I certainly won the Parent lottery, and I don’t think it’s an accident that I was given the ones I got. I also was exceptionally fortunate that part of my winnings came with a few stand-in mothers in the form of aunts. Although I feel the heavens showed terrible judgment when they decided not to make me a mom, I was able to channel the nurturing aspect of my personality into professional cooking. I often think that most chefs are parents in sheep’s clothing because most of us simply want to make our customers happy by feeding them well.
This year, I missed my annual early morning birthday phone call from my Aunt Dora, who died six months ago. I found myself waiting to hear her voice all day, my heart sinking a bit every hour that passed without her good wishes and blessings.
Dora’s birthday falls this week, marking the time of year that, in the past, she would have started to prepare and freeze her most iconic dish for Passover. I can’t think of a better way to honor her memory than to pass along her recipe for the most emblematic of all my childhood foods: ktzitzot prasa. Meat and leek patties are a typical food of Rosh Hashanah and Passover throughout the Jewish Sephardic world, particularly in the Balkans. Omit the meat for a vegetarian version but double the amount of potato so they hold together better.
The Bulgarian Jews, from which my father’s side of the family hails, have a vibrant tradition of foods deriving from their Spanish roots. All of my aunts prepare this dish because it’s a must on our table for Passover. Dora taught my mother to make these and by extension taught me. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it’s the favorite dish across all generations of our family.
These leek and beef patties aren’t difficult to make, but if each ingredient isn’t handled correctly, the whole dish will be inedible. Leeks tend to hold a lot of sand, so clean them thoroughly by slicing them lengthwise, then wash them in many changes of water. You don’t want gritty patties. Been there, done that.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say it’s the favorite dish across all generations of our family.
You also must cook the leeks so that they are soft and don’t result in a patty that is fibrous, but not so soft that they are mushy. Done that, too. Next, grind the cooked leeks and squeeze as much water out of them as possible, so they will hold together when fried. Also, season them well. Otherwise, they’ll be bland. Dora taught me to do a test patty and adjust seasonings before cooking the rest of the batch. Then, if you’ve done all of that right, the patties must be fried in oil that is just hot enough, so they brown and don’t come out oily, but not so hot that their outsides burn before their insides cook.
Fortunately, Dora taught us all how to break up these steps so that these patties wouldn’t be too time-consuming for holidays when there were sometimes 30 or more people around her Passover table.
She would chop, clean and grind the leeks weeks in advance, straining them in the refrigerator overnight with a heavy plate on them to squeeze out liquid. The next day, she would mix them with the meat and seasonings and fry them, storing them in containers ready for the freezer. The night before the holiday, she would transfer them to the fridge to thaw.
This Passover is the first in most of our lives without Dora, and it will be a difficult one for her family. Although I won’t be with my cousins in Israel, my parents and I will hold her in our thoughts as surely as we will squeeze lemon wedges on the
ktzitzot prasa before our first bite.
I still have some burning questions I would have liked to ask her about our culinary traditions, but it’s comforting to think that her great-grandchildren will be able to capture her essence through the soul food she so lovingly passed along.
BULGARIAN LEEK AND BEEF PATTIES
3 1/2 pounds leeks, only white and light- green parts, cut into 1-inch segments
1 medium-size potato, boiled and mashed
1/2 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons matzo meal (optional; if you are gluten-free, add more potato)
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
3/4 teaspoon black pepper or to taste
Vegetable oil for shallow frying (don’t use extra-virgin olive oil)
1 cup chicken stock for reheating
Lemon wedges for serving
Place clean, cut leeks in a large pot and cover with cold water, bringing to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer, cover pot and cook until leeks are soft, about 15 minutes.
Put the leeks in a strainer and press with your hands until they are dry as possible.
Transfer the leeks to a food processor and gently pulse to grind, taking care to not over grind. Combine the leeks, mashed potato, ground beef, eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Let the mixture rest, covered in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
When ready to cook, heat 1/8 inch of neutral-tasting vegetable oil in a shallow frying pan on medium heat. Take a golf ball-size scoop of mixture in damp hands, flattening it gently into a patty, about 3 inches in diameter. Fill the
entire pan with patties but leave space between them.
Fry until cooked through and brown on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Serve immediately, refrigerate or freeze for future use.
To reheat, we use a method called “papiado” in Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish version of Yiddish. Papiado-style cooking calls for evaporating excess liquid in food in an uncovered dish in the oven. Modeling on this method, we place the patties in one layer in the pan on a burner and then pour over them a small amount of chicken stock, no more than a 1/2 cup. The patties are then cooked on medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed, and they are a bit puffy and warmed through.
Serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges.
Makes about 40 small ktzitzot.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.