The Passover Seder Goes Gourmet
Just in time for holiday, legendary cookbook author Joan Nathan offers her cooking tips and advice.
For me, the Passover seder is both the most meaningful night of the year and also the most difficult to prepare for.
The Passover seder itself has been around for thousands of years, first as a springtime festival and later, for the early Jews during Roman times or perhaps earlier, converted into a holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. According to the Book of Exodus, the Jews were only to eat matzo, bitter herbs, and a lamb roasted before dawn to begin Passover. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentioned this sacred meal, marked by more than 100,000 people camped out in Jerusalem roasting their lambs in the early hours of the morning and to this day Samaritans practice this rite in Nablus and outside of Tel Aviv. The holiday was moved to people’s homes after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the meal eventually became known as a seder. How awesome that this meal has been continually practiced for millennia?
In working on my new book, King Solomon’s Table, A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, I learned about the wonder of this holiday, one that is celebrated around the world with different customs but with the same story of slavery, freedom and immigration.
But preparing for Passover is exhausting! When my daughter Daniela said she wanted to host a seder this year, I gave her the following advice.
The first thing I always do is make lists—lists of what to clean, lists of what to buy (the most tedious perhaps and also the most creative task for the evening), the menu, and a schedule for executing the dishes, with tips for freezing, short cuts, etc. Once you have a plan, it is much easier.
One of the most important things to prepare in advance is the seder plate, which should include several kinds of charosets. This sweet paste, representative of the mortar the Jews used to build the pyramids in Egypt, started as a dipping sauce in Babylonia and moved as the Jews did. Date charosets, sprinkled with walnuts and similar to the date jam or honey of the Bible, came from Babylonia and is today called halek. For my seder, I plan on preparing versions from Brazil, Italy and Persia, all recipes included in King Solomon’s Table. Charosets really shows the diverse Diaspora of the Jews and I like to have one from each continent.
Next to the charosets goes a lamb shank bone, which I grill in advance and store in the fridge, as well as a hard-boiled egg that I put a match under to roast slightly.
Then there is the meal. The first thing my husband’s Polish family always served was hard-boiled eggs in salt water to commemorate the spring but also the sadness of the destruction of the Temple. I have swapped that recipe—to immense applause—to the hard-boiled eggs with spinach eaten at a seder in Ancona, Italy whose ancestors brought the recipe to Italy from Korfu. It is delicious.
Although I mostly make my mother-in-law’s gefilte fish, I am tempted to make aharaimi this year, a spicy fish dish from Libya served at room temperature, or the Indian fish curry that I have seen in homes in Kochi and Rome while researching this latest book.
For the main course I make brisket, short ribs, or chicken in advance and freeze them as I do my chicken soup. Sometimes I do the matzo balls ahead and just float them in the soup, also before freezing.
For the vegetarians joining my seder, I make vegetarian matzo ball soup, but I don’t think these eaters will have a problem finding dishes to enjoy at my table. I make quinoa salad with butternut squash and pecans as well as multiple salads that can be prepared ahead like a Bulgarian pepper salad and a Georgian Spanakit, a wonderful mixture of spinach, walnuts, and cilantro, most of these volunteered by the 40 or so guests who come to the seder.
Desserts can be made ahead too. I always have a flourless chocolate cake, such as the one in King Solomon’s Table, as well as a wonderful ginger almond sponge cake with cardamom and pistachios from Persia. All these can be made ahead and frozen as well.
But what makes our seder so special is not the food; it is the company of friends and family who have celebrated together for years, the meaningful discussions led by my husband Allan, and our special Passover play that children from 9 to 95 prepare of the story of Moses going from Egypt to the promised land.
What I told my daughter to do is to follow some of our special things but to make the holiday her own, which will continue it for another generation.
Legendary cookbook author Joan Nathan’s latest book, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, will be published by Knopf on April 4th.