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Passover Con Guacamole

During Passover, most American Jews forgo the zesty tacos and tortillas they savor all year. But what if someone knew how to prepare Mexican food without flour or leavening? What if his recipes were served during the holiday’s eight days in an upscale restaurant?

“Several years ago I began experimenting with the infusion of Mexican ingredients and Jewish foods,” says Julian Medina, chef and owner of Toloache, a contemporary Mexican bistro in Manhattan’s theater district.

He started small, offering clients guacamole with matzah instead of the usual chips. Then his creativity blossomed into a complete holiday menu, featuring chipotle-braised brisket and matzah ball soup seasoned with aromatic herbs and jalapeno peppers.

Why would a chef from Mexico City who had dazzled clients at Maya and Pampano, two of Manhattan’s best Mexican restaurants, turn to Jewish cuisine for inspiration?

Although Medina was born a Catholic, he converted to Judaism. Six years ago, when he was dating the Jewish woman who would become his wife, he started spending holidays with her family. It sparked a curiosity about her religion that continued to grow the more he learned about Jewish rituals.

From the beginning he was intrigued by each holiday’s traditional fare as he tasted the foods his future mother-in-law prepared. It wasn’t long before he started seasoning Jewish recipes with the flavors of his youth.

Medina explored Jewish cooking, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi.

“This is what chefs do when exposed to cuisines that excite them – they conduct research to develop new recipes,” he says. “Food is never static. It changes every day.”

His Matzah Tostada recipe was influenced directly by Sephardic cuisine, as were the Matzah Tortillas that accompany his brisket, a signature dish of Ashkenazi fare.

Many of his recipes benefit from the marriage of both cuisines.

While Julian’s Matzah Ball Soup bears the stamp of Ashkenazi cooking, it is seasoned with cilantro and jalapeno and finished with a squeeze of lime. His Roasted Halibut recipe is served with a Passover Cauliflower Pancake reminiscent of a latke made from cauliflower rather than potatoes.

Soon after Medina opened Toloache, which is named for a flowering plant used in Mexican love potions, several friends asked him to serve a Passover menu at the restaurant. Typical of many New Yorkers, they adore fine dining but were not inclined to cook. Yet that didn’t stop them from craving seder foods, which they knew Medina would bring to a new level.

He responded by offering a dazzling Passover menu at Toloache, from first course through a dessert of Matzah Pudding with Roasted Bananas.

Four years ago, 10 people were his first holiday patrons, arriving with friends, family and kosher wine, Medina recalls.

“I wanted them to feel at home while celebrating Passover,” he says.

Word traveled and customers flocked to Toloache for Jewish foods with a piquant twist.

“I still can’t believe the menu has become so popular,” says Medina, explaining that articles about his Mexican-Jewish fusion cuisine have been published in The New York Times, among other New York newspapers and magazines.

On the first and second nights of the holiday, some customers bring kosher wine and read the Haggadah, performing an entire seder. Others simply relish Passover food Mexican style. During Passover week, nearly 100 people order holiday fare at Toloache as an alternative to cooking at home.

“People can adapt our Passover menu in any way they want,” Medina says.

While the kitchen at Toloache is not made kosher for Passover, Medina’s recipes conform to the Passover laws of kashrut. By sharing his recipes, Medina has offered home cooks the option of turning one of the holiday’s eight nights into a celebration of Mexican Jewish food.

With his Passover menu becoming so popular at Toloache, Medina now offers Rosh HaShanah and Chanukah dishes infused with Mexican spices.

Medina’s wife suspects that at some point the Medina family was Jewish. Some early settlers in Mexico who had emigrated from Spain were Conversos, Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Perhaps the Medina family had been Conversos. The origin of their name is Hebrew and Arabic. Several Jewish families in Spain have carried the surname Medina. In the Spanish province of Cadiz, in the city Medina-Sidonia, it was customary among Sephardim to be named for the city of origin.

Regardless of his family origins, these days Medina celebrates Passover like most Jews around the world – at home.

“I cook dinner with my wife’s mom,” he says, explaining how he learned Jewish cooking by standing at her side in the kitchen. “Now we plan the menu together.”

Medina’s mother-in-law likes how he has tweaked her recipes and approves of the foods he has added to the family repertoire.

“Passover is always a special occasion,” Medina says. “There is something awe inspiring about repeating the story of the ancient Israelites journey from slavery to freedom, from Pharaoh’s tyranny in Egypt to the Promised Land.”

The holiday is even more meaningful now that Medina is the father of a year-old daughter. While she is too young to recite the Four Questions, she’s already tasted matzah tortillas – served with chipotle salsa, of course.

The recipes below are by Medina.

Yield: 4 servings

Chicken Soup
3 quarts of water
Salt to taste
1 whole chicken, skinned and cut into 8 pieces
1 carrot, cut in squares
2 stalks of celery, cut in pieces
1 onion, cut into quarters
3 cilantro leaves
1/2 jalapeno, seeded and cut into pieces

Preparation: In a stock pot, bring the water and salt to a boil. Add chicken and remaining soup ingredients and simmer for 30 minutes. Skim the fat. Strain broth and set aside. (Use caution when handling hot soup.)

Matzah Balls
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup matzah meal
2 tablespoons chicken broth
Kosher salt to taste

Preparation: Mix all matzah ball ingredients together and let mixture rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes. With wet hands, roll into 8 balls. Do not over roll. Add matzah balls to soup and simmer for 5 minutes. Check seasoning. If necessary, add kosher salt.

Finishing Touches
1 carrot, peeled and cut into a 1/4 inch dice
1 zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch dice
2 tablespoons red onion, chopped
1 lime

Preparation: Cook the carrot and zucchini in the chicken soup. Serve 2 matzah balls per bowl with some chicken soup, carrots and zucchini. Garnish with a teaspoon of red onion and a squirt of lime.

(Braised Brisket with Tomato and Chipotle)
Yield: 6 servings

2 pounds brisket
Kosher salt to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons garlic cloves, chopped
1 onion, chopped
6 plum tomatoes, cut in quarters
1/2 tablespoon cumin
1/2 tablespoon dry oregano
1 bottle red wine
4 cups of water
3 tablespoons chipotle pepper puree (available in supermarkets)
1 bay leaf
Garnish: 1 red onion, chopped; and 1 avocado, cut into six slices

1. Season the brisket with salt. In a roasting pan, heat the oil until it’s smoky hot and sear the brisket well all around.
2. When the brisket is seared, transfer it to a platter. Lower the flame and saute the garlic, onion, tomatoes and the rest of the ingredients (except the garnish). Season and let the mixture cook for 10 minutes.
3. Return the brisket to the roasting pan. Cover and cook in a 350 degree oven for 1 1/2 hours, or until very tender. Cool brisket to room temperature. Slice the brisket and reheat in the same sauce. Serve 2 matzah tortillas (recipe below) per plate, filled with braised brisket and garnished with chopped red onion and a slice of avocado.

Yield: 12 tortillas

2 cups matzah cake meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional oil for frying

Preparation: Place the matzah cake meal, salt, warm water and 1 tablespoon oil in a bowl. Mix ingredients very well with your hands, until you form soft dough. With your hands, form 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape. Preheat additional oil on a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame. Fry the matzah tortillas until browned.

(Crispy matzah tortilla, achiote smoked sea bass salad and horseradish-jalapeno salsa)
Yield: 6 servings

Smoked Sea Bass
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 pound smoked sea bass or any white fish
Salt to taste

In a bowl, mix the rice vinegar and orange juice. Emulsify the olive oil by whisking it into vinegar mixture. Toss liquids with smoked fish and season well with salt. Place fish mixture in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Matzah Tostaditas
2 cups matzah cake meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional olive oil for frying

1. In a bowl, mix the matzah cake meal, salt, warm water and 1 tablespoon of oil very well with your hands, until you form soft dough.
2. With your hands, form 1 1/2-inch balls. Roll balls between plastic wrap to form a tortilla shape.
3. Using 2 tablespoons of oil, preheat a nonstick griddle or pan on a medium flame. Place matzah tortillas on griddle. Cook on both sides, until they are nice and soft. Then pour additional olive oil into a frying pan. Preheat oil to 300 degrees. Fry the tortillas in oil until crisp.

1/2 small red onion, diced
2 tablespoons fresh horseradish, grated
1 small seedless jalapeno, chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoon orange juice
1/2 tablespoon honey
Salt to taste

Mix the onion, horseradish and jalapeno, lemon juice and orange juice with the honey. Season well with salt. Serve the smoked fish with matzah tostaditas, topped with the horseradish salsa.

Yield: 4 servings

1 cup cauliflower
2 whole eggs
1/2 cup matzah meal
Kosher salt to taste
Butter or margarine for frying

Steam cauliflower until tender. Puree with eggs, matzah meal and salt. Place some butter or margarine in a frying pan on a medium flame. Ladle 3-inch round pancakes into pan and fry them. Set aside.

1/4 cup hibiscus flowers (found in the tea section of supermarkets)
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon chipotle pepper pure or jalapeno, chopped
2 cups of water
1 orange peel, zested
Kosher salt to taste

In a saucepan, add all the ingredients and reduce to 3/4 of a cup. Blend all ingredients and strain through a colander. Check seasoning and keep warm.

Roasted Halibut
Sear 4 six-ounce halibut fillets until golden brown and cooked through.

To serve, place a pancake on each plate and drizzle with the hibiscus sauce. Place a halibut fillet beside pancake.

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