EDITOR’S NOTE: We received a review copy of The New Jewish Table and were impressed with the way Chef Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray had successfully updated so many of the traditional dishes we recognized in ways that incorporated lighter, fresher flavors.  When they followed it up with an invitation to observe the Passover Seder with them, we wanted to make sure that we were able to truly compare charoset to charoset, so we asked our friends and frequent Capital Spice contributors to attend and let us know how the Grays’ Passover compared with the ones they’ve observed with their families over the years.

Monday night, the Bacon Terrorist and Itty Bitty Betty attended a special Passover Seder hosted by Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray at their Equinox restaurant to celebrate the launch of their cookbook, The New Jewish Table. The night highlighted three items from the book’s suggested Passover menu encapsulating the Grays’ seasonality-first philosophy as they bring treasured Jewish classics into the twenty-first century.

Why was this night’s dinner different from all other Seders?  Find out after the jump.

For our readers who may not be familiar with Passover, it is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish faith, and a focal point of every Jewish family’s annual calendar.  The holiday is a unique combination of faith, food, and family. There is a religious service – the Seder.  There is a marathon of traditional dishes, ranging from the widely beloved Matzo ball soup to the divisive gefilte fish (Itty Bitty Betty loves the stuff, whereas I believe someone created it as a dare). Then, there is family.  The Grays welcomed select members of the press to join their family and friends in a celebration of their faith and their food.  The event was intimate and warm, much like the New Jewish Table, a cookbook filled with the couple’s recollections about how the culinary traditions of Ellen Kassoff Gray’s family have influenced Todd Gray and vice-versa.

Passover Seders can be long affairs, and for more religious families they can last as long as three to four hours, with much of that occupied by prayer before any food. Of course, for less religious families, they can be shorter – my family still talks about the infamous “speed Seder” of 1987 – the entire service and meal somehow was wrapped up in under an hour.  For those tempted to try this, be warned that speed reading 40 pages of Hebrew is not a pleasant experience. While every Seder covers the same liturgical ground (i.e. the Jews were slaves to the Egyptians, then Charlton Heston – I mean, Moses – is sent by God to change this. At first, the Egyptians don’t listen to Moses, but God sends plagues and the Egyptians reevaluate their initial slavery ROI calculation, and then God gives the Jews the Ten Commandments), every family will have its own traditions.  If you’re my family, this frequently includes writing new dialogue for Charlton Heston – “and Moses said you can take these Ten Commandments out of my cold, dead hand!”   The Seder’s required four cups of wine usually helps move all of this along at a tolerable pace (this isn’t a drinking game invented by Talmudic Academy students, it’s an intrinsic part of the service leading the congregant to ask the important age old question -  does it count as binge drinking if it’s for God? )

The Grays welcomed participants into their family’s Seder traditions, including their son’s charming rendition of “Take Me Out to the Seder” sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  If you can’t appreciate the lyric “and we’ll nosh, nosh, nosh and by gosh…” then you’re probably dead inside and wouldn’t have appreciated the wonderful brisket they served (more on that later). Prior to an abbreviated Seder that hit the most liturgical points (including the required four cups of wine), the Grays served some hors d’oeuvres including fried risotto balls and figs poached in port wine with goat cheese.  Readers who have attended a Seder or two may be thinking to themselves “that doesn’t sound like the heavy Jewish food I remember,” but that’s part of what the Grays are going for.   As they share in the The New Jewish Table, Todd Gray and Ellen Kassoff Gray bonded over a love of Mediterranean flavors.  They have applied those flavors, including some influences from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, to lighten up beloved Jewish classics from Ellen’s family’s Ashkenazi Jewish background.  Later in the evening, figs would make a very welcome return appearance in a great quinoa and mint salad.

Without question, the evening’s culinary highlight was the brisket.  Brisket can be a topic of serious discussion for Jews, most of whom have never tried Texas barbecue style brisket and instead can only imagine the traditional braised Jewish-style cut of beef.  Most Jewish boys will claim their mother’s brisket is the best (not me – sorry Mom – Itty Bitty Betty makes it better, and you yourself have admitted it), but the sad truth is that many Passover briskets end up over-braised hulks, with little meaty flavor and less structural coherence.  Chef Gray looked at this situation and decided there had to be a better way.  His Modern Day Brisket recipe applies French cooking techniques to yield a dish that is recognizable to any frequent Seder veteran but that focuses this cut’s meaty flavor in a refined presentation.  As a barbecue nut, I’m a tough customer when it comes to brisket in any form and this delivered on the aspects I look for – meaty flavor and structural consistency –  but are so frequently missing at the Seder table.

The Jewish faith is over 5,000 years old – it’s a good thing someone is trying to update the cuisine.  For those of us observing Passover through April 2nd, it can be a daunting eight days of the traditional matzo (and less traditional matzo pizza.)  With the Gray’s Seder and their cookbook to inspire me, I have a bevy of recipes to try. I might even dare to tackle their gefilte fish recipe.

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