Every spring, Susan Schnerb and her husband leave New York City for a food-centric week in, of all places, Reisterstown.
The couple swears the meals are so delicious and so modern at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, they almost forget it's Passover, which begins Wednesday night - a beloved Jewish holiday but, with its ban on things like leavened bread, cake and pasta, not one widely praised for haute cuisine.
"You always hear, 'It's Passover, and I can't have this and I can't have that,' " says Schnerb, a Baltimore native. "But you don't hear anyone saying that at Pearlstone. There, you don't even miss the regular stuff."
Pearlstone is one of a growing number of hotels and resorts around the country offering Passover packages, an attraction for Jews who want to observe the holiday but don't want to deal with the elaborate cleaning, shopping and cooking required to do it right.
About 150 people move onto the bucolic campus outside Baltimore for the week. It's up to Frank Cleveland, the center's director of food services, to organize the ceremonial Seders and present everyone with days of meals that are not only satisfying but follow the strict dictates of Passover law.
And Cleveland's not Jewish.
"It was a baptism by fire," he says, joking about his first Passover at the center, which happened just a couple of months after he started there four years ago.
Observant Jews avoid all sorts of foods during Passover - the blatant no-nos include bread and crackers, but less-obvious ingredients, including canola oil, chickpeas, soy products, rice and cumin, are also forbidden. The devout even switch their toothpaste and toothbrushes to make sure nothing has been contaminated by any of the forbidden foods.
With so many roadblocks, Passover can be a culinary challenge.
"How do you really make a meal, a solid, well-balanced meal, without grains?" Cleveland asked himself. And he knew he couldn't let people down because, as he puts it, "Pesach is something special. It really goes back to the beginning of Judaism - the foods are the oldest, and the traditions are the strongest."
With the advice of veterans, the help of well-worn holiday cookbooks and some of his own creative flair, Cleveland has created innovative meals that have attracted more than a few repeat holiday visitors.
In addition to the chicken, turkey and brisket - meat-heavy entrees that people have come to expect - Cleveland has found room on the menu for lighter, more contemporary dishes.
There's gnocchi. And a salad Caprese. And spaghetti and meatballs. There's salmon with roasted peppers. And eggplant stuffed with quinoa. And chicken fingers breaded with crushed matzo.
There's even matzo lasagna. "You wouldn't have anyone even try to construct a lasagna 50 years ago," says Cleveland, who's a fan of the new Passover items that have come on the market, including pastas and dinner rolls made with potato starch.
He says the rolls tasted so good, in fact, it was unsettling for some of the older Jews who thought they couldn't possibly be allowed for Passover.
Schnerb calls the lasagna "out of this world." "You'd never know it was Passover," she says.
Breakfasts include not just matzo brei, a traditional fried matzo dish, but eggs with cheddar cheese, blintzes and pancakes made with matzo meal. "Nobody wants to have sort of the same kind of meal every day," says Shirley Kenick of Pikesville, who tried Passover at Pearlstone last year and plans to return this year.
Lunch is lighter - often a fish or a vegetable-based dish, such as stuffed peppers. Cleveland almost always offers salads, often jazzed up with nuts and cheese.
Baltimore's Esther Pelberg, who has attended for a number of years, is impressed with the variety of dishes and Cleveland's way of making them elegant.
"It's tempting and tasty," she says. "Like you're going to an exquisite exclusive place in midtown Manhattan."
Cleveland tends to shy away from Passover desserts, which are notoriously disappointing. Instead he likes to serve fresh fruit, and maybe some spongecake or macaroons. He also makes his own homemade candied nuts - a kosher treat he likes to make year-round.
"We're passing on the joy of cooking to those who are eating," he says. "When you put in joy and love, it's extra flavor you're not going to typically find in an institutional setting."
14 ounces dry quinoa (about 2 1/3 cups)
1 cup diced sun-dried tomato
1 cup fresh basil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 medium-sized diced Bermuda onion
1 medium cucumber, peeled and diced
dash of kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
4 ounces extra-virgin olive oil (about 1/2 cup)
2 ounces fresh mint and parsley (about 1/4 cup), combined and diced small, to top