All my life my mother breaded and fried fish fillets and veal scaloppine and boneless chicken breasts the same way. She seasoned them heavily with salt and pepper, dipped them in beaten egg, coated them with matzo meal, seasoned them again, and fried them until golden brown in a mixture of butter and vegetable oil. It wasn’t until today, when I was thinking of what I might make Nate for dinner—he’s keeping Passover to the extent that he’s not eating bread or wheat or rice or legumes or anything presumed by an Ashkenazi rabbi to be leavened—that I realized I could bread something the way my mother always did, Pesach or not.
My mother loved matzo meal. She always had a box or two within easy reach. She used it for breading, but also for binding, as in meatloaf or burgers. She used matzo meal, of course, and plenty of schmaltz to make the fluffiest, most tender matzo balls that I’ve ever eaten and that I’ve yet to be able to replicate to my satisfaction, though people tell me mine are delicious. (The irony was she preferred her matzo balls dense and heavy, as her grandmother made them.) Simply ground from whole matzos, this meal not only bound our chopped meat, it bound us together with other Jews. It was flour and breadcrumbs in one, without any of the goyish connotations of either—though truth be told she preferred the more culturally correct breadcrumbs when preparing Italian food. And for breading she used flour before the egg when it wasn’t Passover.
Given all the leftover brisket we’ve eaten since our seder the first night, tonight I opted for fish. I selected sole, in honor of my mother, who preferred the flat, white, neutral-tasting fish to all others. It didn’t take more than 15 minutes to turn these thin, flimsy fillets into a delicious taste memory.
My mother always prepared most of the food for our dinner in the morning so she didn’t have to rush home to cook at the end of the day. Of course this required her to make extra, as my siblings and I would pick at whatever was lying around when we passed through the kitchen on our way to the backyard, the dining room, or den. Macaroni and cheese, spaghetti sauce with meatballs and chunks of Italian sausages, broccoli casserole with canned Durkee onions, fried flounder, we’d poke our way under a cover to steal a mouthful, and then smooth out the surface with the back of a spoon or rearrange the plate to make it look like nothing was gone.
Tonight, I did as she would have done. I seasoned the fish, dipped it in egg, dredged it in matzo meal, and set it in a sizzling cast-iron pan. Although I didn’t cook the sole quite as long as my mother would have—it was really the crispness of the crust that was the point, not the moistness of the fish, which was never a question because of how much butter was in the pan—I managed to get a nice golden crust nevertheless. I carefully flipped the fish so as not to compromise the integrity of the breading, and fried the other side. Onto a plate with more seder leftovers: mashed potatoes, Moroccan carrot salad with toasted cumin and preserved lemon, asparagus braised with tomatoes, and matzo kugel with plenty of sautéed mushrooms and onions. The familiar flavor of the fish was eerie, especially when it brushed up against the mashed potatoes and touched the kugel on its way to my mouth.
“Your family wasn’t like my family,” Nate said as he licked his plate clean. For Nate, Passover food always came out of boxes and cans manufactured in New Jersey and Brooklyn. The pickings at other times of the year weren’t much better. But this really was my mother’s cooking. She was there in that breading.
Nostalgia aside, as I ate the fish I realized that the tiny crunchy bits of fried matzo that clung to the fillets reminded me of panko, the trendy Japanese wonder crumbs that can make anything crisp. Not quite as light and perhaps neither as crisp, the matzo-meal breading was nevertheless crunchy and delicious in its own Jewish way. My mother was a good cook. She knew how to bread and fry. And most of all, she knew how to make things taste good.