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Passover in Paris

March 26, 2006

I walked through the open-air market, filling my bags with the new spring garlic, brilliant vegetables, fresh-caught fish, and fragrant herbs. Preparing for Passover seders takes a long time; in our case, it was several years. And the place was Paris.

Our daughter Alex was spending her college junior year there. Since her schedule would not permit her to come home for the holiday, we decided to celebrate our seders in Paris with her.

We had invited Emily, a very close family friend, also in Paris for her junior year, a few relatives of stateside friends, and a couple of students from Alex's theatre classes. But most important, Chris, Alex's Chinese-American boyfriend, would be there, and though he had grown up in Manhattan with many Jewish friends, he'd never attended a seder.

In one sense, it would be a first for us as well: my husband Howie and I had never hosted our own seder before. For years, we have spent the first seder with my sister and her family and the second with my husband's sister's family. And while we cook for my sister's seder and contribute to the service at my sister-in-law's, we have never led one of our own.

It became a game we played every year: what would we include in our own seder? We compiled booklists for creating personal seders and downloaded provocative haggadahs from the Web. We stuffed folders with names of songs and ideas for rituals we would add.

But in the end, Passovers are made of family memories and we were too close to our own families to enjoy seders without them. There was no way we could break with tradition and go off on our own.

Until last year.

We rented an apartment with a good kitchen and a large dining room in an area we knew well from past visits. We purchased ceremonial items, like a seder plate, in New York, and packed them along with the family Kiddush cup and kippot (head coverings).

When Howie and I set about creating our seder, we knew we couldn't rely on between-the-lines family memories encoded in rote recitations of the old Maxwell House haggadahs. That wouldn't work if we wanted Chris to be an active participant. He would not be able to infer the Exodus story from the disparate paragraphs it contained. And merely repeating the traditional words from the seder: “All people, in every generation, should see themselves as having experienced the Exodus in Egypt,” would not make it so.

I once read that a guest at a holiday table is a gift for the family, because then the family looks at all the traditions, listens to the songs and the stories as if for the first time. And I have always believed that unless we keep re-inventing our Jewish customs so that they remain meaningful to us, the rituals will become stale and hollow. Judaism is not only a timeless religion, but a timely one as well.

The service we wrote spoke to our universal longing to be free: in that sense, those who left Egypt were ancestors of us all. We added to the seder plate: a potato peel to commemorate hunger and famine, and an orange--a custom originally meant to suggest the fruitfulness of welcoming those with different sexual orientations to our community, but that now has come to mean embracing all people who have been marginalized. We designated a special purpose for each of the four cups of wine. We revisited and revised problematic sections, like the Four Sons--we retold the Exodus now through the eyes of the Four Children, recognizing that, at different points of our lives, each one of us has been the wise, wicked, simple, or silent child. We inserted new readings and fresh, inclusive perspectives, opening up the ancient saga of the Israelites to address all those around the globe who are enslaved by hunger or by tyranny today. Poems, personal stories, and a profusion of songs, from “Dayenu” to “Go Down Moses” (with all song lyrics printed out), would make the celebration not just interactive, but authentically shared as well.

Invested with new traditions, our seder would taste richer. As for the food, well, I already knew how much Chris loved my Jewish cooking, from Egyptian fish patties to matzah balls to flourless chocolate cake.

In the old Jewish quarter, I bought his favorite--a brisket, and goose fat (preferred in France to chicken fat) for the matzah balls. And whether it was Paris or just the late-April date of last year's holiday, I have never cooked for a seder with such intensely flavored produce. Deeply perfumed raspberries, blood oranges and rhubarb bursting with taste made my staple spring compote a real standout.

Only Alex, Chris, and Emmy came to the seder, and the five of us prepared the meal and arranged the seder plate together.

Howie and I began the service by blessing the three children. We felt blessed as well: as the seder unfolded, here, as at our home in New York, Chris was very much a part of every discussion, very much a part of our family. He even offered suggestions for next year.

There were tears as we raised our wine glasses in memory of all our loved ones now gone. A couple of stories elicited uncontrollable outbursts of laughter, and others, shared revelations. There was plenty of loud, joyous singing, though not all of us are singers: Chris and I were sometimes out of tune. But until the seder drew to a close around 2 a.m., we were always in harmony.

Here are recipes for dishes that I cooked for our seder last year.

Easy Onion-Braised Brisket

Sauteed onion takes on multiple roles here, providing not only the wonderfully savory flavor, but also all the aromatic moisture in which the brisket gently braises, and even the body for the simple, flour-free gravy.

Ingredients
5 tablespoons mild olive oil

a first-cut beef brisket (about 5 pounds),trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel, and patted dry

6 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds onions, thinly sliced (about 8 cups)

1/4 cup mild vinegar (moderately priced sherry or balsamic are good choices)

Heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or heavy, flameproof-lidded casserole large enough to accommodate the meat in one layer. Add the brisket, and brown it well to caramelize the meat on all sides, about 10 minutes in all. Don't allow it to develop a hard, dark crust which would make the meat tough or bitter. Transfer the seared brisket to a platter, fat-side down.

Sprinkle the garlic cloves with enough salt and pepper to season the brisket to taste, then mash the garlic to a paste. Spread half of the garlic paste over the top (nonfat side) of the brisket, and set the meat aside.

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Pour off all the remaining fat in the pan, and add the 2 remaining tablespoons of fresh oil. Add about half the onions, salt and pepper them generously, and saute over medium-high heat, lifting and tossing them occasionally, until they have reduced in volume enough to make sufficient room in the pan for the remaining onions. Continue sauteing until all the onions are burnished a light gold. (When working with a large quantity of onions, there is another option that produces a slightly different, less sauteed taste and softer texture: soften the salted onions quickly by covering the pan and lowering the heat to steam them for several minutes until they have reduced a great deal. Remove the cover, raise the heat to high, and saute, stirring and scraping, until the onions are golden.)

Add the vinegar, increase the heat to high, and cook, scraping up all the caramelized brown bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, for 3-4 minutes, until all the liquid is evaporated. Place the brisket on the bed of onions, fat side up. Spread the remaining garlic paste over the top (fat side) of the brisket.

Spoon about half of the onions all over the top and sides of the brisket, so that the meat is sandwiched between layers of onion. Cover tightly first with foil, then with the lid of the Dutch oven.

Braise the brisket in the oven, basting with the pan juices and turning the meat every 30 minutes or so (be sure to re-cover the pan tightly), until the meat is fork tender, about 3 1/2-4 hours. Let the meat rest in the pan sauce for at least 1 hour, but preferably overnight, covered, in the refrigerator.

When you are ready to serve the brisket, scrape off any congealed fat from the surface if you have refrigerated the dish. Transfer the cold meat to a cutting board, and slice the meat thinly across the grain on a slight diagonal.

Prepare the gravy. Strain the braising mixture, reserving the onion-garlic mixture. Skim and discard as much fat as possible from the braising liquid. Puree the defatted braising liquid and the reserved onion-garlic mixture in a food processor or blender. Reheat the meat slowly in the pureed sauce until it is piping hot. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Arrange the sliced brisket on a serving platter. Spoon some of the hot sauce all over the meat and pass the rest in a separate sauceboat.

Yield: about 8 servings

Lemon-Fried Chicken with Tart Salad Topping

“Why on this night do we dip twice, and on other nights, we dip only once?” asks the youngest child as part of the Four Questions at the seder, seeking an explanation of the mysteries encoded in the ritual Passover meal.

And the head of the family answers that on this night we dip bitter herbs into haroset to remind us of the mortar the Jews used to build Pharaoh's cities and the bitterness they suffered. We dip vegetables in salt water or vinegar to commemorate both the joy of spring and the tears of the Jewish slaves.

But when did we dip once? In ancient times, when the diet of the Jews comprised mainly bread--and heavy bread at that, often made from barley or other coarse grains--they dipped the bread in vinegar, onions, or bitter herbs (the maror of the seder plate) to make the leaden starch more palatable and more digestible.

“Lo, this is the bread of affliction,” the haggadah says, referring to the matzah. And after a few days of the coarse, unleavened bread in every guise imaginable, we too, like the ancients, need spring's sharp greens coursing through systems now sluggish and logy.

In this adaptation of a popular Milanese dish, we reenact the dipping one more time: the crisp, matzah meal-coated chicken is dipped into a salad of tart greens, tomato and onion.

Ingredients for the chicken cutlets
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon olive oil, plus 1/4 cup for frying
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 3/4 to 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken cutlets, trimmed of fat and gristle and pounded lightly to a uniform thickness
2 large eggs
1 cup matzah meal, seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

Ingredients for the salad
½ pound ripe tomatoes, diced (1 cup)
3/4 cup finely chopped onions
2 tablespoons fine-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups sharp salad greens (such as arugula, watercress, endive, radicchio, sorrel, flat-leaf parsley, or purslane, or, preferably, a mixture of these), washed, dried, and torn into bite-size pieces

accompaniment: lemon wedges

Prepare the cutlets. In a large bowl, blend together the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Add the chicken, toss to coat thoroughly with the mixture, and refrigerate to marinate, covered, for 1-2 hours. Or marinate in a resealable plastic bag. Turn the chicken occasionally in the marinade to ensure even flavoring.

Beat the eggs well in a wide shallow bowl or pie pan. Stir together the matzah meal and lemon zest and spread on a large sheet of wax paper or a plate. Taking one cutlet at a time, dip it into the beaten egg, coating well on both sides. Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl. Dredge the cutlets on both sides in the matzah meal mixture. To prevent loose crumbs from falling off and burning in the hot oil, pat the cutlets firmly on each side so the matzah meal adheres, then place them on a rack and let stand for about 15 minutes to set the coating.

Heat the 1/4 cup olive oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the cutlets (in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding the pan), and saute them for about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden and cooked through.

Transfer the cutlets as they are done to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to absorb excess oil, keeping them warm, if necessary, in a 200F oven, until the rest are done.

Prepare the salad. In a bowl, combine the tomato, onions, olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the greens and toss well.

Serve the cutlets topped with the salad, accompanied by the lemon wedges.

Yield: 4-5 servings

Moroccan-Flavored Carrot Kugel

This light, airy kugel is not at all dense and sodden like many vegetable puddings. Mint provides refreshing grace notes,and fresh carrot juice, either home-juiced or purchased from a greengrocer or health food store, adds a delicate sweetness to the kugel. If it is unavailable, use a light vegetable stock.

Ingredients
1 whole matzah (egg matzah works particularly well here)
1 ½ teaspoons dried mint (use dried here because an equivalent amount of fresh mint would compromise the delicate mousse-like texture of this kugel)
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
freshly ground pepper
pinch cayenne, or to taste
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup fresh carrot juice or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
3 large eggs, separated
salt
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil, plus additional to grease pan
2 cups peeled and finely grated carrots
salt
optional garnish: fresh mint or parsley sprigs

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, crumble the matzah into small pieces. Sprinkle with mint, cumin, cinnamon, pepper and cayenne to taste, and lemon juice. Combine the carrot juice or broth and garlic in a small saucepan and heat slowly until very hot. Don't let the juice boil--it may turn bitter. Pour over matzah mixture, stir, and set aside to cool.

Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl until stiff but not dry. In another bowl, using the same beaters (no need to wash them), beat the egg yolks and one tablespoon oil until thick and foamy. Add the yolks, grated carrots, and 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste) to the matzah mixture and combine well. Use a spatula to fold the whites gently into the carrot mixture. Work quickly and lightly, until thoroughly combined and no white is visible. Transfer to an oiled shallow baking dish (8-inch square.

Bake about 40-50 minutes, or until firm and golden brown around the edges. Let the kugel cool until set, then cut into serving pieces. Garnish with mint or parsley, if desired.

Serve warm or room temperature. This reheats well, and is excellent the next day.

Yield: about 6 servings

Hungarian Chocolate Walnut Torte

A taste of prewar Hungary based on ground walnuts and leavened only with eggs, this light, fudge-luscious cake has not a jot of butter or flour, making it Passover-perfect for meat or dairy meals.

To conclude a meat meal, the torte is delectable plain or dusted fancifully with confectioners' sugar (a Passover recipe without cornstarch follows) or glazed with a simple chocolate icing.

For a dairy dish, cover the torte in swirls of lightly sweetened whipped cream or serve with scoops of vanilla ice cream on the side, accompanied by a steaming cup of strong cappuccino.

When well-wrapped (without icing), the torte keeps very well, tasting even better a day or two after it is made.

As with all nut pastries, be sure the walnuts you are using are very fresh-tasting.

3/4 cup sugar (if using half semisweet and half sweet chocolate) or 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (if using all semisweet chocolate)
6 ounces fine-quality chocolate (preferably half dark sweet, sometimes labeled German Sweet Chocolate, and half semisweet, but all semisweet is also delicious), cut into small pieces
6 large eggs, separated
6 ounces (about 1 3/4 - 2 cups) shelled walnuts
3 tablespoons matzah meal
optional accompaniments: Passover Confectioners' Sugar (purchased or use the recipe that follows)or Chocolate Icing (recipe follows); heavy cream, freshly whipped to soft drifts and barely or very lightly sweetened; or vanilla ice cream
walnut halves, for garnish (optional)

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Line the bottom of an 8-inch square cake pan or a 9-inch springform pan with parchment or wax paper.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a heavy-bottomed 2- or 3-quart saucepan, combine 1/2 cup of the sugar and 1/2 cup of water and bring to a boil, stirring constantly over medium heat. Continue boiling and stirring until all the grains of sugar have completely dissolved and the mixture forms a simple syrup. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks until light and fluffy. Grind the walnuts with the remaining sugar and the matzah meal in a food processor using the pulse motion and stir into the egg yolks. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and combine thoroughly.

Using clean beaters, beat the egg whites in another bowl until they hold stiff peaks. Gradually fold the whites into the chocolate-walnut mixture, incorporating them gently but thoroughly so that no whites are visible. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-40 minutes, or until puffed and almost set but still a little gooey in the center. A wooden toothpick inserted 1 inch from the edge should come out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and let cool on a rack. When completely cool, unmold the cake by running a thin-bladed knife around the edges of the cake to release it from the pan (or release the springform); invert onto a platter. Peel off the parchment or wax paper. Serve the torte at room temperature.

If desired, lightly dust with Passover confectioners' sugar. For a lovely, simple presentation, place a doily or a stencil--handmade by you or, even better, your children--over the torte, then sprinkle with the sugar. Carefully remove the doily or stencil.

Or glaze with chocolate icing. Lay long strips of wax paper or foil on a cake plate or serving platter and place the cake on top. Pour the glaze over the top of the cake, letting it drip down the sides. Using a spatula, evenly spread the glaze over the top and sides. Now pull out and discard the paper or foil strips--the plate will be clean and ready for serving. If you'd like, garnish with a few walnut halves attractively placed in the center of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for about an hour to set the glaze, but bring it to room temperature before serving.

The plain or frosted torte is heavenly with generous dollops of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Yield: about 10 servings

Passover Confectioners' Sugar

In a blender or food processor, whirl 1 cup minus 1/2 tablespoon regular granulated sugar until it is powdery. Place in a small bowl and stir in 1/2 teaspoon potato starch. Sift before using. (Recently commercial Passover confectioners' sugar, made without cornstarch, has appeared in some stores with large kosher-for-Passover sections. If available, by all means use it here.)

Chocolate Icing

Ingredients
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine
6 ounces fine quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces

Melt the butter or margarine slowly in a heavy saucepan over very low heat. When half is melted, gradually whisk in the chocolate, stirring well as it melts. After all the chocolate has been added, stir in 2 tablespoons of water and beat well until the glaze is completely smooth. Let the mixture cool about 5 minutes to thicken slightly.

Yield: scant 1 cup

Spring Compote

Bracing yet sweet, like the orange on some of the newest seder plates, this fresh compote features not just citrus, but rhubarb, raspberries, and prunes. Accompanied by light, homemade macaroons, it makes a perfect coda to the rich seder meal.

3/4 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, split
1 pound rhubarb, washed, trimmed, tough strings removed with a vegetable peeler, and cut into 1-inch pieces (discard the leaves; they are toxic)
½ cup (about 4 ounces) pitted prunes, halved, or if large, quartered
3 blood or navel oranges, or a combination, peeled, white pith and any seeds removed
1 cup (about 5 ounces) fresh raspberries
fresh mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
Place 2 cups of water and the sugar, cinnamon and vanilla bean in a medium, nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the rhubarb and prunes and simmer over low heat until the rhubarb is just tender, 7-10 minutes. Don't allow it to get too soft--it will "cook" further while macerating. Using a slotted spoon, remove the rhubarb and prunes and transfer to a large attractive serving bowl. Slice the oranges into thin rounds (if they break apart into little sections after you slice them, that's perfectly fine), and add them, along with the raspberries, to the bowl.
Boil the syrup remaining in the saucepan over moderately high heat until it is reduced by about half. Remove the cinnamon and vanilla bean (you can dry the vanilla and save it for another use, like burying it in a bowl of sugar to prepare vanilla sugar) and pour the hot syrup over the fruit. Stir well. Let the fruit cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for several hours.
Garnish the compote, if you'd like, with fresh mint leaves, and serve with macaroons or other Passover cookies.
Yield: 6-8 servings

Plural form of the Hebrew for "telling," it's the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Derived from the Hebrew word "cheres," which means clay, it's a mixture of fruit, nuts, and wine eaten as part of the Passover seder. Symbolizing the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to build the cities for Pharaoh in Egypt, it's one of the symbolic food items on the seder plate. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "enough for us," it's the refrain and name of a liturgical song from the Passover seder. Plural of "kippah," Hebrew for "skullcap," also known in Yiddish as a "yarmulke," the small, circular headcovering worn by male Jews in most synagogues, and female Jews in more liberal congregations. Traditional Jews were kippot (plural of kippah) all the time. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "bitter," one of the ritual food items on the Passover seder plate. Commonly represented by horseradish or romaine lettuce.
Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen's newest book is Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, published by John Wiley and Sons in February 2008.

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