Top | Dinner Guest Blog
(article, Ronnie Fein)
It’s only April 8, but I’m already thinking about what to make for dinner for my Passover Seder, and judging by the crowds of people in the Passover section of my local Stop & Shop, so is everyone else. It always surprises me, year after year, when the shopping and planning begin weeks ahead. But Passover is a truly big deal, gastronomically speaking. Of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, it’s the most joyous, and certainly the one most associated with food. I can’t think of any other religious service that takes place around the dinner table. When I was a little girl, the Seder was always at my grandma’s house. My uncle read at NASCAR speed from the Haggadah and my cousin Leslie and I, bored to tears, would crawl under the table and tickle everyone’s feet. All we wanted was dinner and the special stuff we would get to eat: apple-walnut charoset, matzo-ball soup, gefilte fish, turkey, and my grandma’s fabulous chremslich — matzo fritters bathed in gallons of honey. And chocolate-covered macaroons for dessert. Yum. The only dish we hated was Aunt Roz’ sponge cake, aptly named. When my mother took over the festivities, some things changed. My dad let everyone share the reading rather than do it all himself, and Leslie and I participated as grownups. No tickling. [%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Flourless chocolate cake for those Seder guests who can't get enough chocolate."] But the menu was the same: All the dishes that my grandma once made. There’s something wonderful about tradition and traditional foods, especially when it comes to holidays and family gatherings. So, when it became my turn to host the family Seders, I never thought twice about the menu. Except that my kids quivered at the thought of even looking at a lump of gefilte fish. My husband’s family all hated turkey — they were used to eating brisket at their Seder. One of my daughters is allergic to walnuts, so the old charoset recipe was a no-no. All but a few of us thought the honey-laden fritters were gross. And everyone vetoed the sponge cake. So much for tradition. Besides, I’m a food writer. I like experimenting with recipes, inventing new ones, trying different foods. So I gradually began to replace the old classics with new, more contemporary recipes. Except for the matzo-ball soup. Now we begin our Seder with a Middle Eastern-style charoset made with dried apricots, pistachio nuts, orange marmalade, and cayenne pepper. If there’s a fish course, it’s likely to be roasted salmon with either a mustard-pistachio nut crust or a tangy and refreshing pineapple-mango salsa. It’s fresh, healthy, easy to make, and looks far more appealing than jarred gefilte fish. I still make turkey, but spice it up with a mustard-honey glaze or cover it with chutney and bake it with pears. Because we could never come to terms on the brisket, my second meat entrée is a lamb dish of some sort. Everyone in our family, old and young, male and female, city dweller and suburbanite, all eat very differently than we did in years gone by: more fruits and vegetables, less meat, and so on. That doesn’t change at Passover. So our Seder meal includes asparagus and leeks vinaigrette, mashed carrots with fresh dill, spinach pie, and roasted eggplant and tomatoes. These have replaced the once-treasured kugels and matzo casseroles. Those beloved dishes are the stuff of memories. We’re happy we once had them, but love moving on, especially when, at the end of the meal, huge though it may be, we aren’t feeling as stuffed as if we'd ordered the large bucket of popcorn you get at the movies if you spend an extra 50 cents. The chocolate-covered macaroons are still a favorite, and are part of every Passover dinner. I used to make my own and still will, if there’s time. But the packaged kind will do nicely too. These days I add a flourless chocolate cake for my son-in-law, who says there can never be too much chocolate. And I include sliced oranges sprinkled with confectioners' sugar, cinnamon, and a sprinkle of orange-flower water, just because this dessert is so bright and colorful and also so refreshing after a big meal. Happy Passover, everyone!