Growing up in Mexico City, each Sunday Susan Schmidt would stand on a chair a few feet behind her Hungarian grandmother — who emigrated from Budapest to Mexico in the late 1920’s — and watch her prepare nokedli, Hungarian dumpling, served with chicken and paprika. But, Susan didn’t start cooking on her own till she was married to a fellow Mexican Jew and moved to L.A. where she still lives today. At that point, her cuisine was not only influenced by her grandmother’s Hungarian heritage and her own Mexican upbringing, but by her mother-in-law’s Polish cooking and her family’s decision to start keeping kosher. Now, she melds the Eastern European roots with her Mexican childhood creating recipes like schnitzel tortas, schnitzel served on a Mexican roll, and fideos, which she calls “Mexican lokshen,” on the cooking blog Challa-peño, that she launched this summer with her oldest daughter Alex.
The blog allows me to “write a memoir in the context of food,” says Susan, explaining that it contains more than just recipes. But, as someone who is used to just adding a pinch here and a pinch there, writing recipes has proven challenging for her. She looks to Diana Kennedy, whom some call the “Julia Child of Mexican cooking” for guidance. Once she and Alex have enough recipes, they plan to create a cookbook “to preserve and continue the culinary traditions of our family,” she writes on the blog. She hopes to combine the traditions of her grandmother and her mother-in-law with the ingredients and recipes she encountered in Mexico, creating what she calls “a fusion of flavors.”
(Watch the cooking video below)
Her cooking changed 15 years ago, when she and her husband decided to keep kosher. Susan wanted to preserve the cultural flavors that she grew up with. While her family was not religious, some of her favorite memories circle around food, include the days she used to go with her mother to the kosher restaurant Carmel in Mexico City. “It was such a treat, and right across from my mother’s clothing shop. They had the most delicious matzo ball soup.”
One might think the transition to kosher food would prove difficult, but Susan was shocked by how easy it was to “kosher-ify” the dishes. “I just replaced lard, which is used in almost every dish, with shmaltz and realized that chopped cilantro and onion doesn’t need the cream that most recipes call for.” Friday nights became her time to test the recipes and guests would often push her to start a cookbook. Alex, who is the journalist behind the project, decided to take a cookbook proposal writing class but her mother remains the chef of the project. Susan jokes: “My kids are enthusiastic about eating, not cooking.”
One of her most recent twists is on the age-old favorite appetizer, gefilte fish, which she makes a la Veracruzana, made with a sauce flavored with olive oil and capers. Taking the gefilte fish recipe she learned from her mother in law (Bobe), Susan incorporated red snapper and a tangy yet sweet sauce originating in Veracruz. “Bobe came through the Port of Veracruz when she came from Easter Europe. In honor of her, I thought I’d marry everything together.” When the Spanish came to Mexico in the 16th century, they brought with them new foods and Veracruz sauce is typical of this influence. Susan found it fitting that a sauce typical of Mexico’s history could be combined with her own family’s immigration.
Susan grew up eating red snapper in Veracruz sauce and decided to test out the recipe for Rosh Hashanah. “I expecting people to say ‘where’s the horseradish,’ but people loved the change of pace, even non-gefilte fish eaters.” Her children have come to demand the Friday night servings of guacamole and salsa verde, and perhaps this recipe will soon join the tradition.
Gefilte Fish a la Veracruzana
Makes 36 patties
Cook’s Note: The recipe is made in three steps: The Fish Broth, The Fish Mixture, and The Veracruzana Sauce.
1/2 large onion sliced thinly
3 medium carrots sliced into rounds
3 celery ribs whole
Fish bones from 4 pounds of carp
Place all of the broth ingredients in an eight to ten quart saucepan, and bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and then remove the bones from the broth, keeping the broth hot on low heat, while you make the fish mixture.
4 pounds ground carp
2 pounds ground red snapper
2 large carrots — peeled and ground
½ large onion — peeled and ground
4 large eggs
¾ cup matzo meal
1½ tablespoons fine sea salt
1½ teaspoons white pepper
Place all of the ground fish, carrot and onion in a large bowl and mix. Add matzo meal, eggs, salt and pepper and with hands mix gently but thoroughly, until fish is light in texture and holds its shape. Using damp hands take about 1/3-1/2 cup quantities of the fish mixture, shape into oval patties, and gently drop into the fish broth, which is hot but not boiling. When you have dropped the last fish patty into the broth, raise the heat to and simmer for 1 hour.
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves whole
1 cup onion diced
2 garlic cloves finely minced
4 cups tomatoes diced
6-8 ounce jar capers
8-10 ounce can green olives, juice included
1/3 cup parsley
2 bay leaves 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
Place oil in a large saucepan and heat. Add the 4 garlic cloves and sauté for a few minutes, removing them from the oil when they begin to turn golden. Add the diced onion and stir until translucent. add the minced garlic, mix for 2 minutes and then add the diced tomatoes. stir and then allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Add the parsley, bay leaves, oregano, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer 10 more minutes.
After the Gefilte Fish has simmered for 1 hour in the fish broth, transfer the fish loaves to the pan containing the Veracruzana Sauce, and retain the carrots from the fish broth for garnish. Simmer the fish in the Veracruzana Sauce for 30 minutes more, and then remove from heat.
Arrange the fish patties on a platter and cover with the sauce from the pan. Garnish with the cooked carrots and fresh parsley. This recipe tastes better when served warm or hot.