Thursday, April 5, 2012

Discovering the Cooking Traditions of Passover

This week’s guest post is contributed by Miriam Rubin, a journalist and cookbook author living in Pennsylvania who is also an avid cook, gardener and gatherer of family memories.

This Friday, April 6, is the first night of Passover. An important Jewish holiday celebrated worldwide, Passover commemorates the long-ago deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. The service honoring the event is called the Seder, which means ‘order.’ Conducted most often in private homes, young and old gather around the dining table and read from a special prayer book called the Haggadah. The ceremony invokes tears and joy, calls for drinking wine or grape juice, with readings of ancient texts, haunting melodies, shared remembrances and spirited discussion. And for hosts and home cooks, Passover presents complicated food restrictions.

On this night, even people who are not strictly kosher will adhere to special dietary rules. Any foods that have been or could come into contact with leavened foods are prohibited. A short list of these foods includes flour, pasta, breakfast cereal, other grains, bread and crackers. The only bread allowed is matzo, and the only flour used must be ground from matzo that is kosher for Passover (check labels for all products used).

Corn is prohibited as well, so no corn may be served as a vegetable. This includes no cornmeal, cornstarch or corn syrup, or any products made with these ingredients, such as confectioners' sugar, ketchup and sodas.

Other prohibited foods are rice and legumes (except for Sephardic Jews), mustard, alcohol made from grains, along with the kosher prohibitions of mixing meat and milk and not eating pork. Some cooks also avoid garlic and spices resembling grains, such as cumin, fennel and caraway seeds.

Despite these restrictions, Passover is a momentous and joyous holiday with cherished dishes, food memories and favorite recipes passed down through the generations. After the symbolic ceremonial tastes of sweet Haroset (chopped or ground fruits and nuts), sharp horseradish, matzo and parsley sprigs dipped in salt water are shared around the dining table, many Passover feasts begin with a hard-cooked egg in salt water.

Haroset for Passover

Then, the next dish traditionally served is gefilte fish, a ground mixture of white fishes, often including carp and whitefish, that's poached and served chilled with horseradish. A newer tradition in my family has been to offer thinly sliced gravlax, Scandinavian-style cured salmon. Piping hot chicken soup with plump matzo balls bobbing in the broth is next up on the menu.

I'm the one most often in the kitchen preparing these ritual dishes, and I like to next pass a large platter of steamed or roasted asparagus with lemon vinaigrette (some vinegars are not kosher for Passover). This keeps everyone busy while the Beef Brisket is being sliced or a chicken dish served, such as roast chicken or Passover Zucchini-Stuffed Chicken, the kugel plated and the gravy reheated.

Jewish Grandma's Best Beef Brisket

For dessert, I like to serve fruit, such as sliced or whole strawberries, or easy-to-make Chocolate Strawberries--always a popular treat--along with compote of stewed dried fruits. Since this is a holiday also celebrating spring, gently simmered and sweetened rhubarb, with or without strawberries, would be lovely as well. Sometimes I'll make an orange-flavored sponge cake similar to this Passover Sponge Cake, but macaroons are always on the menu. And finally, hot tea with lemon. After that the plates are cleared and the service continues, briefly, with songs and prayers.

Chocolate-covered Strawberries

You’ll find many tried and true traditional Passover recipes on Allrecipes.com, from Passover Chocolate Mandelbrot to Passover Brownies. Or if you’re seeking some new and delicious ideas for your holiday table, check out my just-published Passover article with recipes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Happy Passover!

Miriam Rubin

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