I’ve never understood people who speak about Passover food in terms of restrictions. Why focus on what we can’t have, when there are so many delicious dishes that we wait all year to enjoy?
I’m taking this year’s menu from Too Good to Passover by Jennifer Abadi (jenniferabadi.com), whose first cookbook, A Fistful of Lentils, introduced Syrian cuisine to the world of Jewish cooking.
“The book reflects not just recipes, but the stories, the connections I made with people all over the world,” she told The CJN over the phone from her home in New York. “I wanted to write a cookbook that gathered all of the many flavourful Passover recipes from Spain and the Mediterranean, as well as the Middle East, and that would also serve as a reference guidebook for the various traditions and personal stories that went along with them.”
In astonishing, thoroughly researched detail, Abadi explores the Jewish cuisines of 23 communities, including Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Yemen, Turkey, Italy and Bulgaria.
“This is one Jewish cookbook without matzah ball soup,” she quipped. “It’s not just another book of recipes that you can eat for Passover. I wanted to preserve the cuisines of the non-Ashkenazic world and the stories, memories and recipes that go with them for this very important holiday, what I think of as the Thanksgiving of the Jewish calendar. And it’s a cookbook that is not just for Passover – a lot of the recipes may also be for other special occasions.”
The book is broken down into three sections: Africa, Asia and Europe. “Each chapter includes a map, the background of the people who contributed recipes, an illustration of a typical seder plate from that area, a seder menu, followed by the recipes listed in that menu, and one or two recipes from that area for the Passover week,” said Abadi.
“There is also a recipe that is prepared at the end of Pesach, to break the fast, that could contain flour or bread or whatever. For example, Moroccan communities celebrate a Mimouna festival that takes place when the sun goes down on the eighth night, when Passover is over. It’s an old tradition of sharing between Muslims and Jews celebrating friendship and the coming of spring. Muslim neighbours and friends come to open houses with food, usually dairy and sweets, to help break the fast of Passover. They bring sheaths of wheat to symbolize sharing and friendship.”
The seder plates of these varied communities feature components that are far different from what is typically seen here in North America. For example, in Moldova, a chicken wing bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and parsnip greens, rather than parsley, are used as the green spring vegetable. And for those who think haroset is only ever made from apples and walnuts, the book’s mouthwatering array of exotic combinations will make it hard to choose just one.
The traditions vary, as well. “Researching this book gave me a mini crash course on where these communities came from, where the people were living and what was going on there. They didn’t all have the same experience, so the seders and traditions are not the same. What holds it all together is the commandment that you should remember this day and pass it on to the coming generations and that you should make the matzah. All the other stuff is regional or from the rabbis. Reading the haggadah, for example, is a modern concept,” she said.
On a visit to Lisbon, Abadi discovered a tradition she had never heard of. “Our tour guide, Adar Ben Ventura, told me his family set their seder table with these cards that were a carryover from when they would tell fortunes,” she said.
“During the Inquisition, those Jews who remained there were always at risk of being discovered as Jews during Passover. Soldiers would storm the homes of those suspected, and the families would do things to make the seder look like just a family dinner. The dining tables had drawers underneath, where they could quickly hide dinnerware on short notice, and they would keep a deck of Spanish playing cards on the table, to appear as though they were in the middle of a game. His mother still puts these cards on the table as decoration, to commemorate the ritual.”
One interview was particularly memorable for Abadi. The woman she visited asked Abadi if she knew any eligible young men for her daughter. Abadi suggested her brother. The couple met, fell in love and married. Now that’s one Jewish tradition that knows no borders!
Tortilla de Patatas (Spanish Potato-Egg Pie with Green Peppers and Onions)
o 60 ml (4 tbsp) olive oil
o 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
o 1 large green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
o 565-680 g (1¼-1½ lb) white potatoes (about 2 large russet), cut in half length-wise, then thinly sliced into half moons about 3-mm (1/8-inch) thick
o 8 large eggs, lightly beaten
o 1.25 ml (1/4 tsp) kosher or fine sea salt
o 0.5-1.25 ml (1/8-1/4 tsp) freshly ground black pepper
o sliced avocados and ripe tomatoes (left plain or with a simple vinaigrette)
o mustard and/or hot sauce (if desired)
Heat 45 ml (3 tbsp) of the oil in a large skillet over high heat for 1 minute. Mix in onions and cook for 2 minutes. Add peppers and cook for 5 minutes more. Mix in the potatoes, reduce heat to medium and cook until fork tender and golden brown, 15-20 minutes.
Combine eggs with salt and pepper in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Mix in cooked vegetables.
Heat remaining oil in a shallow, non-stick skillet (22-25 cm, or 9-10 inches, in diameter) over high heat for 1 minute. Swirl oil around in pan to cover all sides, then pour in egg and potato mixture. Gently tilt pan to even out mixture and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly and continue to cook 10-12 minutes, or until bottom is browned and mixture becomes solid about 5 cm (2 inches) from the edges all around (the centre should still be slightly runny).
Slide along the edges of the tortilla using a thin, flexible plastic spatula to completely dislodge it from bottom and sides of the skillet. Turn off the heat and place a large plate on top of the skillet. Wearing two oven mitts, quickly and carefully flip skillet over onto the plate. Pick up the plate and gently slide the tortilla back into the skillet and cook over high heat for an additional minute, to quickly sear the bottom. Slide tortilla onto a large serving platter, slice into wedges and serve hot, alongside a simple avocado and tomato salad, with mustard or hot sauce on the side.
Matzah Babka (Bukharian Matzah Cake with Cinnamon)
o 6 large eggs, lightly beaten
o 2.5 ml (1/2 tsp) vanilla extract
o 125 ml (1/2 cup) milk, almond milk or water
o 15 ml (1 tbsp) grape seed or vegetable oil
o 125 ml (1/2 cup) sugar
o 6 squares matzah, broken into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces
o 175 ml (3/4 cup) black or golden raisins (optional)
o 125 ml (1/2 cup) egg whites (from container or from about 4 large eggs)
o 0.5 ml (1/8 tsp) kosher salt
o 45 ml (3 tbsp) grape seed, safflower or vegetable oil (for greasing saucepan)
o granulated or Passover confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon, or syrup (of your choice), or honey
Combine eggs, vanilla extract, milk, oil and sugar in a medium-sized mixing bowl. (It’s better if the matzah is covered by the egg as much as possible, so don’t use a bowl that is too large for soaking.)
Add broken matzah pieces and raisins (if desired) and mix well. Soak for 45 minutes to 1 hour to soften, mixing every 10 minutes to make sure all the matzah is evenly coated.
Combine egg whites and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Using a handheld electric mixer, whip the whites until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into matzah mixture.
Generously grease a deep frying pan (preferably non-stick) or shallow saucepan and warm over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Pour matzah mixture into frying pan or saucepan and reduce heat to low. Cover and steam for 35-40 minutes, or until cake is firm when touched in the middle and a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Remove pan from heat and run a flexible plastic spatula around sides to loosen the edges. Place a round plate over the top of the pan and, holding the handle firmly with one hand, very quickly flip over so the cake dislodges from the pan and sits on plate. (The final cake should be about 8-cm thick.)
Sprinkle the top of the cake with sugar and cinnamon (or with honey or syrup poured over while it’s still hot), and serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges as you would a layer cake.
Makes 6-8 servings.
Recipes adapted from Too Good To Passover by Jennifer Abadi.