Food
4:14 am
Sun December 25, 2011

Jewish And Mexican Cooking Meet In 'Challa-peño'

Originally published on Fri January 6, 2012 10:04 am

Food memories are vivid. What you ate as a kid can whisk you right back to that lost time in your life — but for my mother's parents, Martha and Jerry Schneider, one special food memory eludes them. My grandparents spent most of their lives in Mexico City but now live in Los Angeles. After many years of living in Mexico City, one particular recollection still stands out: the best Jewish food they had ever tasted was cooked by a couple in downtown Mexico City on a street called Justo Sierra.

Although Mexico City was home, their families were from Eastern Europe, so my grandparents grew up eating soups with noodles in them and baked meat in sauces of caramelized onion. Even when my great-grandfather would visit from New York, he went to Justo Sierra to taste the food of his childhood.

My grandfather Jerry Schneider says his father loved the food that reminded him of his past. He remembers his father exclaiming that the Justo Sierra food was "just like my mother made, just like my mother made!"

The food conjured up distinct, comforting memories for Jews from Eastern Europe who found themselves in strange, foreign Mexico. For me, generations later, my strongest food memory is of Mexican food. Every year when I was growing up, we'd go "home" to Mexico for Passover. When I eat a spicy turkey sandwich between two pieces of matzo, feelings of being surrounded by family in a safe, loving place come simmering up.

I wanted to see if I could find this Justo Sierra spot that gave my grandparents those same special feelings about their past. There was just one problem — my maternal grandparents didn't know where Justo Sierra was.

Luckily, my dad's mother, Dora Schmidt, still lives in Mexico City. She was born in Poland but moved to Mexico City when she was 3 years old. She's 87 now and has 16 grandchildren who call her "Bobe." When I tell her about the Justo Sierra memory that my paternal grandparents mentioned, she instantly knows what I'm talking about. We hop into her little red car, and speed through wild traffic — as she curses at other drivers in Yiddish along the way.

When we arrive at the legendary Justo Sierra spot, she points out the synagogue that was the main Ashkenazi shul (temple). There was a caterer named Motele Shlejter, she explains. "His wife was the one ... [who] used to cook for all the affairs going on in the shul."

The Shlejters — the same people who cooked the food that transported my maternal grandparents — also cooked the food that filled guests' bellies at Bobe's wedding.

"She used to make chicken broth with kreplach [dumplings], and with all the goodies that the Ashkenazim used to eat with the soup," Bobe recalls. "She used to make veal with kugel ... so delicious that it was amazing."

About 100 years ago, the Jewish community was centered in Mexico City's bustling downtown. The community started out small, with just a few hundred Jews, so everyone knew the place to find the best traditional food in town. Today, Jews have scattered across the city. Most days the old temple just sits there, empty. On the busy street, you could almost miss the elaborate wooden doors with Jewish stars.

My grandmother walks into the temple where she got married — it's been decades since she's been there. "It's amazing," she says. "I can't believe myself that I'm here, 65 years later. It's something unbelievable."

Inside the temple are old black-and-white photographs — in one of them, Bobe points out the legendary Jewish chefs she remembers from her past. In the photo, Motele Shlejter is wearing a black hat, and Etel, his wife, is in a plaid apron. They look serious, like people in old black-and-white photos do.

It turns out that photographs and 50-year-old grease stains on the walls in the old kitchen would be the closest I'd get to the fabled recipes. Only one of the Shlejters' children got married, and their lone grandchild, in a strange and tragic story, killed his parents and went to jail. As far as I can tell, the recipes just didn't survive through the generations for us to learn how the Shlejters gave their food its special flavor.

My grandmother says she would love to ask Etel how she made her food — but everyone has secrets, Bobe says, and even if Etel were alive today she's not sure she'd share hers. Bobe likes to play at being mysterious, but she did let my sister and me in on her culinary secrets — we filmed her cooking in her little apartment.

She showed us how to make delicate horseshoe-shaped walnut cookies, typically served at Mexican weddings. As far back as I can remember she's served them at Shabbat dinner, alongside Jewish mandelbrot — almond bread — pastries.

For a snack, Bobe fried up rinds of chicken fat with onions, shtetl style, and put them in a taco with guacamole and chili. As I watched her through the camera, flavors and memories mixed together in layers — the Eastern Europe of my great-grandparents, and the taste of home in Mexico City.


Recipe: Fiesta Potato Latkes

Makes about 20 fiesta latkes

3 russet potatoes
1 carrot
1 zucchini
1 onion
1 Serrano chili pepper, finely minced
1 garlic clove, mashed
1/3 cup parsley
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup corn flour (wheat flour or matzo meal are OK too)
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
Canola oil as needed for frying the latkes

Blanche the potatoes and the carrot in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove from water and allow potatoes to cool. Once cool, peel the potatoes and carrot, and shred them in a food processor along with the zucchini and onion. Transfer mixture to a medium-size mixing bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients, mix well and allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes.

Pour about 1/4 cup of canola oil into a frying pan and heat well. Take about 1/4 cup measurements of mixture and place one by one in the hot oil, flattening out each latke with the back of a spatula. It will take about 5 minutes for the latkes to brown, then turn them over and brown them on the opposite side. As each latke is ready, remove it to a baking pan lined with paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Serve the latkes while still warm. They may be accompanied with applesauce and/or sour cream. We accompanied them with jalapeño jelly from the farmers market and with Crema Mexicana, a delicious Mexican-style cream.

From Challa-peño: A Mother and Daughter in the Mexican Jewish Kitchen by Susan and Alex Schmidt. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved.


Recipe: Pozole With Matzo Balls

Serves 8-10

Pozole is a quintessential Mexican, spicy soup — sometimes tomato-based, sometimes green tomatillo-based, and sometimes based with clear broth. It's a staple there, found in most restaurants that serve typical food. Since it's often made with a pork base, we adapted the recipe using the stock from our own chicken soup. Despite the ubiquity of pozole, the specific mix of flavors varies widely everywhere it's served. Our home is just another one of these places.

The reason there are several steps to this recipe is that the chicken stock adds the core flavor of the soup. After that, the stock is blended in with the Mexican touches of chili, tomato, hominy. (Note: Because the blending step is done in three portions, this recipe does not halve easily.) Then finally, the matzo balls are added. Stick with it, though — the three alternating Mexican and Jewish steps in the recipe are worth it.

For the chicken stock:
3 quarts water
1 whole, skinless, chicken breast, bone in, cut in half
1 white onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 small leek, white portion cut in half lengthwise
1 cup packed parsley sprigs with stems
1 cup packed cilantro sprigs with stems
1/2 medium green bell pepper, seeded and quartered
3 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher chicken bouillon powder

For the pozole:
9 cups of prepared chicken stock
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce — roughly 1 1/2 cups
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large ripe tomato, cut in thirds
1 small white onion, cut in thirds
1 large garlic clove, peeled, cut in thirds
1 fresh jalapeño pepper, seeded, cut in thirds (If you are sensitive to spiciness, reduce or eliminate the jalapeño and chili flakes)
3/4 cup tightly packed cilantro sprigs, thick part of stems removed
3/4 teaspoon red pepper chili flakes
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 (15-ounce) cans Springfield brand white hominy, drained

For the matzo balls:
3 eggs
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 cup Streit's matzoh meal

Optional garnishes:
Dried oregano
Finely chopped white onion
Finely chopped radishes
Lime wedges
Cubed avocado

For the chicken stock: In a large stock pot combine 3 quarts of cold water, chicken, onion, garlic cloves, leek, parsley, cilantro, bell pepper, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that comes to surface. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Add pepper, bouillon and 2 teaspoons of salt and stir to combine. Cover and continue simmering about 10-15 minutes or until chicken is tender and just cooked. Remove the chicken to a plate and set aside to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle shred to make 3-4 cups. Set aside. Uncover pot and allow the stock to cool for 20 minutes. Pour the stock through a strainer and discard boiled vegetables.

For the pozole: Working in three separate batches, combine (in each batch) 3 cups of chicken stock with 1/3 of the following ingredients: tomato sauce, tomato paste, tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, chili flakes and salt in a blender. Pulse until smooth. Pour mixture into a large pot with hominy and shredded chicken and repeat the process with remaining ingredients two more times. When all the ingredients have been pureed and added to the pot, stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat and skim foam off of surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.

For the matzo balls: In a medium bowl, beat eggs with an egg beater, then add water, oil, salt and pepper. Mix well. Add matzo meal and stir thoroughly with wooden spoon. Set aside uncovered in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. While the matzoh mixture is resting, in a large pot bring 3 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Remove matzo mixture from the refrigerator. With damp hands form small balls about the size of a walnut to make 15 matzo balls. When the water comes to a boil, carefully add the balls to the boiling water. Once the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, cover and simmer for 40 minutes or until consistency is fluffy and matzo balls are cooked throughout.

Ladle soup into bowls and add one or two matzo balls per serving. If desired, serve with garnish ingredients.

From Challa-peño: A Mother and Daughter in the Mexican Jewish Kitchen by Susan and Alex Schmidt. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved.


Recipe: Cuernito Butter Walnut Cookies

Makes 4 dozen small cookies

Dora Schmidt learned this recipe from a Mexican Jewish friend, originally from Poland, many years ago. The cookies are, however, traditionally served at Mexican weddings.

2 cups ground walnuts
1/2 kilo margarine, softened
5 cups of flour
12 tablespoons confectioner's sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt

Knead together walnuts, margarine, sugar, vanilla and salt in a large bowl until all ingredients are combined and mixture is even. Using the amount of an extra large walnut, roll dough into a thick rope and form horseshoe or u-shaped cookies. Place cookies onto 2 baking pans sprayed with a small amount of cooking spray. Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Bake cookies for 15 minutes. Cookies are done when they are no longer shiny, and have grown slightly. Do not allow to brown. Remove from oven and allow cookies to cool roughly half an hour. Sprinkle confectioner's sugar over the cookies.

From Challa-peño: A Mother and Daughter in the Mexican Jewish Kitchen by Susan and Alex Schmidt. Copyright 2011, all rights reserved.



Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For many families, celebrating holidays means celebratory food, and celebratory food means going back to flavors and smells that have been in the family for many years. For reporter Alex Schmidt, it's a hybrid of Mexican and Eastern European Jewish food. Recently, she took a trip to discover more about her family's food history.

ALEX SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Food memories are vivid. What you ate as a kid can whisk you right back to that lost time in your life. But for my mom's parents, Martha and Jerry Schneider, one special memory eludes them - it's just on the tip of their tongue.

JERRY SCHNEIDER: I don't know if it was a special touch, or the ingredients, I don't know. But you just wanted to go there, to Justo Sierra which was...

MARTHA SCHMIDT, BYLINE: Justo sierra was the street in downtown Mexico City where my grandparents say you could eat the best Jewish food in the world. Martha and Jerry spent a big part of their lives in Mexico City. But their families were from Eastern Europe, and that's the kind of food they grew up eating: soups with noodles in them, baked meat in sauces of caramelized onion. Even when my great-grandfather would visit from New York, he went to Justo Sierra to taste the food of his childhood.

SCHNEIDER: My father went there because he said just like my mother made, just like my mother made. Whenever he get to Mexico, the first stop was Justo Sierra.

SCHMIDT: The food conjured distinct, comforting memories for Jews from Eastern Europe who found themselves in strange, foreign Mexico. The funny thing is, for me, my strongest food memory is Mexican food. Every year when I was growing up, we'd go home to Mexico for Passover. When I eat a spicy turkey sandwich between two pieces of matzah, feelings of being surrounded by family in a safe, loving place come simmering up. I wanted to see if I could find this Justo Sierra spot that gave my grandparents those same special feelings about their past. Just one problem - the location.

MARTHA SCHNEIDER: I don't think it had a name. So whenever we went there we never called it any other name. We just said let's go to Justo Sierra. That was it.

SCHMIDT: My maternal grandparents couldn't lead me to the old restaurant. But luckily, my dad's mother still lives in Mexico City. Also luckily, I recently went to visit her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCHMIDT: Dora Schmidt, 87 years old, also known as Bobe to her 16 grandchildren. She was born in Poland, but moved to Mexico City when she was three years old. She curses at other drivers in Yiddish as she speeds her little red car through wild traffic.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

SCHMIDT: When I told her about the Justo Sierra memory that my other grandparents mentioned, she instantly knew what I was talking about.

DORA SCHMIDT: It was the shul, the biggest temple, Ashkenazi, that were in Mexico City. And we had over there a caterer that his name was Motele Shlejter, and his wife was the one that she used to cook for all the affairs that are going on there in the shul.

SCHMIDT: The same people who cooked the food that transported my Mom's parents also filled the guests' bellies at Bobe's wedding.

SCHMIDT: Oh, she used to make chicken broth with kreplach and with all the goodies that the Ashkenazim used to eat with the soup. And she used to make veal, with kugel and so delicious that it's amazing because I don't think that whoever cooks cannot give the flavor that she used to give to the food.

SCHMIDT: About 100 years ago, the Jewish community was centered here in Mexico City's rowdy downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE YELLING)

SCHMIDT: The community started out small, with just a few hundred Jews, so everyone knew the place to find the best traditional food in town. Today, Jews have scattered across the city. Most days the old temple just sits there, empty. On the busy street, you could almost miss the elaborate wooden doors with Jewish stars.

SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)

SCHMIDT: It's been decades since my grandmother walked into the temple where she got married.

SCHMIDT: Oh, it's amazing. It's so thrilling that I can't believe myself that I'm here 65 years later. It's something unbelievable. (Spanish spoken)

SCHMIDT: There are old black and white photographs in the temple. In one of them, my Bobe pointed out the legendary chefs, standing in the back row.

SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)

SCHMIDT: They were the ones who used to make the food.

SCHMIDT: Yeah. This is Motele. (Spanish spoken)

SCHMIDT: Motele is wearing a black hat, and Etel is in a plaid apron. They look serious, like people in old black and white photos do. It turns out that black and white photographs, and 50-year-old grease stains on the walls in the old kitchen, would be the closest I'd get to the fabled recipes. Only one of the Shlejters' children got married. And believe me, I know this is a sad and strange twist, but their lone grandchild killed his parents and he went to jail. As far as I can tell, the recipes just didn't survive through the generations for us to learn how the Shlejters gave their food its special flavor. Would you like to know what Etel's secret was?

SCHMIDT: Oh yes, I would love to ask her, but I don't know if she will tell me. You know, a lot of people has your own secrets, like me.

SCHMIDT: My grandmother likes to play at being mysterious, but she did let me and my sister take a video of her cooking in her little apartment.

SCHMIDT: Twelve tablecloths...

SCHMIDT: Tablespoons.

SCHMIDT: ...tablespoons of confectioner sugar. OK. Yeah, I'm done, see?

SCHMIDT: She showed us how to make delicate horseshoe shaped walnut cookies, typically served at Mexican weddings. As far back as I can remember, she's served them at Shabbat dinner, alongside Jewish Mandelbrot pastries.

SCHMIDT: (Spanish spoken)

SCHMIDT: For a snack, Bobe fried up rinds of chicken fat with onions, shtetl style, and put them in a taco with guacamole and chile. As I watched her through the camera, flavors and memories mixed together in layers - the Eastern Europe of my great grandparents, and the taste of home in Mexico City. For NPR News, I'm Alex Schmidt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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