Published On: Tue, Oct 9th, 2018

Jewish comfort food with a big slice of nostalgia

The first time chef Anthony Rose had a patty melt was at the American diner chain Mel’s Drive-In while he was working at various San Francisco kitchens after going to culinary school there in the early ’90s. He was skeptical as the big guy with the voracious appetite often went for the big bacon cheeseburgers. But after seeing table after table order the simple sandwich, a hybrid of a burger and a grilled cheese, he fell in love with it: the juicy patty sweetened with grilled onions and melted cheese between two slices of buttered toast. When he opened his first restaurant, Rose and Sons, he knew he had to put it on the menu.

Rose’s cooking very much veers into the diners, drive-ins and dives category as shown in the recipes in his debut cookbook, The Last Schmaltz ($ 40, Appetite by Random House), co-written with Toronto-based food and travel writer Chris Johns. It’s a compendium of recipes from Rose’s mini restaurant empire in Toronto: Rose and Sons, Big Crow, Fat Pasha, Schmaltz Appetizing, Bar Begonia, Madame Boeuf and the former Swan diner, which reopened as Le Swan under restaurateur Jen Agg at the end of September. The dishes are clearly inspired by some of the city’s beloved and oldest restaurants be they a chopped vegetable salad from Chinese restaurant/steak house House of Chan, which relocated to Eglinton West or the now-closed Steak Pit at Avenue Rd. and Lawrence Ave., which Rose calls in the book “the best worst steak house ever” that was famous for its ribs with a “Mexican”-style sauce. The places that inspire Rose aren’t topping any best-of restaurant lists, but are remembered for their kitschy decor and comforting and indulgent classics.

Chef Anthony Rose, right, of Rose and Sons/Big Crow prepares a meal with co-writer Chris Johns. Rose’s cooking very much veers into the diners, drive-ins and dives category as shown in the recipes in his debut cookbook The Last Schmaltz.
Chef Anthony Rose, right, of Rose and Sons/Big Crow prepares a meal with co-writer Chris Johns. Rose’s cooking very much veers into the diners, drive-ins and dives category as shown in the recipes in his debut cookbook The Last Schmaltz.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

“I like these old-school places with the red velvet and mirrors, where you’ll get garlic bread and chopped vegetables to start your meal,” he says. “These restaurants look fancy but it’s just about eating simple, good food, and the food at Rose and Sons has that simple richness. You know what you’re going to get when you go there.”

Nostalgia plays a big role in Rose’s cooking, which explains why the book is laid out like a scrapbook with artfully stained pages, hand-scrawled notes and photos with a yellow tinge. The recipes are categorized by each successive restaurant that Rose opened since he left the head chef position at The Drake Hotel in 2012. Each place is introduced by Johns, who previously collaborated with chef Derek Dammann of Montreal’s Maison Publique for the True North cookbook in 2015. Rose and Johns say music plays a big role at their restaurants, one reason the title is inspired by the 1978 Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz.

It features the greatest hits from Rose’s restaurants, including Big Crow’s ultra rich s’mores cake, Schmaltz Appetizing’s gefilte fish and lemon-dill gravlax, and Fat Pasha’s Manischewitz vermouth, a take on kosher wine. The latter is one of the many recipes in the book that riffs on classic Ashkenazi and Israeli foods (think challah sticky buns, schmaltz latkes, and salatim) that Rose grew up eating.

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And yes, the book includes the recipe for the infamous whole-roasted cauliflower drizzled with tahini and pine nuts from Fat Pasha, which became the symbol of the great cauliflower shortage of 2016 when the price for the vegetable shot up to $ 7 a head in stores and led to Rose charging $ 38 for the dish. “This week we’re setting it at $ 27 or $ 28,” he says, still surprised at the popularity of the dish since it appeared on the menu in 2014. “We locked in a price with our supplier like you would with meat, but we’ll have to renegotiate it again later.”

Patty Melt

The classic patty melt has never left the menu of Rose and Sons since it opened. Rose’s recipe calls for two onions, but I used three because I like my sandwiches to have extra caramelized onions. You can cook them ahead of time and refrigerate them in an airtight container for up to five days. Rose prefers the patties to be cooked to medium-rare or medium doneness, so buy beef from a reliable, busy butcher with a high turnaround of stock. Also, opt for lean rather than extra lean beef for extra juicy burgers. Caraway rye bread can be found at local bakeries such as Future Bakery or in stores under the Dimpflmeier brand.

For the caramelized onions

3 thinly-sliced, large white onions, about 1 lb. each

3 tbsp (15 mL) canola oil, plus more as necessary

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1 tbsp (15 mL) unsalted butter, plus more as necessary

1 tsp (5 mL) kosher salt

6 sprigs fresh thyme, stems removed

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil and butter. When butter melts and oil starts to shimmer, add onions. Let onions cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in salt and thyme. Continue to cook, stirring every 5 to 6 minutes and scraping off bits of caramelized onion from bottom of pan until onions begin to brown, about 30 to 40 minutes. If onions are drying out, add a bit more oil or butter. If onions are browning too quickly or are starting to burn, turn heat down to low. Turn heat down to medium-low or low and let onions continue to caramelize into a deep brown colour and develop a sweet flavour, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the patty melt

12 thick slices caraway rye bread

Room temperature unsalted butter, for buttering bread

Caramelized onions, see above

12 slices orange or aged white cheddar, plus more if desired

2-1/4 lb. lean ground beef

Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste

Spicy brown mustard, for serving

Preheat oven to 250F (120C).

Generously butter all 12 slices of bread. Turn half of them butter-side down and top with two slices of cheese, or more if desired, and caramelized onions. Place remaining slices of bread on top, butter-side up, so butter is on outside of sandwiches.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Fry sandwiches until bread is golden brown and cheese has melted, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer sandwiches to an unlined baking sheet and place in oven to keep warm.

Divide ground beef into six even portions. Shape each portion into patties, making a small indent in centre with thumb. Generously season patties with salt and pepper.

Heat skillet over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, sear patties for 2 to 3 minutes per side for medium-rare doneness. When patties are cooked, remove sandwiches from oven. Carefully place a patty into each sandwich, careful not to burn hands. Serve with brown mustard.

Makes 6 patty melts.

Karon Liu is the Star’s food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu

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Jewish comfort food with a big slice of nostalgia