“We invite different people to celebrate Passover with us from year to year,” begins David Bracha, chef-owner of Miami’s River Seafood & Oyster Bar and Oak Tavern. “Some are Jewish, some not, but they are consistently blown away by my mother’s chicken soup with matzo balls.”
The 49-year old Bracha fondly recalls the family Seders of his childhood in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, but his mother now lives in Delray Beach, his father in Los Angeles and his sister in Cleveland.
These days, he and his wife Joan host a rather intimate Passover dinner at their Buena Vista home. Joining them around the table are their 11-year-old son, 7-year-old daughter, his mom, sometimes his sister, and usually a few friends. But you won’t find this accomplished culinarian in the kitchen chopping the charoset or bitter herbs (maror). Like Jewish sons everywhere, he lets Mom do the cooking.
What differentiates Passover Seder from other celebratory feasts is a narrative, read from the Haggadah, that connects the symbolic foods of the meal with the story of the Jews’ enslavement in and Exodus from Egypt. Charoset, for example, a diced or pureed mix of apples, nuts, honey and wine, represents the mortar used by Israelites to build structures for their Egyptian masters. The maror is meant to remind diners of the bitterness of the servitude. Put maror and charoset together between two pieces of matzo and you’ve got a “Hillel Sandwich.” Add a little mayonnaise and you’ll likely have to wait a long time before getting invited to another Seder.
But the meal is likewise about sustaining Judaism from generation to generation through familial and cultural ties. David’s wife is Irish Catholic, and they are not religious, but “It is important for us that our children understand their heritage, and more importantly, the stories and history.” Of equal significance, “It forces us to slow down and have a familiar, comfortable meal with friends and family.”
Nothing is more comfortable than the chicken matzo ball soup. His mother, Lea Junger, learned the recipe from her mother growing up in Berno, Czechoslovakia, but “it goes way back.”
“She does several things differently than what we are taught as chefs,” Bracha says. “For instance, she doesn’t skim the soup, and she leaves the skin on the onion, which gives it a golden color.”
His mom also supplements the traditional carrots and celery with celeriac and parsley root (“difficult to find here, though common in Europe”). She finishes the broth with a bolt of freshly chopped parsley and dill just before serving.
“Definitely a ‘floater,’ ” Bracha says when asked which side of the court his mom’s matzo ball lands on in the “floater” vs. “sinker” volley. The debate is to Jewish women what meringue vs. whipped cream is to those Key lime pie makers, except it’s been going on for centuries.
Sinker aficionados seek small, dense kneidlachs (dumplings). Those in the float camp aim for more ethereal spheres, and towards this end employ beaten egg whites and/or club soda, or perhaps tinker with the proportion of egg to matzo meal (less of the latter lends lightness). David reveals his mom’s trick for a buoyant ball: “Refrigerate the batter for an hour or two, so the matzo meal absorbs all the liquid.”
The soup and most other Seder staples are prepared in traditional Ashkenazi style at the Bracha home. But because the chef’s father, Sabi Bracha, hails from Tel Aviv, some items on the table, such as an appetizer of red mullet stewed with tomatoes, herbs and spices, speak of the Sephardic influence on that side of the family.
Bracha acts as Seder sommelier. “There are better kosher wines today than ever before,” he says, and, being tactful, doesn’t even mention Manishewitz by name. For chicken matzo ball soup and charoset, he recommends “something with a touch of sweetness, like a gewurtztraminer or riesling.” For the mullet, he would choose “a light-bodied red chinon, or even a sherry.”
While chef Bracha won’t be cooking the holiday dinner in his house, during Passover week he will be preparing chicken soup with matzo balls at his new Oak Tavern restaurant in the Design District.
“Just the way my mom makes it,” he says with pride.