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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Walking into my rabbi’s house in Maplewood, N.J., I saw a bowl sitting on the kitchen counter filled with a mysterious concoction. Not knowing what it was, but always curious when it comes to food and recipes, I questioned the rabbi’s wife. Frumi answered, “That’s roe, fresh from the fish market in New York.”

“You know,” she went on, “fish eggs.” She explained that her mother-in-law serves it just like that, sliced up. Frumi cooks up the roe and offers it as a spread prepared with lots of fresh garlic and mayo. What really made me so curious was that we never had it in our house, but my aunt “by marriage” used to buy the fish roe. After my mother told me what it actually was, I was happy she didn’t include it on our menu.

Seeing a plate of roe for the first time and hearing about the ways it is served, gave me pause. A simple email to my cousin Shari to find out if she has her mother’s recipe brought just enough information. “No I don’t, but as far as I remember you cut up onion, put in lemon juice, rub the roe in a small hand colander.” “Used as an appetizer, or whenever,” Shari continued, “I think we dipped bread in it or even put [it] on matzo.”

Even that brought back memories and another question for Shari. Does she remember that our paternal Aunt Fannie always cautioned that the potatoes and onions needed to be grated by hand when making latkes for Hanukkah? “A blender or food processor does not produce the proper consistency,” she insisted… “and a little blood from your fingers won’t hurt,” she laughed.

Emailing back to Shari, asking what type of fish was used by her mother, the reply was that she thought it was carp. Just one more question was left. Was the roe served hot or cold? Shari replied, “Eaten cold.” I will run Aunt Cerna’s recipe by Frumi and find out what type of fish roe was in her kitchen. Is her’s only served as a cold dish? Is her mother-in-law’s served warm?

This all got me to thinking about p’tcha. My mother routinely made that “delicacy” of jellied calves’ feet when my father’s brother came down from Hancock, N.Y. to visit us in Roselle, and later in Elizabeth, N.J. We kind of knew that Uncle Morris was coming when the smell of the garlic and bones cooking wafted through the house. That pungent smell is etched in my brain.

The recipe is in my manuscript, Kitchen Talk. While the book really delves into family discussions that took place in our kitchen, there are some recipes included for readers, and most importantly, for family to keep connected with their culinary heritage. Was this recipe handed down from my paternal grandmother Sarah, brought from across the seas, from Ukraine?

The other day at shul a friend was talking about burning eggplant on the stove to peel the skin. That brought me back to another recipe that never touched my lips…eggplant relish.

In my mind’s eye, I can see my mother peeling the charred vegetable. She prepared the mixture and refrigerated it in a pickle jar. Of her four children, only my eldest brother Nate was a fan of that dish. Off went another email the same night to get those ingredients.

When I woke up in the morning, I had my partial answer. There’s really no one else who would know where the recipe came from. My guess is that it was handed down and that our grandma Beckie from Romania made the dish.

My mother’s own mother prepared many Romanian specialties, but passed away when my mother was 19. Nate said, “It probably was passed down to Mom. I updated it with different options; they all come out pretty good.”

Even though not part of my meal-planning repertoire, it’s good to know one of my mother’s four children does carry on the tradition. Al, Stu, and I never ate it, but we all knew that Nate did and I could still remember our mother telling him the recipe after he was married.

Whereas she had all of her recipes committed to memory, he not only had it written, but easily stored on his computer for me to download:

EGGPLANT RELISH

Take one large eggplant (or more, around 2½ lbs.)* for each quart jar and burn on open fire until inside cooks. (Burning the skin gives a unique flavor and I find it easier to par-boil first**). Then peel. Usually about six to eight medium size eggplants for four jars.

Per one quart, peel and chop up with approx. ½ to one small head of garlic, one small green pepper (can add red pepper), two to three small pickled hot peppers, and/or one or two jalapenos (fresh peppers can be used, but use very small amount of cherry hots), one Tbs. sugar, one Ts. salt and vinegar approx. to mostly fill jar, but leave some room.

All can be blended together in food processor rather than chopped. If using processor, garlic should be added later. (Don’t overdo processing).

Let cool and settle overnight in fridge. Add more vinegar and mix well.

Modify all ingredients to taste. Hint, if too potent, adding more sugar will reduce potency. It will probably take 1 ½ to 2 hours to make four jars.

Don’t eat entire jar at one sitting.

* It can be difficult to judge exact amount, so it has to be done by approximate weight.

** Even though it is best, it can be difficult to burn over open flame so you can try broiling in oven, or just boiling will do if need be.

With further questioning, Nate added, “The most difficult job is to make sure almost all of the burnt peel is removed. Eaten cold, it can be consumed with almost anything. Each person has their own preference. A relish is something most commonly served with an entree as a side dish.” Asking if our mother used a hockmesser to chop it, he replied that she hocked it in a wooden bowl.

Papa Harry from White Russia took over in the kitchen when his wife died. My mother spoke of his delectable gefilte fish and chicken dishes, but as I said, she didn’t have the recipes written down and with all the foods she did make from scratch, her father’s gefilte fish was not one of them.

As a child, my parents took me along to Rabbi Zuber, our revered rabbi in Roselle, when they went to sell the chometz. My biggest memory is my mother walking in and saying to his wife that she smelled the gefilte fish she was making in her basement and it reminded her of the homemade fish her father made.

Relying on your five senses, recall your traditional foods. Then make your calls or send those anytime-of-day-or-night emails and record your family recipes. Nowadays more recipes come from cookbooks, but in my mother’s time they came from the generations before or possibly from a friend or someone in the community. They probably also had them handed down.

With no plans for making these dishes, nor the tongue, and especially not the sweetbreads, it must be the nostalgia that is making me work so hard to find the recipes. But, bring on the kishka!

By Sharon Mark Cohen