After sharpening their Seder chops by hosting a Passover feast for the James Beard Foundation last year, Noah Bernamoff and Rae Cohen, the husband and wife duo behind the venerable Mile End Delicatessen – Boerum Hill’s temple to Montreal-style smoked meats – are bringing the tradition home to Brooklyn: They’ll be opening their deli doors to the public to host special Seder dinners this Friday and Saturday.
We asked Rae to walk us through the Seder customs, and to give us a preview of how the Mile End kitchen crew is planning on rocking out their own version of traditionally staid Passover fare.
Rae, tell us a little bit about the Seder dinner traditions in general, and about what you’ve got planned for Mile End’s version of the Passover feast.
Fundamentally, with Passover we’re celebrating the exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. At the core of the story and the tradition is matzo bread. When the Israelites were leaving Egypt in a hurry, they didn’t have time to leaven their bread, so the bread was baked on their backs as they were rushing to escape from Pharaoh’s reign, and their wasn’t time for it to rise. That’s why Jews eat unleavened bread instead of leavened bread at Passover, and for most people that’s the main thing.
Throughout the holiday we hand-bake our own matzo and serve it as an alternative to our house-baked rye bread, for those who want it. We don’t stop serving the rye – a lot of people want that – but we offer our own matzo too. Technically you’re supposed to cleanse your kitchen of all chametz – or leavened – products and non-kosher foods for Passover, but we offer both.
The Seder is the meal celebrated on the first two nights of Passover when families gather to retell the story of the exodus. There are a lot of very symbolic elements to the meal, most of which are centered around something called the Seder plate. The Seder plate is usually placed at the head of the table. There are six items on the plate and they each represent something specific.
There are the maror, or bitter herbs. When you eat the bitter herbs you’re supposed to really internalize the harsh treatment the Jews suffered during their time of slavery in Egypt. There’s the charoset, which is traditionally an apple and walnut mixture that symbolizes the bricks and mortar of the pyramids that the Jews were forced to build. There’s the karpas, which is a vegetable dipped in salt water, and that represents the tears our ancestors shed while they were enslaved. There’s the beitzah, which is a hard boiled egg, a symbol of the sacrifices offered in the temple in Jerusalem before it was destroyed, and also a symbol of the cycle of life. And we have the zeroah – the lamb shank bone – that also symbolizes the Paschal lamb that was sacrificed in the temple at Passover.
So those six elements of the Passover plate really inspire each course of the meal we’ll be hosting at the deli. We’ve taken inspiration from the Seder plate and used that as a starting point to reimagine and update a Seder meal.
Can you walk us through the Seder meal you’re planning? What are you going to be serving?
Sam Filloramo, the chef of the kitchen at the deli, put together the menu and it really looks amazing.
We’re starting with an egg and cauliflower dish, three ways. There’s going to be a five-minute egg, with the white just set and a runny yolk like you might find in a bowl of ramen. We’ll also have a sauce gribiche, made with the chopped yolk of a hard boiled egg and herbs, and a cured egg yolk that’s grated over the dish – almost like an egg salt. That’ll be served over a conserve puree of pickled cauliflower, some roasted cauliflower, and a cauliflower vinaigrette. It’s served with frisee and topped with matzo breadcrumbs. So the egg in the dish is inspired by the beitzah and the frisee and herbs in the sauce gribiche reference the maror – the bitter herbs - of the Seder plate.
We’re doing a gefilte fish, which is just one of those classic dishes you can’t go without on Passover. But the gefilte fish we’ll be serving at the deli Seder is definitely not your grandmother’s gefilte fish. We’re actually making a whitefish sausage, with fresh white fish and schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat. It’s going to be a really light, airy sausage, topped with a crispy beet chip and a chrain beurre blanc. Chrain is a pickled horseradish that’s colored with beet juice. Horseradish is another really traditional part of the Seder meal that ties in with the maror.
For the soup, it’s a reimagined version of matzo ball soup. It’s going to be a consommé of roasted beef bone, fortified with oxtail. We’re making the matzo ball with bone marrow instead of the traditional schmaltz, and there’s going to be some oxtail meat in the bowl as well.
The entrée is braised lamb shank, with the meat pulled off the bone and set atop a bed of matzo stuffing. It’s almost a sweet and sour stuffing, based on Tzimmes, a traditional Passover stew made with carrots and prunes. We’re taking those elements, adding sunflower seeds, and doing it in the form of a stuffing made with matzo. And that’s going to be served with a little bit of lamb bacon mustard, which is a kind of crazy accompaniment that they’ve come up with. They actually soaked the mustard seeds in lamb bacon fat.
Braised lamb is a classic springtime dish. You see it on many Easter tables as well. For our Passover Seder its symbolic of the zeroah on the Seder plate – the Paschal lamb.
For the dessert, we’re playing on the charoset – the apple and walnut dish on the Seder plate that’s meant to represent the bricks and mortar used to build the pyramids. That’ll be our house-baked matzo, covered in chocolate ganache and topped with an apple, walnut and red wine sauce.
Another part of the Seder tradition is to have four glasses of wine, so we’ll be offering wine pairings with four of the courses as well.
So we’re going to have a traditional Seder plate set at the center of each table, and each course of the actual meal will be inspired by some combination of the six traditional elements on the Seder plate.
At a traditional Seder, I know that reciting the meaning of the foods on the Seder plate and telling the story of the exodus is an important part of the meal. Will you be doing anything along those lines at the deli?
We’re keeping it as laissez-faire as possible. The meals will be served to each table together at the same time to everyone can partake together. We’ll be providing Haggadahs at each table, so if certain tables want to tell the story amongst themselves they’re mor than welcome to do so.
Tell us about the Haggadah?
The Haggadah is the Seder book, which sort of presents the story of the exodus. Seder actually means ‘order,’ so the Haggadah tells the story of the order of this meal. It goes through each of the elements of the story, and includes historical narrative, some blessings, and conversation about each of the elements on the Seder plate…so the Haggadah is the book that sort of organizes the meal.
We haven’t finalized this, but we’re coming out with a cookbook in the fall, and we’re working with a publisher who has a Haggadah app that they just released. So we’re hoping to have iPads on the tables that will have this new Haggadah app, but that’s not definite yet.
We’ll definitely encourage conversation across the tables. The only other themed group dinner that we’ve done has been our traditional Jewish Christmas dinner, where we serve Chinese food. Of course the narrative there is a little bit less specific than at a Seder, but even there, there was a lot of conversation between the guests. So we’re definitely looking forward to seeing how people share the meal and tell the story in the context of a Seder at our deli.
And you’re offering a catering menu as well?
We are. The catering menu skews towards the more traditional. Instead of rethinking and updating the meal like we are at the restaurant, for the catering menu we’re trying to make the best version you can imagine of what your grandmother may…or may not have made for you as a child at Passover. Ha ha.
To make reservations for Mile End’s Seder feast, call 646-494-9508. Spots are available at the 6pm and 8:30pm seatings on Friday, April 6th, and at 6pm on Saturday, April 7th.
If you’d rather do your Seder at home, check Mile End’s Passover catering menu. Orders are due by the end of the day on Tuesday, April 3rd.