At Passover, a seasoned cook's thoughts turn to brisket. It's only natural; foods for a crowd that can be readied ahead characterize much of Jewish cookery, as Jayne Cohen wisely points out in "The Gefilte Variations."
However, braised beef with a rich sauce does not sing a song of spring, nor does it cater to the collegiate who has come home for the holidays with a newly meatless agenda.
Fish, on the other hand, has been treasured by Jews for centuries. Talmudic references link eating fish on the Sabbath with positive forces, abundance, fertility and optimism.
"There has always been a connection between Jews and fish," says Joan Nathan, whose award-winning 1994 "Jewish Cooking in America" included tales of Yemenite white fish, Alsatian stewed carp, Turkish fish in rhubarb sauce and New England molded halibut. "Even in Jerusalem, which is landlocked, fish would come certain days of the week; it was considered something special."
Fish is also a practical choice for the holiday table — especially for Rosh Hashanah, when fish is cooked and served with the head on to symbolize the head of the new year — because it is pareve, meaning it can be eaten with meat or dairy, and because it can be light and lovely, served hot or cold and sauced in so many ways.
Here's the catch: When Passover's seder meals fall midweek, as happens next Wednesday and Thursday, the matzoh ball soup and heavier main courses can be prepared the weekend before. The timing's not so good for fish, however, unless it happens to be presented as ground and poached balls of gefilte fish. Each year, though, that very emblematic Jewish dish becomes a harder sell for a growing segment of seder participants.
Fortunately, fish can cook in the time it takes to recite the Four Questions. Big, beautiful, showy sides of salmon or halibut can turn out perfectly, even for first-time cooks. Done whole or in large fillets, the fish stays incredibly moist. There's no need for an expensive poacher or steamer pan as long as there is heavy-duty aluminum foil and a rimmed baking sheet in the house.
Jewish baking expert Marcy Goldman experimented with skipping the baking sheet and cooked sides of salmon in her dishwasher for Passover. That was about 20 years ago, before she owned a proper fish poacher. The method had been talked about in cooking circles, and it appealed to her in an urban-legend way.
"I can only wonder what possessed me. I guess it was easy enough and weird, kind of like engine-block cooking," she says.
Goldman would stuff the fish with dill or onions or lemons, wrap it in parchment paper and then tightly in foil. She liked the way the top dishwasher rack cradled the length of the fish. But the technique resulted in uneven cooking, plus "the fish would be quite gummy and soggy, in a wet-steam kind of way," she says.
It certainly wasn't energy-efficient; "cooking" the fish often took a few cycles, plus it imbued the foil with a soapy smell and left the inside of her appliance with a wharflike aroma.
"I contacted the agriculture folks in Quebec, just to see whether it was safe," the Montreal resident remembers. "They said, 'Why on Earth would anyone take a good piece of sockeye and kill it in a bacteria-infested environment?' " And so ended her Passover experiments.
These days, Goldman still tends to eschew the fish poacher ("it makes a good window planter"), using a large pot or Dutch oven instead. She wraps a large fish fillet in on itself, creating what's called poisson en colere: "The fish looks like it's chasing its tail and stays remarkably intact." As an alternative, she recommends laying a lattice of soaked bamboo skewers on the bottom of a large roasting pan to elevate a big piece of fish for steaming in the oven or across two burners on the stove top.
(In the spirit of the season, Goldman also provided a killer dessert recipe for Passover, something Jewish cooks look for every year. It's a make-ahead torte, with sweet potato, chocolate ganache and her famous matzoh buttercrunch. Her recommendation: Make a double batch of the matzoh confection. It's addictive.)
Recipes for big fish can be as simple as this: Steam a side of salmon with lime zest, fresh ginger and cayenne, which makes a surprisingly bright and winning combination, then serve it hot or cold with a gingery vinaigrette and lots of citrus in pale greens, yellows, reds and oranges. Or use golden raisins to sweeten the mix of onions, celery, tomatoes and white wine that add flavor to whole, white-fleshed fish.
Neither treatment takes long to put together, and both can be made ahead of time, prepped in part or done start to finish in less than an hour. Whether they star solo or share entree honors alongside turkey or that perennial brisket, big fish will indeed bring something special to the Passover table.