On Monday evening, many Jewish families and communities will gather for Passover's traditional Seder meal. Passover, which is a week-long holiday marking the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt, is a time when leavened bread is not eaten, since it’s believed that bread did not have time to rise during the flight from Egypt. Instead, matzo, a cracker-like unleavened flat bread, is often the center piece of a Passover Seder.
In New York City, the Streit and Russ families are well-known names on the Lower East Side. For generations, the families have partnered to provide Kosher foods for Passover. Streit’s specializes in ceremonial, handmade matzo, which is also known as shmura. A few blocks away, Russ & Daughters is the neighborhood’s legendary appetizing shop and is generally known for its delicious fish and dairy items served on bagels.
Niki Russ Federman is one of the fourth generation owners of Russ & Daughters. She notes that shumra matzo is often only eaten during the Seder meal, while machine-made matzo is consumed during the rest of Passover. She says you may not be able to taste a difference between the two different matzo.
“Honestly, taste is not the goal for Passover,” says Niki Russ Federman.
"It’s not necessarily what you’re looking for when you’re eating matzo,” adds Josh Russ Tupper, the other fourth-generation owner of Russ & Daughters.
Instead, the reason for the ceremonial matzo is because it is made with strict Kosher oversight.
“It’s very labor intensive, too, because shmura matzo has to be finished, produced, within no more than 18 to 22 minutes from dough making to baking,” explains Federman, who notes that the process is also watched over by a rabbi and the dough is kneaded continuously to ensure it does not rise. “The kitchen area is cleaned after every baking so that no old dough remains.”
In addition to matzo, gefilte fish is traditionally eaten at the Seder meal, though it’s a food that seems to be loved and loathed in equal measure.
“Geflite fish comes from the Yiddish or the Germanic words meaning ‘stuffed,’ literally a stuffed or filled fish,” says Federman. “Traditionally, it’s made from whitefish, pike, and carp.”
She concedes that gefilte fish found at the supermarket—gray and floating around in a jar—might be off-putting, but she says that the fresh-made version is delicious.
“The juice around it—that I think is most off putting for most people because it’s gelatinous—is really a cooked down fish stock,” says Tupper. “Some people love that. I am not a fan of that gelatinous sauce, but the fish itself is great and you don’t have to have them together.”
Federman says that plenty of Russ & Daughters clients even ask for more of the sauce.
As opposed to gefilte fish, charoset is a more widely appealing and sweet Passover dish. At Russ & Daughters, it’s made with apples, golden raisins, toasted walnuts, cinnamon and ginger.
“Charoset symbolizes the brick and mortar that the Jews used in servitude to construct houses in Egypt,” explains Federman.
It also includes kosher wine, which provides a slight bitterness from the tannens.
“You always have to have a little bitterness in your Seder meal because you’re remembering the suffering that the Jews faced,” she says.
Beyond the ceremonial foods and procedural aspects, Passover is overall a chance for friends and families to come together to share a meal. Try out the recipes below at your own Seder.
Chopped Liver from Russ & Daughters
- 1/3 cup rendered and strained chicken schmaltz
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup "Carmelized Onions" (see recipe below)
- 2 1/2 pounds raw chicken livers, gall bladder removed, lobes cut in half, or quarters if large
- Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
- 2 hard-boiled large eggs, peeled and chopped
1. Rinse livers under cold water to remove blood; drain. Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add schmaltz and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add caramelized onions. Cook, stirring, until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes.
2. Add livers to skillet and season with salt. Cook, stirring, until livers begin to brown and insides are pink throughout, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer livers to a plate to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat remaining 2 teaspoons vegetable oil. Add chopped onions and cook, stirring, until golden brown; remove from heat and set sauteed onions aside.
4. Place cooled livers and caramelized onions in the bowl of a food processor; pulse until well combined. Transfer to a medium bowl. Stir in hard-boiled eggs, sauteed onions; season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate at least 3 hours before using.
Carmelized Onions from Russ & Daughters
- 1 pound Vidalia onions, each cut into eights
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 3/4 teaspoon sugar
Place onions in a medium skillet, along with oil and sugar. Place skillet over low heat and cover with a parchment paper-lined aluminum foil round. Cook, stirring every 10 minutes, until onions are caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes.