. Fry the tortillas in oil until crisp.

Salsa

Ingredients: 1/2 small red onion, diced

2 tbsp.s fresh horseradish, grated

1 small seedless jalapeño, chopped

2 tbsp. lemon juice

2 tbsp. orange juice

1/2 tbsp. honey

Salt to taste

Preparation: Mix the onion, horseradish, and jalapeño, lemon juice, and orange juice with the honey. Season well with salt. Serve the smoked fish with matzoh tostaditas, topped with the horseradish salsa.

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Roasted Halibut, Passover Cauliflower Pancake, and Hibiscus Chipotle Glaze

Yield: 4 servings

Pancakes

Ingredients:

1 cup cauliflower

2 whole eggs

1/2 cup matzoh meal

Kosher salt to taste

Butter or margarine for frying

Preparation: Steam cauliflower until tender. Puree with eggs, matzoh meal, and salt. Place some butter or margarine in a frying pan on a medium flame. Ladle 3-inch round pancakes into pan and fry them. Set aside.

Sauce

Ingredients:

1/4 cup hibiscus flowers (found in the tea section of supermarkets)

1/2 cup sugar

1 tbsp. chipotle pepper pure or jalapeño, chopped

2 cups of water

1 orange peel, zested

Kosher salt to taste

Preparation: In a saucepan, add all the ingredients and reduce to 3/4 of a cup. Blend all ingredients and strain through a colander. Check seasoning and keep warm.

Roasted Halibut

Preparation: Sear 4 six-ounce halibut fillets until golden brown and cooked through.

To serve, place a pancake on each plate and drizzle with the hibiscus sauce. Place a halibut fillet beside pancake.

JTA

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