Alison Roman’s Family Brunch: Gravlax + Matzo Brei
Shared by Alison Roman
Recipe Roots: Kiev > New Jersey > Los Angeles > New York
“Matzo brei is not quite what I’d call a household food item, unless that household belongs to the Romans,” cookbook author Alison Roman explains in her hit book “Dining In.” Her father Dan’s matzo brei is a defining food for the Roman family — Passover or not. The quality of the batch on the breakfast table in their Los Angeles home — whether the onions were caramelized properly, if there was enough salt, and the proper amount of butter — “would set the tone for the rest of the day,” Alison told us.
The dish was a household food item in Dan’s childhood home in New Jersey too. “My mother got the recipe from my father’s mother — she was born in Kiev,” and immigrated sometime in the 1880s Dan explained. “My dad was the one who really liked matzo brei.” When Dan left home in his early 20s, one of his roommates, came from a family that made matzo brei into a pancake and served it with jelly. “We used to battle for who could make the better matzo brei. I won, I know I won,” Dan says.
Making a batch of matzo brei in the Roman family is equal parts preserving a family tradition and an exercise in perfecting a cooking technique. Each time the batch is different, and Dan’s cooking has evolved over the years. “I’ve learned to cook eggs better thanks to Alison,” who worked in restaurants and in the test kitchen at Bon Appetit, he explains. “If you do them slower, they’ll be fluffier. I took that process and incorporated into the matzo brei.”
Despite her culinary training, Alison says: “I still haven’t gotten it totally right. I’ve gotten the spirit of it. Everytime you make it, it’s a chance to make it better. It’s a thing you’re always trying to get the perfect version of.” For that, Alison asks her Dad to make it, telling him: “I’ll come home, but I want matzo brei.” Her grandfather was the same way when he came to visit. Dan recalls him saying: “Make sure you make matzo brei… [on] the last morning’ And then he’d sit there and he’d look at my mother and say ‘you never it made it this good.’ She was a terrible cook.”
When Alison doesn’t request matzo brei, she asks for her dad’s gravlax, a newer recipe in his repertoire. Growing up near New York, in a land of delis and appetizing shops, “we were always a lox and bagel type of family,” he says. But, in Los Angeles, the power duo of Jewish breakfast tables was harder to find.
The idea to make his own sparked on a trip to visit Alison in San Francisco, where she took him to the iconic fish restaurant Swan Oyster Depot. “I was sitting at the bar and I see the fishmonger bring out a huge piece of salmon and slap it on the [counter], cutting it for a woman flying back to L.A. I was thinking ‘That's the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,’” Dan says. From that moment, he was determined to make gravlax. He wanted it to have some of the smokiness of classic lox, so when he made his first batch, he replaced the traditional vodka in the recipe with Laphroig, peated Whisky from Scotland.
When Dan first told Alison about his gravlax, she jokingly thought, that her dad sounded like a hipster who had moved to Brooklyn and started to cure his own fish. But the results were impressive. His wide, translucent slices of gravlax won over his family. “I was surprised at how good it was,” she says. But, Dan says, “Genetically, I knew it was in my blood line.”
Whether it’s Passover or not, matzo brei makes for an excellent brunch recipe. And, if you’re anything like us, you probably still have some matzo sitting around in the cupboard. Don’t worry about when you purchased or opened the box, it’s always perfect for matzo brei.
Roman Family Matzo Brei
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 salted matzo boards (unsalted will work, too, just be sure to compensate by adding salt when making it)
6 large eggs
Sour cream and applesauce, for serving
1. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have caramelized and softened completely, about 15 minutes; don’t rush this part! Low-and-slow caramelized onions are key to its deliciousness. Remove from the heat and set aside while you deal with the matzo.
2. Soak the matzo in a large bowl of warm water for a few seconds to soften and just soak through (leave them in there too long and they’ll fall apart). You’ll know they’re properly soaked when they are soft and no longer snap like a cracker. Drain the matzo in a colander.
3. Beat the eggs in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add the soaked matzo and, using your hands or a spatula, stir to coat so that all the matzo is evenly coated with the egg mixture. Let this sit for 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Return the skillet to medium-low heat and add the matzo mixture to the caramelized onions; season again with salt and pepper. Cook, scraping the bottom of the skillet occasionally, almost like you’re making a soft scramble. Cook until the eggs are just set, then remove the skillet from the heat (they will continue to cook off the heat).
5. Transfer the matzo brei to a large bowl (or serve straight from the skillet) and serve with plenty of sour cream and applesauce.
Chef's note: The key to good matzo brei lies in two things: very seasoned, very caramelized onions; and properly soaked matzo boards. Not enough soaking and it’ll be dry; too much, and it’ll feel bland and waterlogged. It may take you a few tries to see what I mean. It is, after all, an art.
Dan Roman's Scotch Gravlax
⅓ cup kosher salt
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons fresh grapefruit or lemon zest
1 tablespoon Aleppo pepper or freshly ground black pepper
1 pound skin-on salmon fillet
1 tablespoon extremely smoky Scotch whiskey, such as Laphroaig
1. Combine the salt, dill, brown sugar, grapefruit zest, and Aleppo pepper in a small bowl, rubbing with your hands to blend everything really well. The mixture should feel almost like wet sand.
2. Place the salmon on a cutting board and pour the Scotch on top, rubbing it all over; discard any that runs off. (Lots of rubbing in this recipe—get ready.) Rub the salt mixture over the salmon, packing it on pretty well, like you’re building a sand castle. Wrap the whole piece of salmon in plastic wrap a few times so it’s well sealed.
3. Using a fork, poke a few holes in the skin side of the salmon, just to pierce the plastic, not necessarily the salmon. Place the salmon, skin-side down, on a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet. Place a large plate or another baking sheet on top of the salmon, and then put a few heavy cans or a large cast-iron skillet on top. The idea here is that you are pressing the cure into the salmon, and as that happens, some water will leach out (the holes you poked let out any excess moisture).
4. Place this in the refrigerator and let it sit for 3 to 5 days. Dad likes his a little more cured; I like mine a little fresher. Check it at 3 days and give it a taste; feel free to keep curing.
5. You can rub the cure off before slicing and serving, but I like to leave it on, because I’m into all that additional herby saltiness.
6. Whatever you’re serving it with (or on), slice your gravlax as thinly as possible. To do this, use a very sharp knife (preferably a slicing knife, but if you don’t own one, reach for the thinnest blade you have). Cut on a strong bias to create wider, thin sheets of salmon.
Chef's note: I’ve made a few tweaks to his original recipe, using Aleppo pepper for even more smokiness and grapefruit instead of lemon, because I love the floral notes and slightly adult bitterness it brings; and because I like things to taste more salty than sweet, I cut back on some of the brown sugar. How you serve this will ultimately come down to personal preference. Are you a Wasa cracker or bagel kind of person? Cream cheese or labne? Red onion or scallion? Lots to decide.
DO AHEAD: Gravlax can be kept for up to 1 week, refrigerated. Just make sure you wrap it super tightly before storing, changing out the plastic wrap between uses to keep moisture out.
Reprinted from Dining In. Copyright © 2017 by Alison Roman. Photographs copyright ©2017 by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.