As one who is rarely happier than when his arm is jammed up a bird, I measure out my year in holiday feasts. The goose on Christmas. The lamb on Easter. The fried chicken on the Fourth of July. Shavuot calls for blintzes. Chanukah for latkes piled high.
But Passover may be the only holiday of the year where the meals depend as much on what we don’t eat as what we do. Even minimally observant adherence to kashrut—the laws of what may and may not be eaten during this bread-and-grain-eschewing week—requires the most casual of Jews to submit to the Rebbe-Industrial Complex, ignored the rest of the year. Cooks around the world wonder whether a bit of soda water in the matzoh balls is kosher; whether they can find a drinkable kosher chardonnay; and whether quinoa, unanticipated by the Talmud and technically a seed rather than a grain, is permissible.
And whereas at other holiday celebrations the pace of the evening is set by the nature of the food—from the leisurely gorging of Thanksgiving to the quick latke-gobbling of Chanukah—the narrative of a seder with its sanctioned intervals of discussion, music, and prayer, is structured more like a college humanities intensive than a meal, complete with mandatory readings, learned commentary, and sanctioned textual analysis. Though the cook isn’t incidental to the occasion, he or she tends to be a bit secondary, like the guy who designs the sets for the play. That roasted shank bone, for example, so crucial to the ritual, is less often eaten than tossed to the dog. It’s not accidental that among my circle of friends, the ones who end up hosting seders are the academics, activists, and lawyers.
Still, I like nothing better than to mark the seasons with holiday dinners, and I enjoy hosting seders. Ritual gives the year meaning. I famously, even notoriously, cook the same meal for the same holidays every year. My friends all know to be in town for that goose on Christmas Eve. Then there’s standing rib roast and yorkshire pudding on New Year’s Eve, hoppin’ john and red beans and rice on New Year’s Day, asparagus frittatas for Easter brunch. My friends all know to be in town for that goose Xmas night.
Contrary to most holiday feasts that I carefully think through and then rethink a time or two, my Passover menu remains largely the same from one year to the next. I usually manage to lay my hands on a bottle or two of Covenant, a superb Napa kosher Cabernet made by Jeff Morgan, the brother of a close friend. I’ll find a prime brisket, which is usually pretty affordable, and braise it with an impossible quantity of onions, a recipe I’ve adapted from Edna Lewis. Sometimes I make a salsa verde, with parsley, capers, marjoram, basil, anchovy: bitter herbs don’t have to be punitive, after all. It’s usually an ideal time of year (at least in Southern California) for freshly dug, local baby potatoes, which I steam, lightly smash, and fry in a half inch of olive oil until they become crisp, usually tossing in a handful of herbs halfway through and finishing them with cloves of garlic pureed through a microplane and lightened with a few drops of Meyer lemon juice from my tree. There is the obligatory matzoh ball soup (I am of the fluffy school) and charoset, a kind of stodgy apple relish (a puzzling requirement, symbolism notwithstanding, considering the mealiness of apples in spring). There is also herb salad with toasted walnuts. My daughter makes macaroons. The other mandatory components of the seder plate—horseradish, roasted egg, shank, matzoh, parsley—are almost always beside the point. Although I could see doing a lamb shank some year.
I let somebody else arrange the reading of the Four Questions, the prayers, the line dancing during the singing of Dayanu. I know where my competencies lie.
LC Something Old, Something New Note: Jonathan Gold has his set Passover menu. And we suspect you have yours. Still, in case you’re open to incorporating something new in this year’s seder, something that’s a little less than traditional yet still entirely observant, take a gander at this menu. Then take it whole, in part, or not at all. So long as it inspires you to reflect on the bounty at the table rather than grouse about what’s lacking—our work is done.
Passover Recipes for 2011
Photo © 2010 Svenstorm. All rights reserved.