Passover has always been the holiday I love best. But I enjoyed it more than ever during the years I lived in Israel as a college student. Back in my previous home in Washington, Passover used to be a time for a family get-together and good traditional Ashkenazic food. But in Israel there was the excitement of discovering the holiday specialties of my many Sephardic in-laws. To me their cooking was exotic and intriguing.
One memorable Passover I celebrated was at my mother's new home in Jerusalem. We decided to prepare the Seder, or ceremonial Passover dinner, together with several of our relatives. Each person promised to cook a favorite dish. That would make it easier for everyone and would give us all a chance to taste each other's food.
Since my mother follows all the Orthodox customs, we began by bringing out both sets of Passover dishes and silverware -- those for dairy meals and those for meat -- to replace the usual dishes. Using these special plates that appeared on the table during just one week of the year added to the feeling of festivity.
Then my mother and I went to the bustling Mahane Yehudah market to buy the ritual foods for the Seder: celery, horseradish, and apples and nuts for making haroset. This was the busiest time of the year, as everyone was getting ready for the Jewish festival that has the greatest focus on cooking. Women were discussing their Passover menus while trying to keep their children from handling the produce. There was a certain feeling of anticipation and, even though our shopping took longer than usual, it was great fun.
On the morning of the Seder, we began cooking. My sister-in-law, of Moroccan origin, prepared a colorful, exuberant first course: a salad of sweet and hot peppers sauteed with tomatoes and garlic, often referred to in Israel simply as "Moroccan salad." A diced vegetable salad was the responsibility of my Israeli-born brother-in-law, since he had the patience to cut the vegetables in tiny cubes, and this made his version of this refreshing Mediterranean salad the best.
Although lamb and chicken are frequent choices for the Seder main course, that year we voted for turkey, which is widely available in Israel and is a popular entree for festive dinners. My mother-in-law, who is from Yemen, made a wonderful, aromatic matzo and mushroom stuffing seasoned with garlic and cilantro. Her sister brought an unusual treat -- round homemade matzos, and an elegant embroidered cloth to cover them.
To serve with the turkey, my mother, who was born in Poland, baked a delicate Eastern European potato casserole, flavored with carrots, dill and sauteed onions.
The centerpiece was my mother's beautiful Seder plate, on which she had carefully arranged a small portion of each of the ritual foods in the space marked for it: a roast chicken wing or lamb shank, a hard-boiled egg, a little grated horseradish, a leaf of a bitter lettuce and a celery stalk. And of course, there was a spoonful of haroset, a reddish-brown condiment made of apples and nuts flavored with cinnamon, chopped dates or wine, a reminder of the mortar and bricks the Hebrew slaves were forced to make in Egypt.
For dessert, my mother and I baked an almond cake in the Austrian style and spread it with a fluffy orange frosting. Because flour cannot be used on Passover, the cake gained its body from a generous amount of almonds and a little matzo meal, made of ground matzos. The resulting cake was light-textured and intensely flavored with almonds.
It might seem surprising that foods of such diverse origins would fit together well in a menu, but in fact they harmonized perfectly. Now I love to prepare our eclectic Israeli menu in America too.
This year Passover begins at sundown on March 29 and ends on the evening of April 6.
Moroccan pepper salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
In this appetizer, sauteed bell peppers simmer gently with tomatoes, garlic and jalapeno peppers. Cooking mellows the flavors, so that the garlic and hot peppers add sparkle but do not overwhelm the diner.
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 large green bell peppers, diced (about 1/2 -inch dice)
2 large red bell peppers, diced
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
salt to taste
3 or 4 jalapeno peppers, finely diced
12 medium garlic cloves, chopped
Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add red and green bell peppers and saute until softened, about 15 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon.
Add tomatoes to oil, add salt and cook over medium-low heat about 15 minutes or until thickened. Add sauteed peppers, jalapeno peppers and garlic and cook over low heat about 10 minutes or until peppers are tender and mixture is thick. Remove from heat and stir in remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.
Diced vegetable salad
Makes 8 servings.
For a pretty presentation, cut the vegetables in dice no larger than 1/2 inch and serve the salad in a glass bowl.
8 medium tomatoes, cut in small dice