New York City jeweler and gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) leads a Murphy’s Law life in the 2019 dark comedy Uncut Gems. In Howard, writer/director brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, along with writer Ronald Bronstein, create a human jackhammer with a hair-trigger temper in a full-blown midlife crisis. The movie portrays Howard's life as a perpetual juggling act between family and work. A crisis hits just before Passover, when a payoff arrives that might wipe his slate clean.
Even food, usually a source of comfort, highlights the angst and estrangement in the Ratner family. At the candlelit table for their seder meal, Howard’s extended family calls a truce and solemnly re-enacts the rituals connected to Passover. Ironically, it’s Howard who recites the list of Biblical plagues. What we don’t see is the warmth that usually comes from sharing a meal with family. We get only a tempting glimpse of a huge platter of brisket, the traditional centerpiece of the meal.
In fact, Passover may be a metaphor for Howard’s life, which is filled with plagues of his own making: the two leg-breakers his loan shark has shadowing him; his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), who is divorcing him; and the girlfriend (Julia Fox) he suspects of cheating on him. Through it all, Howard is undaunted.
At one point, he stops his frenetic pace and tries to get his family back. In his starkly lit, almost sterile kitchen, no one cooks. The counter is a physical barrier, with Howard on one side, his wife and daughter on the other. The aroma of barbecued chicken comes from the microwave, where his wife heats leftovers, her back to him. When Howard, desperate, tries to connect with his daughter, she picks at leftover cake frosting and barely looks at him. It’s as if the heart of the home has stopped beating.
Impossibly, we root for Howard to hit the gambler’s Holy Grail, the longshot with the big payoff. Will Howard come out ahead? Will he win his family back? Will they ever sit down for a meal together again? In a film that splices scenes faster than a chef dices an onion, the Safdie brothers keep us hungry for more.
Below, we've curated a seder menu that leans on tradition, and features comforting matzo ball soup, brisket, and chewy coconut macaroons.
To Eat While Watching Uncut Gems
A mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine, haroset symbolizes the mortar that enslaved Israelites used to make bricks in Ancient Egypt. In the US, this Ashkenazi-style haroset is more commonplace, featuring walnuts and diced apples sprinkled with cinnamon and tossed with wine. But if you’ve never tried a Sephardic haroset, we encourage you to give it a try. It’s made with dried fruit—raisins, dates, and apricots—spiced with cinnamon and cloves, cooked briefly, and then tossed with slivered almonds.
Plump matzo dumplings swim in chicken stock flavored with carrot, celery, and dill. A bit of schmaltz adds great flavor, and using seltzer instead of flat water helps lighten the dumplings.
In this one-pot, stove-top stew, raisins, honey, and orange juice bring out the natural sweetness in chunky carrots and onions. As the stew cooks low and slow, cardamom and cinnamon perfume the kitchen. In the last five minutes, the cooking liquid is reduced to a glaze.
To simplify things ever further, you can make your main course and tzimmes in one fell swoop. Brisket gets a bad rap, as it’s easy to overcook, can be tough, and tends to dry out. But this recipe solves all potential ills. It calls for a quick, deep sear, long braise—shortened by half in this pressure cooker version of the same recipe—and a clever trick to help reinfuse the cooked meat with its own juices: Let the cooked brisket cool slightly, then slice it thinly and let it soak in its wine- and tomato-infused broth until it’s moist and fall-apart tender.
The recipe pictured above makes a sizable portion of carrots and onions, so if you're already making tzimmes you may want to reach for this sweet, sour, and savory beef brisket instead. Rubbed in sugar, garlic, paprika, and mustard, it simmers in an acidic tomato, apricot, and cranberry sauce spiced with soy and Worcestershire. Refrigerating the cooked brisket overnight allows the flavors to meld and makes the excess fat easy to scoop off, leaving the meat ready to heat, slice, and serve.
Crunchy on the outside, moist on the inside, macaroons are a sweet finale to a Passover dinner. In this version, toasting the coconut brings out the best, nuttiest coconut flavor, and dulce de leche adds warm caramel notes.
Editor's note: This article is part of a new series developed with A24 to celebrate the marriage of food and film during this period of self-isolation.
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