Toronto Jewish chef gives traditional Passover foods a modern twist

TORONTO - Jewish chef Moishe Brown is trying to make gefilte fish, which he calls "basically the hot dog of the fish world for us," delicious.

Brown, executive chef and owner of Modern Kosher Catering, has been working on reinventing dishes traditionally served at many Passover seders, and gefilte fish quickly came to mind when thinking up menu ideas.

The often bland appetizer is typically made of bits of inexpensive fish formed into patties or balls.

"I'd been getting bored with gefilte fish and so I decided this year I was going to come up with some different concepts where I was using a harissa (a pepper paste or sauce) to poach the fish in," said Brown.

"We added tomatoes and onions and some paprika, some chili.... In my opinion, it has a much better flavour profile than just plain old gefilte fish with the mayonnaise and the horseradish that we normally use."

Younger people are ordering it, Brown said, and he plans to put out some platters of the revamped dish during two seders at the synagogue where his kitchen is housed.

This year, the start of the eight-day festival of Passover coincides with Good Friday. It commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Like most celebrations, food is a central component.

Brown's kitchen is a hive of activity as he and his staff prepare some 1,500 meals, including 300 at the synagogue's seders and the rest for private orders.

The seder ritual involves retelling the story of Exodus. Participants read text found in the Haggadah, drink four cups of wine and eat unleavened bread called matzo and other symbolic foods placed on the seder plate.

"They made their bread and they had to rush and leave and they put it on their back and used the sun to bake the bread. That's why we have these thin hard matzos," said Brown, who attended the Kosher Culinary School in Israel.

Other symbols on the plate may include a chicken or lamb shank bone representing the sacrifice in the temple. A hard-boiled egg symbolizes mourning. Bitter herbs, or maror, represents pain endured during slavery. Charoset, a mixture that can include grated apples, cinnamon, wine and chopped walnuts, depicts the mortar used by Hebrew slaves.

Traditions vary, but in Brown's case his kitchen must be deep cleaned before Passover food is prepared, to ensure there's no crumbs of leavened bread or other residue around.

"It takes three days to kosher a kitchen. We have to clean out the kitchen, then have to have a 24-hour down time before the rabbi can come in and do the burning."

Brown describes this as a blow torch being applied to the inside and top of ovens, mixers and other appliances. Surfaces are wrapped or covered for extra protection.

Because the seder service can take at least an hour and often much longer, Brown favours serving foods that can be kept warm and stay moist.

Brown, who recently teamed with celebrity chef Susur Lee to trade tips, is doing a tomato-herb braised chicken reminiscent of a chicken cacciatore.

He's using a sous-vide method with brisket. The meat is vacuum packed with brine and after a couple of days it's removed and seared. It's then returned to the vacuum packaging so it can be steamed.

"I get all the moisture to stay inside," said Brown. "Usually when you're cooking brisket you use about half of it. This way I'll lose about 30 per cent and it won't dry out."

One of Brown's most popular dishes is crepes. Staff make as many as 4,000 gluten-free crepes with a simple batter of eggs, potato starch, oil, salt and pepper. They're served with tomato or mushroom sauce.

Pastry chef Randi Kates has been whipping up gluten-free desserts from scratch. She replaces the flour with potato starch or matzo meal. A whipped cream product is non-dairy, gluten-free and kosher.

Her flourless chocolate cake, topped with chocolate ganache, is reminiscent of a truffle and one of their most popular Passover desserts.

"It consists of pure chocolate — because we're dairy free here I'm using margarine — and eggs. That's it. Just three ingredients. It's beautiful and tasty," said Kates. "When it comes out of the oven it's got a cheesecake consistency, but it's non-dairy."

Frozen lemon mousse cake, coconut macaroons, meringues and a variety of gluten-free biscotti that are kosher for Passover are also on the menu.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated that the chef's kitchen had to be deep-cleaned of unleavened bread before Passover food is prepared.