Passover is clearly a religious holiday but it has deep universal roots - the celebration of freedom from oppression and the honoring of ancient traditions. In the Seder - the traditional Passover meal - you can see traditional rites of spring: cleaning rituals (discarding things that have been lying around all winter); the arrival of spring's gifts like fresh herbs and vegetables, new wine, young lamb; and, probably most evident, the scarcity of cupboard supplies and seasonings in late winter (e.g., matzoh meal).
Over the years, Seders have reflected Old Testament history and the diversity of Jewish cuisines. For example, one of the symbolic dishes is haroset - a fruit, nut and wine mixture to represent the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build buildings for the pharaohs. And while many Jews report that the Seders they grew up with offered the familiar dishes - matzoh, gefilte fish, chicken soup, borscht, potato kugel - they also recall many bland, non-noteworthy meals.
Today's Seders are becoming contemporary celebrations of food and the diversity of the Jewish cuisine as much as celebrations of freedom. Whether you celebrate Passover with a traditional Seder or an informal reading of the Haggadah followed by a party-til-you-drop evening, good food is always in order. And if these dishes find their way to your Seder table or are just part of an everyday meal, celebrate culture, food and freedom as you enjoy them. L'chei-im!
Jacqui lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smoked Fish with Fennel and Arugula salad (8 servings)
1-1/4 pounds thinly sliced smoked fish, e.g., trout or whitefish
2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 fresh fennel bulb, trimmed and halved vertically, then sliced paper-thin
2 cups packed baby arugula leaves
3 Tbsp chopped fresh chives
1. Place fish on one side of platter.
2. Whisk oil and lemon juice in bowl; season dressing with salt and pepper.
3. Toss half with the fennel and half with the arugula; mound both alongside fish. Sprinkle with chives.
Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls (6 servings)
6-9 cups good chicken stock
1/4 cup minced onion
1/4 cup melted rendered chicken fat (or substitute canola or extra-virgin olive oil)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
About 1 cup matzoh meal
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
Fresh parsley leaves, chopped, for garnish
1. Beat together the eggs and 1/2 cup of the stock. Stir in the onion, fat, salt, and pepper. Add the matzoh meal; the dough should be quite moist, barely stiff enough to make into balls. If it is too moist, add a little more meal.
2. Cover mixture and refrigerate for an hour or overnight. When ready to continue, place a large pot of salted water to boil. Using wet hands, shape the mixture into small balls, about 1 inch in diameter. Meanwhile, cook the carrots in the 5-1/2 cups stock.
3. Turn the heat under the boiling water to medium low and cook the balls until expanded and set, about 30 minutes.
4. Place the matzoh balls into soup bowls and ladle the stock and carrots over them; garnish with lots of parsley.
Matzoh Baklava (8-10 servings)
6 sheets matzoh
2 cups sugar
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey
1/2 tsp rose water (available at Middle-Eastern markets, not rose syrup)
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup shelled raw unsalted pistachios, chopped
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted margarine or butter, melted
1. Briefly pass each sheet of matzoh under cold running water until wet on all sides. Layer sheets between damp paper towels and let stand until somewhat pliable but not soggy or falling apart, about 2 hours.
2. While matzoh is softening, make the syrup: In small saucepan over medium high heat, stir together 1 cup water and sugar. Bring to boil, then lower heat to moderate and cook, uncovered, until syrupy and thick, about 15-20 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, honey and rose water and simmer 1 minute. Remove from heat and let cool, then chill until ready to use.
3. Assemble dessert: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl, stir together walnuts, pistachios, brown sugar, cinnamon and cardamom. Separate out 1/6 of nut mixture and reserve for topping.
4. Transfer 1 sheet matzoh to counter. Press rolling pin once over sheet from one end to other to flatten; rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Matzoh will take on a phyllo-like texture. Transfer to 8-inch square pan and brush with melted margarine. Sprinkle with 1/5 of unreserved nut mixture.
5. Roll out second sheet of matzoh and transfer to pan. Brush with margarine and sprinkle with nut mixture. Repeat with remaining matzoh sheets and remaining nut mixture, ending with matzoh sheet brushed with margarine on top.
6. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Transfer to rack and immediately pour chilled syrup over. Sprinkle with reserved nut mixture. Let cool, then cover and let stand at least 8 hours and up to 3 days; do not chill.
7. Cut into small squares or diamonds to serve.
Note: This is a dessert that improves over time - it's even better on Day 3, after the matzoh fully soaks up the syrup.