Zak Stern thinks p'tcha is sexy. The Ashkenazi Jewish dish is made by boiling cows' feet or knees into oblivion with little more than onion, garlic, and salt. Once rendered, the whole meat-studded brew is poured into serving trays and cooled. After it's chilled, the fat is skimmed off and the resulting, ultra-savory gelatin is sliced and served with a sliver of hard-boiled egg and a single sprig of bright-green parsley.
"It's traditional, and tradition is beautiful," Stern says as he, chef Melissa Sosa, and Chani Lipskar gather in the Lipskars' home kitchen to learn the nuances of creating it. "It's a real delicacy," Chani says. The group also includes Sholom Lipskar, the rabbi who founded the Shul of Bal Harbour, and his daughter Devorah Leah Andrusier. They spend much of the morning debating the finer points of other favorites, like a fried potato dish that hails from the Polish city of Gdansk and is made of little more than potato skins slowly fried into a jammy consistency.
Later this year, Stern's Wynwood bakery, Zak the Baker, will become a kosher deli where he hopes to keep alive dishes such as p'tcha and other revered Ashkenazi culinary traditions that Jewish immigrants brought from the frozen reaches of Eastern Europe. And as the morning wears on, the possibility of new dishes crops up as everyone pulls favorites — like egg noodles with cabbage and fried onions — deep from their sense memories.
For months, Stern and Sosa have been swooping in and out of the homes of Jewish families throughout Miami in hopes of sussing out the dishes that helped sustain countless Jewish immigrants who flooded Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 20th Century.
As the 20th Century wore on and Jewish delis became widely popular, owners began compromising kosher rules to satisfy non-Jewish customers. Soon there were few qualms about slapping a slice of cheese on a sandwich or stacking another with ham. As time passed, the number of kosher delicatessens serving the traditional Jewish Eastern European recipes dwindled from thousands to no more than 150, according to the 2014 documentary Deli Man.
"We're trying to do as many of the foods my ancestors brought with them before they made the Reuben sandwich," Stern says.
In keeping with kosher traditions, the menu won't include any dairy. A working lineup is replete with corned beef hash, the cured salmon called gravlax, latkes, and pastrami sandwiches. But alongside them is just a small sampling from the massive repertoire of Ashkenazi gastronomy on the swath of land that today makes up Eastern Europe.
There will be gribenes, a dangerously addictive side made of little more than fried chicken skins and onions cooked in their rendered fat. So far, four types of kugel, a kind of casserole, will be offered. There's the overnight potato kugel with short ribs (also referred to as flanken in a Jewish deli setting) call yapchik. There'll be the one made with noodles called lokshen, as well as the sweet and spicy kugel, called Yerushalmi, made with Italian-style spaghetti noodles, caramelized sugar, and a hefty dose of black pepper.
The idea here is to keep the menu and its ingredients as close to their original versions as possible. But it's a difficult task considering the difference between the climates of Miami and, say, Hungary. These differences show as a debate begins on the finer points of the ground fish cakes called gefilte fish. Traditionally, they're made with whitefish, pike, and a small piece of carp, Chani Lipskar says. Yet such species aren't as widely available in the waters off Florida.
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Figuring it all out is no easy task, doubly so considering Stern's chef, Sosa, is a 24-year-old of Cuban origin without the emotional attachment to these mostly beige, overpowering dishes. She makes up for it in an ingenious way. While the p'tcha bubbles, she asks to taste it over and over. "If I know what it's supposed to taste like as it's cooking, I'll have a better shot of getting it right at the end," she explains.
The deli seems to be yet another example of cooks' and diners' longings to find the foundation of many of the foods we eat today. Though the dining world is inundated in a constant rush of new flavor combinations being created in new ways, the lust for classic simplicity has been growing ever stronger. It's why people are so obsessed with the concept of authenticity, despite its flaws.
"I've been cooking in Miami for six years, and everyone is always trying to put their spin, their interpretation on food," Sosa says while flipping a chopped onion sizzling in chicken fat. "I was really excited about this because we're trying to do it the legitimate way, the old way."