Sunday, April 1, 2007

Aaron's Eatzz: Keeping Kosher in Kearny Mesa

I’m often nostalgic for Los Angeles and New York. LA, specifically Encino, is where I was raised, and while mocking the Valley and LA is a favorite pastime of people in San Diego and beyond, it was a magical place to grow up, particularly for a Jewish kid. New York, where I lived for several years after college, is more of a spiritual home. Its uber-urban, multi-ethnic streets are where I’ve always felt most comfortable, most myself. It’s where much of my extended family lived or passed through following passage from Eastern Europe. Going to the Lower East Side always is a moving adventure in retracing both my grandfathers’ steps early in the 20th century.

Of course, all this nostalgia is completely intertwined with food—the bagels, lox and cream cheese, hot pastrami sandwiches, kreplach (think Jewish won-tons), kugel (sweet noodle pudding), corn rye and egg creams (a milk, chocolate syrup and selzer concoction) of my childhood. Every cholesterol-laden, high-calorie bite. And, it’s what I miss in San Diego. Sure, go ahead and remind me we have D.Z. Akins and Elijah’s and Milton’s. Sorry, I enjoy them, but they’re just not the same as the old Encino Deli (now known as Froman's), Mort's in Tarzana, Art’s in Studio City, or the Carnegie Deli or Katz’s in New York. And, certainly not my beloved Zabar’s (a deli market on steroids).

So, you can imagine how startled I was to discover Aaron’s on Convoy at Balboa several years ago. No, it’s not strictly a deli; it’s a little (tiny, really) glatt kosher* market with a deli section in a little strip mall that also houses a checking cashing store, dentist’s office and bait and tackle shop. But, I live in a neighborhood where if I’m really, really lucky, the local Albertson’s will have a rickety card table set up for Passover with a few boxes of matzo, and not always kosher for Passover. That makes Aaron’s a huge find.

Tomorrow evening (Monday) marks the beginning of Passover (or Pesach), which commemorates the travail of Ancient Egyptian Jews, who having been slaves of Pharaoh, fled and wandered for 40 years in the desert, led by Moses. On the first and second evenings of Passover, a Seder is held. This large meal is structured around the reading of the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Exodus and orchestrates how the meal is conducted, rather like stage directions. Those who strictly observe Passover for its eight days require special foods that are kosher for the holiday (even using separate dishes and utensils). No leavened bread can be eaten, hence the flat cracker-like matzo, made of just flour and water, which can be ground into a meal and used for baking. Matzo symbolizes the haste in which the Jews fled that left no time to let bread rise and bake. And, it's not just bread or other leavened foodstuff (referred to as "chametz") that's forbidden. All foods must be "kosher for Passover" and packaging is always marked either kosher or not kosher for Passover. In cities like New York and LA, with large Jewish populations, kosher-for-Passover foods are pretty easy to find, even in the chain supermarkets. However, it can be a challenge here, especially outside of La Jolla. I don't keep kosher, but I do try to keep with the spirit of Passover by eating matzo and other traditional foods.

When I walked into Aaron's on Friday before lunch, owner Aaron Hutman, a long-time grocery man originally from Montreal, was uttering a frazzled mantra, “I love Pesach; I love Pesach” as he cheerfully kibitzed (chatted) with and rang up orders for customers from around San Diego County coming in to pick up Passover provisions. Hutman has owned the market for eight years and in the past, he has been able to find nearby storefronts to set up as temporary Pesach staging quarters to sell kosher-for-Passover necessities like matzo, matzo meal, wine, potato starch, gefilte fish (small ovals of deboned, ground fish, eaten chilled with horseradish) and macaroons. This year, however, he couldn’t locate a spot so the market is swept up in a Passover frenzy. My Friday visit, pre-Passover and, more immediately, pre-Shabbat (Sabbath), was probably not the best time to try to speak with him, but he was good natured about answering questions, all the while, stocking food from an unending stream of boxes he had picked up in LA before dawn that morning.

I was wowed by the solid chocolate Seder plate, something I had never seen before. Traditional seder plates have a spot for each of the symbolic items featured in the telling of the Passover story while reading the Haggadah (maror, or bitter herbs in the form of horseradish; charosets, made of chopped apples and walnuts, cinnamon and sweet wine; a roasted lamb shank; a hard-boiled egg; parsley and salt water to dip it in). So, a chocolate seder plate? It's got to be Manishewitz's answer to chocolate Easter bunnies!

Hutman has brought in a variety of baked goods from Eilat Bakery in Santa Monica and all are kosher for Passover, including almond chocolate and chocolate chip macaroons and even mandel bread, a biscotti-like cookie. In the freezer section, I was surprised to find kosher-for-Passover pizza. You, too? Well, it turns out the crust is made with matzo meal.

Along with the Pesadic foods, Aaron’s has a wide variety of kosher meat and dairy products he carries year round, as well as products from Israel, including a range of wines from Efrat Winery (Merlot, Petite Syrah, Muscat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz), vibrantly colored bottles of fruit nectars and cans of stuffed cabbage leaves, eggplant and peppers and Syrian cracked olives.

I got a kick out of the beers—He'Brew, the Chosen Beer, comes in two varieties, Genesis Ale and Messiah Bold.

Up at the front of the store is where, to me, the real treasures are—pastrami and corned beef, and containers filled with old-fashioned delicacies like chopped liver, cole slaw and egg salad. Jacob Dashevsky, a student at San Diego State, has been helping out Hutman in the rush and was busy slicing pastrami and wrapping up orders. Hutman may need Jacob’s help after Passover since he tells me that Aaron’s will be doing more catering and setting up a larger take-out section, with both kosher and non-kosher foodstuff.

These days, there’s no extended family around for a Passover seder, but my parents and I will be celebrating the holiday together Monday night and thinking of relatives around the country who will be doing the same. I always associate the holiday with my now late grandparents, Tillie and Abe Gould, who loved to host Seders for the entire family. Poppa’s job was to mark up the Haggadah with everyone’s names to establish reading parts. After all, Passover is nothing if not participatory theater. And, of course, he hid the Afikoman for us eight grandkids to find. The Afikoman is the middle matzo from a stack of three special ones placed on the Seder table. As a game to keep the children interested, the Seder leader sneaks it out at the beginning of the meal to hide it somewhere in the house, wrapping it in a special embroidered Afikoman cover or a dinner napkin. I think the winner got a dollar back then. Nana cooked for weeks in anticipation of at least a dozen guests and usually more. Chicken soup with matzo balls (dumplings made with matzo meal), homemade horseradish, roasted chicken or brisket, potato kugel (a potato pudding), charosets and flourless cakes served with strawberries. She was a fabulous cook and baker and fortunately, when I was in my 20s I hounded her to make me a cookbook of her recipes, which she did. Here is one, for matzo meal popovers, which I doubt you’ll find anywhere else. People never believe these are made without yeast, but they are. They are the Madeleines of my life.

Nana Tillie’s Passover Popovers

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

Bring to a boil: 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 stick of butter. Take off the heat and add 2 cups of matzo meal. Let cool.

Beat in 6 extra large eggs, one at a time. Cool in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Spoon onto greased cookie sheets or into muffin tins.

Bake at 450 degrees for 13 minutes, then turn down the temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 30 minutes. They should sound hollow inside when you tap the bottom. Makes about 15. Don’t double the recipe!

Aaron’s is located at 4488 Convoy St.

* Glatt means smooth in Yiddish. If the lungs of a kosher animal slaughtered in a kosher way are found to be smooth, then the animal's meat is considered to be "glatt kosher," a higher standard than kosher. However, it's come to refer to a store's reliable kosher supervision.

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