Common Threads CEO Shares Passover Memories and Flavors

By Common Threads | Apr 8, 2020

Article by: Linda Novick O’Keefe, Co-founder & CEO

April 7, 2020 – Passover was always my favorite holiday. When I was little, it was because I loved matzah and maror and horseradish, which I ate raw. More than anything, I loved that search for the Afikomen, which is when a piece of matzah is hidden somewhere in the house and all the children embark on a hunt.

As I got older, it was the tradition of the Seder that I loved, and a chance for me to invite family and friends that always joined our Chicago table, whether the meal was edible or not. There were many people, mostly chef friends that saved some of those inedible meals I had made. My brisket to the tune of my Grandmother’s recipe never turned out… though now I use my dear friend Gail Simmons’ recipe and it always is a family favorite (lots of heavenly bittersweet horseradish).

I was never one for synagogue unless our female Rabbi, the late Julie Spitzer was leading services. Rabbi Spitzer always substituted the word “Lord” for “God” and always said “She” and “Her” vs. “He” and “His” — I was so mesmerized by her strength, how she didn’t care what others said, how she always spoke her mind, she got to me. To this day, I always find myself making those adjustments during readings, smiling, regardless of the looks I got from everyone around me.

Right now, I can’t help but think about Rabbi Spitzer’s work advocating and supporting women and addressing domestic violence in the Jewish community head on, shedding light on an issue that few were willing to address. She was vocal about Passover as a metaphor for that journey to freedom. Truly, this is a time in all of our lives where we are all forced to think about what freedom means to all of us, how grateful and blessed we each are and how we can support those that do not have the luxuries and freedoms we have been afforded.

As we celebrate Passover this year, I reflect on Rabbi Spitzer’s work, and so many memories I have with my family and friends around the table at Seder dinners. There is no better time for a little “chicken soup for the soul” and of my favorites is this recipe from Gail Simmons, the Mishmosh Chicken Matzah Ball Soup. Use whatever you have (think Stone Soup). A tip from my Grandma: always there’s a magic about making matzah balls, do not touch and roll them too much in order to keep them light so they float and watch to not overcook them so they don’t turn to lead. Make enough for your friends and neighbors, and freeze some for a rainy or a sick day. There is nothing better than a little Jewish Penicillin at exactly the right moment.

Another favorite is fixing chicken thighs or breasts the way my dear friend Chef Lorin Adolph prepares them, using apricot jam, any citrus juice, vinegar, and parsley. You simply make a sauce from the jam, juice, vinegar and parsley, and slather it over the poultry before you bake it.

The recipes are below, but here’s the deal… only do what you can now that we are trying to self-quarantine given the challenges of COVID-19. Do not pressure yourself to go out and search out a brisket or groceries. Use what you have, even if all you do is light the proverbial candles, make it yours. This Passover is certainly different than all others and one we will all likely never forget. But that idea of not forgetting history, of sacrifice, discrimination, equity, couldn’t be any more relevant. I plan to tell my children about my relatives, three of whom I never had the chance to meet, though I’d like to think are with and part of me always. For instance, my Grandma Helen’s father used to make copper pots and pans, it’s no wonder my grandma (the ultimate Balabusta) would get up at 5 a.m. every morning to cook and bake like the Energizer bunny. My Grandpa Leo sold electric supplies to help us and others “keep the lights on.” My Grandpa Abe on my dad’s side owned and ran a fruit and vegetable market out of Brooklyn that shared space with a Kosher butcher shop, and really the one thing that I have always heard from all my relatives about my Grandmother Nettie, who did assembly work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was that she loved to dance.

So, a special toast from me to all those that are picking up their pots and pans to feed our communities, the grocers especially, those mom and pop places like my grandpa’s who are staying open to feed us, those working the front lines to keep our world’s light on, and to all of you that continue to dance or remind us to find moments during this hellacious storm, thank you. Tikkun Olam: sending a prayer to repair the tear in our world right now with a whisper that love is everywhere and surely forever. Healthy, safe and peaceful Pesach friends.

Horseradish Brisket from Gail Simmons

Mishmosh Chicken Matzah Ball Soup from Gail Simmons

Onions, diced
Carrots, diced
Celery, diced

Directions: Cut up a whole chicken and place it in a pot. Add enough water to cover all of the chicken, and add a little salt to the water. Bring the water to a boil, and then lower the temperature to a simmer. Periodically skim the top layer off the soup. Add salt and pepper, then onions, carrots and celery. Cook for about two hours in an uncovered pot, stirring occasionally. Add more water if needed (but you may need to add more time). Season to taste. Strain the chicken and the vegetables, then mash the carrots and add to soup. Cool the soup and place it in the refrigerator. Reheat the soup the next day after removing the fat that settles on the top.

Matzah Farfel (or very tiny pieces of Matzah)

Chopped apple
Egg or egg white (optional)
Chicken broth
Salt and pepper

Directions: Toast farfel in a pan slightly coated in oil (cast iron pan preferred). Toss until toasted, then put aside in a large mixing bowl. Next, sauté the onions in oil for a few minutes to begin the caramelizing process, then add celery and mushrooms. Add salt and pepper, then move the ingredients to the mixing bowl. Then add the chicken broth and melted butter, as you would when you make stuffing. The mix will be a little dryer than Thanksgiving stuffing. Then add melted butter, chopped apple and raisins. Salt and pepper to taste. Optional egg. You can use this recipe to stuff a turkey or chicken, or place it in a foiled covered pouch. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour at 400°F.

Common Threads was founded in Chicago in 2003 by CEO Linda Novick O’Keefe, celebrity chef Art Smith and his husband, artist Jesus Salgueiro, as a way to bring under-resourced children together, help them celebrate different cultures and teach them about healthy nutrition. From its humble beginnings in a church basement, Common Threads now services children and families in 12 markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Pittsburgh, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, El Paso and Erie. For more information, visit or search #CookingForLife on social media.