Chef-approved matzo ball soup, charoset bars and Passover Panzanella
Israeli-born chef Aliza Grayevsky Somekh is known for her seders. Ever since moving from Jerusalem to the Bay Area in 2012, the Oakland-based chef has been organizing and cooking the Passover meal for the greater community through her food and catering business, Bishulim SF.
She’d often welcome up to 85 friends and strangers — Jews and non-Jews alike — with matzo ball soup and lead them in a retelling of the Exodus story that was inclusive and relevant. During the pandemic, those Passover meals were stuffed into boxes and delivered to guests who met on Zoom. Needless to say, Somekh has been eager to return to in-person seders.
“Last year wasn’t the right time, because people weren’t excited to sit together yet,” says Somekh, who is teaming up with Oakland’s Mica Talmor for a first-time community seder at Talmor’s restaurant, Pomella, on April 6. “Now, they are ready. And working with Mica is a no-brainer. (Pomella) is the right kind of food and atmosphere, and she is a close friend.”
Pomella’s is not the only community-wide seder happening in the Bay Area this Passover, which begins at sundown on April 5. Throughout the week, synagogues from Redwood City’s Congregation Beth Jacob and Fremont’s Temple Beth Torah to Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Tikvah are hosting a variety of seders, as are organizations like the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and Kol Hadash Community for Humanistic Judaism in Albany.
What is special about the collaboration between Talmor and Somekh, whose seder will seat 75 and includes sips from Berkeley’s Covenant Wines, is that they are drawing from their shared childhood memories of typical Israeli family seders back home. Some fond; some, not so fond.
“It felt like torture,” recalls Talmor, the former Ba-Bite chef who moved to the U.S. in 1997 and opened Pomella, recently named to our 50 Best Bay Area Restaurants, in Oakland in 2020. “You weren’t allowed to eat for such a long time, while the adults were reading. We want to do something that has joy and content and is nourishing to the body and the spirit.”
That nourishing part is fond — very fond. It will emphasize family-style Israeli dishes over the traditional Jewish food popular in America. Think lamb meatball tagine (instead of brisket), quinoa-stuffed artichoke bottoms with green garlic and pistachio pavlova with rose cream for dessert. Don’t panic, though: Talmor promises matzo ball soup and even shared her recipe for perfectly fluffy floaters.
“We will have matzoh ball soup — everyone can be relieved — but we are definitely going to bring more flavor and diversity and Israeli sensibility to the seder,” she says.
As Pomella is a seasonal, veg-forward restaurant, Talmor is including a shaved spring vegetable salad with preserved lemon and goat cheese. And she is turning the symbolic foods of the seder plate — the egg, bitter herbs and charoset, the nut and fruit relish, to name a few — into small-bite courses that are sure to stoke both the appetite and the conversation.
That’s what Grayevsky is hoping for. With Talmor handling the menu, she will focus her energy on putting together a modern Haggadah, the text read on Passover, that is inclusive to all people and relevant to the most pressing issues of our time, from mental health to racism.
“The regular Haggadah is ancient,” she says. “(As a child) I didn’t understand most of what everyone was chanting. And the parts I did understand weren’t even relevant. Since the pandemic, everyone is dealing with their own getting out of Egypt story. For some, it’s been hard to come together and be social. Others are dealing with bigger things, like depression and oppression. We are using this as a metaphor to help bring people together.”
As Talmor says, “us Jews” do everything over food. “We are so used to sitting over a table of food and kvetching,” she says. “It’s part of what we want to bring back.”
Bringing those people together at home? You’ll find tons of inspiration in Chanie Apfelbaum’s new cookbook, “Totally Kosher: Tradition with a Twist! 150+ Recipes for the Holidays and Every Day” (Clarkson Potter, $37.50). The cookbook, Apfelbaum’s debut, is a culmination of her 12 years demystifying Jewish food on her blog, Busy in Brooklyn, and her studies at the Center for Kosher Culinary Arts, a Brooklyn institution that closed last year.
“Jewish food has a stereotype for being heavy and brown and tasteless and unhealthy, and it’s not for no reason,” says Apfelbaum, a single mother of five who keeps a kosher kitchen. “Brisket is brown, kugel is beige and so are matzoh balls. But it’s really evolving.”
Her 99,000 Instagram followers might say Apfelbaum has played a role in that. Her weeknight Miso Matzo Ball soup is spiked with the superpower paste, and the flavorful floaters are inspired by Asian scallion pancakes. Her take on Passover Panzanella is a fridge forage that includes leftover steak, horseradish and matzo brei crisped up in the oven to form crouton clusters.
And her gluten-free Charoset Bars, which are filled with a blend of pear, medjool dates, red wine and cinnamon, answer the most pressing question of Passover: “What the heck can I eat for breakfast?”
“Breakfast is a really hard meal,” Apfelbaum says. “These are made with almond flour and taste like charoset so when you eat them you are transported back to those memories around the seder table.”
If you go
Pomella and Bishulim SF’s first community seder will guide diners “through script, story and a tradition of hope and inclusion.” After the blessings, enjoy matzo ball soup, lamb meatball tagine, potato kugel, spring salad, vegetarian stuffed artichoke bottoms and pistachio pavlova with rose cream and fruit compote. 5:30 p.m. April 6. Tickets, $85, include Covenant Wines. Reserve your spot at https://bit.ly/pomellaseder.