by Meredith Jacobs
For Todd Gray, owner and chef of Equinox, Jewish food taught him about culture, tradition and family.
A non-Jew from Virginia, who grew up loving soft-shelled crabs, Gray credits his Jewish wife, Ellen Kassoff Gray with encouraging him to expand his culinary proficiencies to include kosher foods. The result is not only a happy home kitchen, but an upcoming book, tentatively entitled Kitchen Conversations: Blending Jewish and American Flavors for Delicious, Easy Meals (St. Martin's, 2013), that examines the couple's culinary and personal lives and reveals how rewarding the sharing of two people's traditions - and meals - can be.
Kassoff Gray, who manages the couple's restaurant group that includes Equinox, Todd Gray's Muse at the Corcoran, and Todd Gray's Watershed, serves on the boards of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center and the Washington Humane Society.
Although he says it, "bums me out" not to have soft-shelled crabs, he's come to love Ellen's Aunt Lil's matzah ball with pappardelle noodles and pulled chicken soup; salt baked red snapper with olive oil and lemon; and, for dessert, portwine fig blintzes with candied pecans. (Don't worry if your bubbe didn't leave you these recipes, you'll be able to find them in the Grays' cookbook next Spring!)
The award-winning couple (he, the 2011 RAMMY Chef of the Year and five time nominee for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Award; she, the 2009 recipient of the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) Golden Fork Award for Front-of-the-House Excellence) are fierce advocates for sustainable agriculture. Gray sees a strong connection between seasonal cooking and kosher cooking and encourages kosher home cooks to prepare holiday dishes with local, seasonal ingredients. He suggests asparagus salad for Passover. And, with spring coinciding with rockfish season in the D.C.-area, Gray likes the idea of rockfish for Pesach.
His favorite for seder is a nice rack of lamb. After all, he says, lamb features prominently in the Passover story.
He prepares his lamb crusted with a garlic and pistachio crust.
Pistachio Crusted Loin of Lamb with Roasted Garlic Jus
4 lamb loins (about 5 ounces each), trimmed of all fat
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup egg wash
1 cup pistachio crust (recipe follows)
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup roasted garlic jus for serving
Additional roasted garlic for garnish (optional)
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1 cup matzah meal
salt and pepper
Puree the pistachios and matzah meal in a food processor, season with salt and pepper. Whisk the egg with 1/4 cup of water. Use the eggwash as a means of adhereing the crust to the lamb loin or any other items you crust.
Brown the lamb. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the meat all over with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the meat and cook until golden brown on all sides - about 4 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate to cool slightly.
Crust the lamb. Lay the thyme in the bottom of a baking dish large enough to hold the loins in 1 layer. Put the flour, egg wash and pistachio crust each into a shallow bowl. One at a time, roll the loins first in the flour, then the egg wash, and then in the pistachio crust, pressing the crust securely to the meat with your hands. Arrange the meat on the thyme in the baking dish.
Roast the lamb. Roast the loins until they are medium rare (130 degrees on an instant-read thermometer) and the crust is firm and lightly browned - about 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Warm the roasted garlic jus while the lamb rests. Slice the lamb into medallions, arrange on individual plates with extra roasted garlic if you like, and serve drizzled with roasted garlic jus.
Along with their son Harrison, the Gray's have hosted 20 guests at their home for Passover. For his family's seders, Chef Gray prepares roasted beet soup, braised lamb shanks and roasted rockfish.
When asked what every Jewish home cook should have in her kitchen for Passover, Gray lists fresh horseradish, lamb shanks from the local butcher and sugar snap peas. And the three ingredients for any time of year? Good sea salt, good olive oil and a big heart.