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Shared by Mitchell Davis

For Mitchell Davis, the Meal Is the Holiday

Shared by Mitchell Davis

The Davis family in the kitchen of the James Beard Foundation in 1996 for the first annual James Beard Foundation Latke Cook-off. (from left to right: brother Sheldon, niece Helen, Mitchell, Mom Sondra, and sister Carrie (not present, sister Leslie).
The Davis family in the kitchen of the James Beard Foundation in 1996 for the first annual James Beard Foundation Latke Cook-off. (from left to right: brother Sheldon, niece Helen, Mitchell, Mom Sondra, and sister Carrie (not present, sister Leslie).

For Mitchell Davis, the Meal Is the Holiday

Family Journey

Toronto, Canada
Manhattan, NYC
8 recipes
Chopped Liver With Mustard and Horseradish

Chopped Liver With Mustard and Horseradish

3 cups45min

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds chicken livers
  • 6-8 tablespoons chicken schmaltz
  • 3 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound), 1 peeled but left whole with the root end intact, the rest finely chopped
  • 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish
  • 2 large hard boiled eggs, chopped
Matzo Ball Soup

Matzo Ball Soup

6 to 8 servings1 h active + 3½ h inactive + overnight

Ingredients

For the soup

  • 1 (4 ½ pound) soup chicken, stewing hen, or roasting chicken, cut into quarters and rinsed
  • 2 or 3 chicken necks or chicken feet, claws removed (optional)
  • 4 large yellow onions (2 pounds), roughly chopped
  • 8 celery stalks (1 pound), with leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 parsley root (½ pound) with top, cleaned and roughly chopped OR about 10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
  • 7 to 8 carrots (1 ½ pounds), peeled and halved,
  • 1 medium turnip (½ pound), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium parsnip (½ pound), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 small point of a star anise
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 6 sprigs fresh dill
  • 1 recipe for vegetable garnish (below)

For the matzo balls

  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons chicken schmaltz, melted and cooled
  • 4 tablespoons hot chicken soup
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzo meal

For the vegetable garnish

  • 6 cups chicken soup
  • 3 medium carrots (½ pound), sliced ⅛ inch thick
  • 1 medium turnip (½ pound), cut into ⅓ inch dice
  • 2 celery stalks (¼ pound), cut crosswise into ¼ inch slices
  • 5 sprigs fresh dill, chopped (1 ½ teaspoons)
Fermented Vegetable Salad

Fermented Vegetable Salad

8 servings45min active time plus 5 days for fermentation

Ingredients

For the vegetables:

  • 2 to 3 pounds assorted, hearty vegetables, such as green cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, kohlrabi, daikon, red pepper, or other
  • 6 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as necessary for additional brine
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 dried hot chili pepper
  • 1 teaspoon assorted spices, such as coriander seed, yellow mustard seed, whole star anise, crumpled bay leaf or your favorites
  • 2 or 3 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, sliced, or other onion, such as red or shallot
  • 1 small bunch dill and/or a handful of other herbs, roughly chopped
  • ⅓ cup olive oil or other vegetable oil
  • Apple cider vinegar to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Pickled Cucumber Salad

14 servings20min active time plus 1h

Ingredients

  • 2 English (seedless) cucumbers (about 1 ¾ pounds), peeling optional
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 large yellow or white onion (½ pound), peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup of white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, to taste (optional)
Baked Fish in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

Baked Fish in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

6 servings1h

Ingredients

For the sauce:

  • 3 tablespoons light olive oil, peanut oil, or vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion (½ pound), finely chopped (1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
  • 2 large carrots (⅓ pound), grated (1 cup)
  • 1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large bay leaves
  • 1 medium green pepper, roughly chopped (1 cup)
  • ¼ cup golden raisins, roughly chopped

For the fish:

  • ½ cup light olive oil, peanut oil, or vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ pounds skinless and boneless fish fillets, such as cod, sole, haddock or halibut
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Beef Brisket

Beef Brisket

10 - 15 servings45min active time plus 4h inactive time

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 5 to 7-pound whole beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large onions (1 pound), coarsely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • 1 (14-ounce) bottle ketchup
  • 2 large bay leaves
Round Raisin Challah

Round Raisin Challah

1 large festive loaf45min active plus 3h for rising plus 40min baking

Ingredients

  • 1 cup lukewarm water (around 120 degrees F, or warm to the touch)
  • ¼ cup mild honey, such as acacia or wildflower, or sugar
  • 1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon peanut oil or Crisco (100% soybean oil), or unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 4 ½ cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt

For the garnish:

  • 1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
  • ½ cup golden raisins
Honey Walnut Cake

Honey Walnut Cake

24 pieces45min plus 1h for baking and cooling

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 4 cups walnut halves
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus enough to grease baking pan
  • 1 cup light honey, such as acacia or wildflower
  • 1 ½  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

For the syrup:

  • 1 cup honey
  • Grated zest of 2 lemons (1 tablespoon)
  • Juice of 2 lemons (½ cup)
Recipes
1
Chopped Liver With Mustard and Horseradish

Chopped Liver With Mustard and Horseradish

3 cups45min

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds chicken livers
  • 6-8 tablespoons chicken schmaltz
  • 3 medium yellow onions (about 1 pound), 1 peeled but left whole with the root end intact, the rest finely chopped
  • 2 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1 tablespoon horseradish
  • 2 large hard boiled eggs, chopped
2
Matzo Ball Soup

Matzo Ball Soup

6 to 8 servings1 h active + 3½ h inactive + overnight

Ingredients

For the soup

  • 1 (4 ½ pound) soup chicken, stewing hen, or roasting chicken, cut into quarters and rinsed
  • 2 or 3 chicken necks or chicken feet, claws removed (optional)
  • 4 large yellow onions (2 pounds), roughly chopped
  • 8 celery stalks (1 pound), with leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 parsley root (½ pound) with top, cleaned and roughly chopped OR about 10 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
  • 7 to 8 carrots (1 ½ pounds), peeled and halved,
  • 1 medium turnip (½ pound), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 medium parsnip (½ pound), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 1 small point of a star anise
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 6 sprigs fresh dill
  • 1 recipe for vegetable garnish (below)

For the matzo balls

  • 5 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons chicken schmaltz, melted and cooled
  • 4 tablespoons hot chicken soup
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzo meal

For the vegetable garnish

  • 6 cups chicken soup
  • 3 medium carrots (½ pound), sliced ⅛ inch thick
  • 1 medium turnip (½ pound), cut into ⅓ inch dice
  • 2 celery stalks (¼ pound), cut crosswise into ¼ inch slices
  • 5 sprigs fresh dill, chopped (1 ½ teaspoons)
3
Fermented Vegetable Salad

Fermented Vegetable Salad

8 servings45min active time plus 5 days for fermentation

Ingredients

For the vegetables:

  • 2 to 3 pounds assorted, hearty vegetables, such as green cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, kohlrabi, daikon, red pepper, or other
  • 6 tablespoons kosher salt, plus more as necessary for additional brine
  • 10 black peppercorns
  • 1 dried hot chili pepper
  • 1 teaspoon assorted spices, such as coriander seed, yellow mustard seed, whole star anise, crumpled bay leaf or your favorites
  • 2 or 3 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced
  • 1 bunch scallions, white and green parts, sliced, or other onion, such as red or shallot
  • 1 small bunch dill and/or a handful of other herbs, roughly chopped
  • ⅓ cup olive oil or other vegetable oil
  • Apple cider vinegar to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
4

Pickled Cucumber Salad

14 servings20min active time plus 1h

Ingredients

  • 2 English (seedless) cucumbers (about 1 ¾ pounds), peeling optional
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 large yellow or white onion (½ pound), peeled and very thinly sliced
  • 1 cup of white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, to taste (optional)
5
Baked Fish in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

Baked Fish in Sweet-and-Sour Sauce

6 servings1h

Ingredients

For the sauce:

  • 3 tablespoons light olive oil, peanut oil, or vegetable oil
  • 1 large yellow onion (½ pound), finely chopped (1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
  • 2 large carrots (⅓ pound), grated (1 cup)
  • 1 (28-ounce) can peeled tomatoes
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large bay leaves
  • 1 medium green pepper, roughly chopped (1 cup)
  • ¼ cup golden raisins, roughly chopped

For the fish:

  • ½ cup light olive oil, peanut oil, or vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ pounds skinless and boneless fish fillets, such as cod, sole, haddock or halibut
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6
Beef Brisket

Beef Brisket

10 - 15 servings45min active time plus 4h inactive time

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 1 5 to 7-pound whole beef brisket, trimmed of excess fat
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large onions (1 pound), coarsely chopped
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • 1 (14-ounce) bottle ketchup
  • 2 large bay leaves
7
Round Raisin Challah

Round Raisin Challah

1 large festive loaf45min active plus 3h for rising plus 40min baking

Ingredients

  • 1 cup lukewarm water (around 120 degrees F, or warm to the touch)
  • ¼ cup mild honey, such as acacia or wildflower, or sugar
  • 1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dry yeast
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon peanut oil or Crisco (100% soybean oil), or unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 4 ½ cups of unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt

For the garnish:

  • 1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water
  • ½ cup golden raisins
8
Honey Walnut Cake

Honey Walnut Cake

24 pieces45min plus 1h for baking and cooling

Ingredients

For the cake:

  • 4 cups walnut halves
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus enough to grease baking pan
  • 1 cup light honey, such as acacia or wildflower
  • 1 ½  teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

For the syrup:

  • 1 cup honey
  • Grated zest of 2 lemons (1 tablespoon)
  • Juice of 2 lemons (½ cup)

“I’ve carried the torch of my mother’s food,” says Mitchell Davis, the chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation. He is the cook in the family who siblings and friends call to ask how his mother Sondra made her exceptional chicken soup or formed her feather-weight matzo balls in their kitchen in Toronto. “It allows me to set the tradition,” says Mitchell.

It’s a tradition he started to take ownership of early on. “From the time I was three or four, I was fascinated with cooking,” he says. “I famously used to pretend I was sick to stay home to watch cooking shows.” His mother cooked and entertained often, but struggled with migraines and ultimately lost most of her sight. She relied on Mitchell and his sister Carrie for help. “I did a lot of ‘my mother’s’ cooking especially for the holidays,” he explains.

The holiday parties were always as large as the family’s dining room table, with friends and family totaling 13 or 14 people gathering for the feast. No matter the holiday, the menu included, brisket, challah, chopped liver, matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkes, farfel, sour cream cake, and mandel bread.

“The family recipes are our recipes,” he says, not just his mother’s. The ownership is shared across the generations in the Davis family. In the early aughts, Mitchell set out to document them for a charming book called The Mensch Chef. His mother came to New York and the two cooked together, allowing him to capture her technique. For matzo balls, she preferred heavy, dense ones, but ironically always made the lightest matzo balls. “She said she used the recipe on the box, but when we cooked together,” he says, it was clear that she didn’t.

He wrote down recipes for dishes like Jewish spaghetti, elbow macaroni with tomato sauce, butter, and a bit of sugar, that Mitchell grew up thinking was a dish every Jewish household made. He documented his mother’s chopped liver, which she always insisted on chopping by hand with a mezzaluna in a wooden bowl, and challah, which was wrapped into a turban shape for Rosh Hashanah.

Unlike the books of Joan Nathan and Claudia Roden that Mitchell admires, he didn’t travel to research the roots of these Jewish dishes.

“These were just the recipes from my family,” he explains. “This is what we ate…as a non-observant New York-ish Jewish family,” living in Toronto.

The family repertoire is also one that grew over the years, with new dishes joining the table. The brisket in his book “is not my mother’s. It’s Adam Rapoport’s mother’s recipe,” Mitchell explains, referring to Bon Appetit’s editor-in-chief. He was introduced to her recipe, which uses ketchup, brown sugar, and Worcestershire to make a barbecue sauce, and prepared it for his family. “My whole family liked her brisket better than ours, so it became our family recipe,” he adds. The same is true for the honey and walnut cake he shared with us, which originally came from cookbook author Richard Sax.

The recipe for sweet and sour fish that’s always part of the family table came from a late friend of Mitchell’s and his husband Nate, chef Dano Hutnik. His cooking pulled from the cuisines of Central Europe, Mitchell explains. “A lot of the food he made was familiar tasting…. It tasted like we made it. He used garlic powder and paprika — all the things my family used.”

Sondra passed away before The Mensch Chef came out, but the book has helped carry the torch of her food forward, while leaving space for recipes and family traditions to shift and adapt when something new comes along that everyone enjoys.

This year, for the first time in a while, Mitchell is planning to host a Rosh Hashanah dinner, serving the blend of his mother’s recipes and the more recent additions to the family repertoire. As he says:

“Because the meals are what the holidays are.”