Passover, the springtime festival commemorating the Hebrews' flight from slavery in Egypt over 3,000 years ago, begins at sundown April 17.
Celebrated by Jews around the world, Passover is a time for special foods: In their hasty departure from Egypt, the Hebrews had no time to let their bread rise, and the resulting flat bread became the first matzos. Thus began the custom of not eating anything with commercially available flour or leavening throughout the Passover holiday. Matzo meal, matzo cake meal and potato starch are used in place of flour in all baking and cooking.
The Seder, or ceremonial Passover dinner, is held on the first night of the holiday, and, in many homes, on the second night as well. Seder means order, and the rituals of the evening abound with symbolism and prayer, always read and performed in specific sequence. Most families serve numerous courses of delicious food for the occasion -- charoseth (a mixture of fruits, nuts and spices which resembles the mortar the Jews made as slaves), fish or chopped liver, soup, meat, vegetables, a starch and dessert -- but the dietary restraints can be a real test of a modern cook's creativity.
To complicate matters, kosher-for-Passover ingredients vary according to interpretation in different parts of the world. Eastern and central European Jews do not eat legumes (peas, beans and lentils), corn or rice, since these products can ferment, but in many Spanish or Sephardic kitchens, these foods are allowed. For further information and excellent contemporary holiday recipes, I highly recommend "Faye Levy's International Jewish Cookbook" (Warner Books, 1991).
Recently a charity group asked me to give a Passover Seder demonstration with new renditions of favorite Seder dishes. It was quite a challenge to use only kosher-for-Passover ingredients to create recipes that were lower in fat and cholesterol, could be prepared in advance, would serve a crowd, and yet still maintain the traditional tastes people look forward to on the holiday.
In place of conventional gefilte fish -- a mixture of ground white fish shaped into ovals or balls, simmered in stock and served with horseradish and carrots -- I offer a gefilte fish souffle torte with horseradish, carrots and beets. The ground fish is lightened with beaten egg whites, baked in a jellyroll pan, cut into layers and sandwiched with a vibrant ruby filling. Although much easier, faster and less expensive to make than the original version, the completed dish tastes very similar. The torte can be assembled completely a day ahead and will serve approximately 15 people.
For the main dish, a large roaster chicken is stuffed under the skin and in the cavity with a colorful matzo farfel stuffing accented with snippets of dried apricots, crunchy nuts and crimson cranberries. If desired, you can omit stuffing under the skin and fill two large roasters or one 12- to 14-pound turkey instead. One word of caution when stuffing under the skin: The top of the bird will brown very quickly, probably in less than 30 minutes, so it is important to cover the top loosely with foil.
Serve the bird with fresh tender spring asparagus spears, coated lightly with a spray of lemon and blanched baby carrots sauteed in non-dairy margarine and brown sugar.
Sponge cakes made with matzo meal and potato starch have been a popular Passover dessert for ages, but I wanted to come up with something a little more original. So I toasted sponge cake crumbs (from either a store-bought or homemade cake), mixed them with crumbled almond macaroons, and layered them in a springform pan with sauteed apple slices and almonds. To reduce your preparation time significantly, try using a device called an apple-peeler-corer-slicer. This handy gadget, available at most cookware shops, manages to accomplish all three of these tasks with a few quick turns of a handle. The cake should be refrigerated for several hours before serving, so plan to make it at least one day ahead, or freeze it.
I think you'll find these dishes reminiscent of Passover recipes you've known and loved for years, but with original twists.
Gefilte fish souffle torte
Makes 15 (1-inch) servings.
3 tablespoons unsalted non-dairy margarine
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
4 tablespoons potato starch
1 can (10 1/4 ounces) condensed chicken broth
3/4 cup water
(or substitute homemade chicken broth for canned broth and water)
1 pound white fish fillets (I prefer cod or a mixture or whitefish and halibut.)
5 egg yolks
6 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 can (8 1/4 ounces) sliced carrots
1 can (8 1/4 ounces) sliced beets
4 tablespoons red horseradish
salt and pepper to taste
lettuce leaves for garnish
carrot curls or flowers for garnish, optional
beet flowers for garnish, optional
To make the souffle, line a 10 1/2 -by-15 1/2 -by-1 inch rimmed baking sheet (jellyroll pan) with parchment or foil, letting 1 inch extend over each short end. Grease the paper. Heat the oven to 400 degrees.