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Sharing the Passover Seder with Guests of Other Faiths, Plus Recipes

March 19, 2007

In ancient days, Passover was a time of homecoming for nomadic tribes. "Let all who are hungry come and eat," the haggadah later enjoined, and Jews made a point of inviting guests to share the seder meal. Today our tents are much wider, enlarged to welcome interfaith family members and non-Jewish friends as well.

Of all Jewish holidays, Passover is probably the easiest to share with people of other traditions. The stirring tale of slaves, pharaoh, and the exodus that is at its heart is readily accessible; the theme--the bitter struggle against oppression--has resonated with all peoples in all times. And the seder is celebrated in the relaxed, warm surroundings of

It's been years since our interfaith family members first joined our joyous, raucous Passover table. So when my niece's non-Jewish parents came to the seder for the first time last year, we took a fresh look at ways to help them feel a part of the celebration.

We began with simple hors d'oeuvres in the living room. Offering a light snack is a good idea before any seder, especially when there are young children present, but it is particularly important when guests are unfamiliar with the ritual and do not know that a service will precede the meal. They may even have skipped lunch in anticipation of the glorious meal to follow. Colorful, cut-up raw vegetables and a simple vinaigrette, or matzah crackers or toasted matzah (see the recipe that follows) with an easy eggplant spread are good choices. One family we know traditionally serves tiny leek-and-potato croquettes from their heirloom recipe.

We took our seats around the enormous table gleaming with newly polished silverware and the special Passover dishes. The centerpiece was the seder plate my sister-in-law had lovingly prepared; it is often said that the ritual foods on that plate tell the Passover saga. Maybe so, but if your haggadah is like ours, the story is an abridged version, since some of the foods are never really explained during the reading.

Introducing each of the symbolic foods not only set the stage, but also made the service more meaningful when these items were mentioned. We pointed out that salt water gives us a taste of the tears and hard sweat of slavery, but it is tempered by the sweet spring vegetable, celery, that we will dip into it. Horseradish, the bitter herb, stings our tongue with the harshness of oppression. Haroset, the fruit and nut paste, evokes the brick and mortar the Hebrews used to build pharaoh's cities, and it also continues the story of the Jews after the exodus in the Diaspora, since the myriad versions of it reflect the many diverse Jewish communities around the world. The roasted shankbone and egg, which recall sacrificial burnt offerings, remind us that Passover used to be a Temple festival, and we mourn the loss of the great Temple in Jerusalem where it was celebrated. The highly symbolic egg also speaks of renewal and optimism, like the Christian Easter egg--in fact, some Polish Jews dye their eggs too, using onion skins.

If you have added newer traditions like Miriam's cup--a special goblet filled with water to honor Moses' sister, who provided the Israelites with water from a well that followed her throughout the wandering--this is the time to talk about not only what the traditions mean, but why you have chosen them.

For us, the haggadah service is as familiar as the taste of matzah. For first-timers, though, it is not so easy: they are likely to be clueless when the book tells us to open the door for Elijah, and to have no idea what a plague called "blood" could possibly be. In our family, as in many others, everyone takes turns reading the haggadah (in English). While this is a good way to make the seder more participatory, remember that traditional haggadahs often don't discuss the meaning of many of the passages. And guests, who may be slightly nervous to begin with, might be concentrating too hard on the section they will be reading to fully digest what the others read. So instead of reading the service straight through, we decided to stop to briefly introduce or explicate important passages, including the Four Questions.

Early on, everyone at the table began joining in the discussions--some voicing a few admittedly unusual opinions. But isn't rethinking, questioning, and reinterpreting what, in fact, has kept the seder such a vital tradition throughout the centuries? Think of the part of the haggadah where the learned rabbis argue about the exact number of plagues, starting with the traditional ten, and going through many variations, including ten times ten (one for each finger on God's hand). No, argues another sage, that figure to the tenth power. Possibilities, considered from other perspectives, are endless.

Then it was time to recite the plagues. Alex, my daughter, explained that the four cups of wine we drink during the seder signify our joy as free people. But that joy cannot be complete because we recognize that our enemies too suffered during the exodus. So, with one finger we flick out a drop of wine from our glass for each plague visited on the Egyptians, for they also were God's children.

"My favorite part of the seder, and now, after all these years, I finally know what it means," one of my nephews announced. He raised his glass. "To peace, for all people." And we clinked, up and down and across that huge table.

The meal was served. The scrumptious food--the true universal language--needed no translation at all.

Recipes

With the exception of the Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish, all of the recipes here are taken from my first book, The Gefilte Variations: 200 Re-creations of Classics from the Jewish Kitchen.

Matzah

Hot matzot, plural of matzah--like hot bread--can be an amalgam of wonderful toasty flavors and aromas. Heat them to recapture that fresh-from-the-oven flavor, as well as to recrisp them. Here's how: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Wet the matzot lightly on both sides with cold water (a few spritzes from a water spray bottle is perfect for this). Toast on an oven rack until dry and crisp, 3-5 minutes.

Plain matzot contain just flour and water--no fats, salt, sugars, additives or preservatives--so you can use them to custom-design your own crackers, seasoning them with whatever you would try on flatbreads or crackers, and enjoy them not only on Passover, but throughout the year.

Seasoned Matzah

Use these suggestions as a guide. I'm sure you'll have many ideas of your own.

1. Sprinkle the top of dampened matzot with coarse salt, and if desired, freshly ground coarse pepper, and/or chopped fresh rosemary or other herbs. Bake until dry and crisp.
2. Gently rub the cut side of a garlic clove or onion over the matzot until the matzot are slightly damp. (A couple of vertical slashes in the cut side will make the garlic or onion juices flow more easily so the matzot won't break apart in the process.) Sprinkle or spritz with a few drops of water, dust with salt, optional pepper and herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, or oregano, and bake until dry and crisp.
3. Sprinkle hot matzot with grated Parmesan, cheddar, or other cheese, grated lemon rind, and cracked pepper. Or sprinkle the seasoning on unheated matzot and run briefly under the broiler.
4. Brush matzah with melted or softened butter or extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and optional pepper, grated garlic or onion, chopped fresh or dried herbs. Or steep minced garlic or onion in oil for a while, then brush the oil on the matzah, using sprigs of rosemary or other herbs as a brush. Bake at 400 degrees until hot and just beginning to brown or toast under broiler.
5. For sweet matzah, brush egg matzah with melted butter and sprinkle with brown sugar and cinnamon. Broil until the sugar melts.

Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Lemon-Horseradish Sauce

This unusual recipe is from a seder meal I devised for Bon Appetit magazine. It's much quicker to prepare than traditional gefilte fish, because the delicate dumplings are steamed between cabbage leaves to keep them moist, not poached in fish broth. Leftovers can be refrigerated for a few days.

I am especially proud of this comment from a Bon Appetit reader who prepared the recipe: "I made these for Passover for my husband's family. They were so delicious that I made them for my family for Easter Sunday! The fishcakes are light and tasty and the horseradish sauce is to die for! I very rarely give 4 forks to a recipe but this one really deserves it--it is an excellent dish."

Ingredients for the fish
3/4 cup carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
kosher salt
1/4 cup matzah meal
2 tablespoons mild olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
freshly ground pepper
1 cup scallions, trimmed and chopped
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 lbs. mild white-fleshed fish fillets (such as sole or flounder), skin and any bones removed and discarded, fish cut into1-inch pieces
2 cups smoked whitefish, bones carefully removed
1 large cabbage, separated into leaves and rinsed (these are discarded before serving, so you can use slightly imperfect or dark green outer leaves)

Ingredients for the sauce
2 teaspoons garlic
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons prepared white horseradish
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups mayonnaise

Ingredients for serving:
Soft lettuce or endive leaves, or radicchio to line plates

Preparing the fish
1. Bring 1 cup lightly salted water to boil in small saucepan. Add carrots and simmer until very tender, about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water in a small bowl. Stir matzah meal into the reserved cooking water; let stand 10 minutes to soften and absorb liquid. Place carrots in food processor.
2. Warm oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion, salt and pepper lightly, and saute until soft and shiny, about 8 minutes. Add scallions and stir one minute. Transfer onion mixture to carrots in food processor. Add matzah meal mixture and puree until smooth.
3. Using an electric mixer, beat 3 eggs and lemon juice in a large bowl until foamy and slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in mixture from food processor; don't clean processor bowl yet.
4. Put fish fillets, smoked fish, about 1 teaspoon (or to taste) salt, and about 1/4 teaspoon pepper in food processor. Using on-off turns, chop until fine. Add remaining egg and pulse to a coarse paste. Transfer the fish mixture to the matzah meal mixture in the bowl, and combine thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, at least 2 hours.
5. Line a large baking sheet with waxed paper. Wetting hands with cold water if necessary, form mixture into ovals, using about 1/4 cup of mixture for each. Place on prepared baking sheet. Cover with waxed paper and chill while preparing cabbage and steamer.
6. In large, wide pot with a tight-fitting lid, place a rack that stands about 2 inches high (if you don't have a vegetable steamer, a round cake rack works well; if rack is not high enough, set over 2 custard cups or empty tuna cans). Fill pot with enough water to meet, but not cover, the bottom of the rack. Line the rack with a layer of cabbage leaves. Arrange 8 fish ovals in a single layer on the cabbage leaves; cover the fish with another layer of cabbage leaves. Bring water in pot to boil. Cover pot and steam the fish ovals over medium heat until cooked through at center and firm to the touch, about 25 minutes. Transfer top layer of cabbage leaves to a platter. Top with the cooked fish ovals. Cover them with the bottom cabbage leaves. Steam the remaining fish ovals in additional cabbage leaves in 2 more batches, adding more water to the pot if needed. Let the cooked gefilte fish cool to room temperature. Keeping the fish covered with the cooked cabbage leaves so it will remain moist, wrap the whole platter with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, at least 6 hours. (Can be prepared about 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)

Preparing the sauce
Put the garlic through a press or mince it fine and place in a small bowl. Stir in horseradish and lemon juice. Whisk in mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside, refrigerated, at least 30 minutes before serving. (Can be prepared one day ahead; keep refrigerated.)

To serve
For best flavor, serve the fish chilled but not icy cold. Remove fish from cabbage leaves and arrange attractively on platters or individual plates lined with lettuce, endive, or radicchio. Accompany with lemon-horseradish sauce.

Yield: about 24 fish dumplings

Chicken Soup with Asparagus and Shiitakes, Served with Roasted Fennel Matzah Balls

You can cook the matzah balls up to 2-3 hours in advance. Drain them and cover with some broth to keep them moist before setting them aside until you are ready to reheat them. And experiment making matzah balls with a puree of other vegetables, such as beets, carrots, leeks, mushrooms, or shallots. Roasted vegetables absorb less moisture than boiled or steamed ones (and therefore require less matzah meal, making them lighter). They are also more flavorful.

Ingredients for the matzah balls
2 small-medium fennel bulbs (about 1 lb. when weighed with 2 inches of top stalks)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade, or good-quality low-sodium purchased
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped coarse
salt and freshly ground pepper
3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
optional: 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle
2 large eggs
about 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons matzah meal

Ingredients for the soup
7 cups homemade chicken broth
1/4 lb. fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and reserved for another use or discarded, caps wiped clean with a damp paper towel and thinly sliced
12-15 thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

Preparing the matzah balls.
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut off the fennel stalks and reserve for another use (excellent for fish broths and stews). If there are some attractive feathery fronds, chop and set aside about 2 tablespoons of them to garnish the soup. Quarter the bulbs and trim away the stems, the bottom hard core and any tough parts. Choose a shallow baking pan just large enough to fit the fennel in one layer and put in one tablespoon of the oil. Add the fennel and toss until well-coated with the oil. Roast the fennel until it is pale gold, about 20 minutes, then turn and roast for 10 minutes longer. Stir in the broth, garlic, salt and pepper to taste and 1/2 teaspoon of the thyme. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and cook for 35-45 minutes longer, or until fennel is very soft. Remove foil, stir around, and roast a few more minutes to evaporate most of the pan liquid. Transfer the fennel and garlic to a food processor and chop coarsely. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon of thyme, salt (it will need about 1 teaspoon), pepper to taste, and fennel seeds, if using. With the machine on, add the remaining one tablespoon of olive oil through the feed tube.
2. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. You should have about one cup of puree, so nosh on any extra. Whisk in the eggs, one at a time. Add the matzah meal and stir well. If you can form a lump into a very soft walnut-sized ball (the batter will become firmer when you chill it), don't add any more matzah meal. If necessary, add just enough matzah meal to enable you to do so. Refrigerate for at least 2 or up to 4 hours so the matzah meal can drink in the liquid and seasoning.
3. When ready to cook, bring 4 quarts of water and one tablespoon of salt to a rapid boil in a large wide pot. Dipping your hands into cold water if needed, roll the batter into walnut-sized balls. When all the balls are rolled and the water is boiling furiously, turn the heat down to a gentle boil. Carefully slide in the balls one at a time and cover the pot tightly.
4. Turn the heat down to a simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, without removing the cover. (The matzah balls will cook by direct heat as well as by steam, which makes them puff and swell, and lifting the lid will allow some of that steam to escape.) Take one out and cut it in half. It should be light, fluffy and completely cooked through. If it isn't, continue cooking a few more minutes. Remove the balls gently with a skimmer or large slotted spoon--they are too fragile to dump into a colander.

Making the soup
1. Put the broth in a large pot. Bring to a simmer. Add the matzah balls, the mushrooms and asparagus and simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
2. To serve, using a slotted spoon, transfer the matzah balls to shallow bowls, and ladle the hot soup and the vegetables over them. Garnish with the reserved chopped fennel fronds. Yield: about 8 servings

Toasted Almond-Coconut Macaroons

Made of ground nuts so they are flour-free, easy-to-prepare macaroons are a Passover favorite of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. Simple becomes seductive when the almonds are briefly toasted first, their skins left on and drizzled with maple syrup or brown sugar.

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups (about 9 ounces) whole natural almonds
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup or packed brown sugar, preferably dark
2/3 cup plus one tablespoon white or light brown granulated sugar
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
optional: 1 teaspoon amaretto or 1/2 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover almond extract
4 large egg whites
pinch of salt

Preparation
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Toss the almonds with the maple syrup or brown sugar and spread them out in a single layer on the baking sheet. Toast until very fragrant, 10-12 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees.
2. In a food processor, grind the cooled almonds with half of the sugar, using the pulse motion, until finely ground. Combine the ground nuts, the coconut, and the amaretto or almond extract, if you are using it, in a large bowl.
3. Beat the egg whites in another bowl with the salt until they form soft peaks. Gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the whites into the almond-coconut mixture.
4. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. (You will probably need either to use two cookie sheets or work in batches.) Drop heaping tablespoons of batter on the cookie sheet, about 2 inches apart. Flatten the tops slightly. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until just dry to the touch and light golden with pale brown edges. Remove the sheet from the oven, and transfer to a rack to cool or slide the parchment paper off. Don't remove the macaroons until they have cooled completely, then carefully separate them. They store well in airtight containers for at least 5 days.

Yield: 30-35 macaroons

Cook's Note: This is also very good when pecans are substituted for the almonds. Be sure to use light brown granulated sugar.

Mango and Sour Cherry Macaroon Crumble

Around Passover at our house macaroons tend to proliferate like wire coat hangers from the dry cleaners. In addition to the ones I make, there are the cakey commercial variety I purchase from my nephews, who peddle Passover sweets as a fund-raiser for their school. A luscious fruit crumble is a fresh way to make use of the leftovers, and other suggestions follow this recipe (see Cook's Note).

Ingredients
1 cup amaretto
1 large, ripe mango, peeled, pitted, and cut into small chunks (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups)
1 cup canned, pitted sour cherries, packed in water (8 ounces), drained
2 tablespoons dried cherries or dried cranberries
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups macaroons (homemade or commercial variety), crumbled
1/2 cup almonds, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
pinch of salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine, cut into bits, plus additional for greasing the pan
Optional accompaniment: vanilla ice cream

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small saucepan, reduce the amaretto to 1/2 cup over medium-high heat. Combine the mango, sour cherries, dried cherries or cranberries, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a bowl. Pour the hot amaretto over the fruit and stir with a wooden spoon to coat evenly. Set aside for about 30 minutes to macerate.
2. If the macaroons are very moist, toast them lightly on a baking sheet for 5-10 minutes, then let cool. Or leave them out overnight to dry until they are crumbly. Chop the macaroons by hand or in a food processor using the pulse motion. Transfer to a bowl and mix with the almonds and salt. Work in the butter with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
3. Butter an 8- to 10-inch glass or ceramic pie pan or similar ovenproof dish. Spoon the fruit and accumulated juices into the prepared pan. Scatter the macaroon mixture evenly on top. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Serve warm or cold, topped, if desired, with vanilla ice cream.
Yield: About 6 servings

Cook's Note

Here are some other ways to use macaroons:

Old-fashioned Biscuit Tortoni: Pack softened ice cream (some suggestions: vanilla, coffee, cherry vanilla) into paper cups. Sprinkle the tops generously with crushed macaroon crumbs and press in firmly. Or fold some crushed macaroons into the softened ice cream, then top with additional crushed macaroons. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and freeze until solid, at least 2 hours.

Italian-style baked fruit: Lightly sweeten pear or peach halves. (If peaches are not flavorful--they are out of season in spring--slice them with equal amounts of mango.) Combine crumbled macaroons with some butter and stuff the fruit halves with the mixture (or flatten the mixture into disks and place over the sliced fruit). Place fruit in a baking dish, and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Add a few tablespoons of white grape juice or other sweet fruit juice or wine to the pan to keep the fruit moist and prevent it from sticking, and bake until the fruit is tender and juicy, basting occasionally with the pan liquid.

Stir crushed macaroons into fruit compotes.

Bake finely crushed macaroons until dry and use for cookie crumb crusts-especially good for cheesecake or ice cream pies.

Yiddish for "stuffed fish," a patty made of ground up varieties of fish, matzo meal and spices, boiled in fish broth. A popular dish on Passover, sometimes served on Shabbat and other holidays as well. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. 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. Hebrew for "telling," 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." Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. 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 "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
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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