The Passover challenge

With most grains off the table, Jewish vegetarians seek out alternatives during the meat-centric holiday

March 24, 2010|By Laura Vozzella | laura.vozzella@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

The roasted shank bone in the center of the table says it all: Passover is one meat-centric holiday.

Symbolism, tradition and religious dietary restrictions tend to make the festival of the unleavened bread into an eight-night parade of brisket, lamb and chicken.

That poses a challenge for Jewish vegetarians. Passing on traditional meat main courses can leave little else to eat. Pastas and rice are out. Ashkenazi Jews do not eat legumes during the holiday, prohibiting the beans and tofu that are often at the center of vegetarian meals. That also excludes the soy-based flavorings many rely on to add zip to vegetable-based meals.

Even salad isn't a sure thing. Many bottled dressings contain high-fructose corn syrup, a no-no because the sweetener is derived from a grain.

"No soy sauce, teriyaki sauce," lamented Rob Yunich of Fairfax, Va., who has co-authored a Jewish cookbook with his wife, Elana Milstein. "Tofu's gone. Anything with soy in it, any kind of bean - black bean red

bean - no pasta, no rice."

Passover isn't supposed to be Yom Kippur, a day Yunich sums up this way: "Can't eat, can't drink, can't smoke, can't have sex, probably shouldn't shower, can't wear leather." While Passover has its dietary restrictions, it's not a holiday that turns on, "Woe is me, we have to suffer like we're still wandering in Egypt," he said with a laugh.

"Passover is the celebration of freedom - the Jews' exodus from Egypt, slavery to freedom," Yunich said. "One of the indications of that is during the Seder, you're supposed to sit on a pillow. Free people get to do all these wonderful things and really be comfortable."

But a comfy backside hardly compensates for an empty tummy.

Yunich and Milstein offer some Passover-friendly vegetarian dishes in their book, "The Kitchen Dance: A New Take on Kosher Cooking." They are not the only ones looking out for vegetarian Jews lately.

Eli Kirshtein, a former contestant on television's "Top Chef," has been promoting a mac-and-cheese recipe he devised using Israeli couscous. (There's a kosher-for-Passover variety made from matzo meal.)

The relatively recent arrival of quinoa on mainstream American supermarket shelves also has been helpful, though not everyone agrees that it's kosher for Passover. Quinoa, which comes from a plant but is not technically considered a grain, can pass for couscous or other tiny pasta in recipes.

"Many people consider it a legume," said Avrom Pollak, president of Baltimore's Star-K Kosher Certification Co. "We do not consider it a legume."

Pollak said quinoa also is acceptable "based on the theory that quinoa was unknown [among Jews] at the time when this legume prohibition came into place and could not have possibly been prohibited."

Quinoa has been a welcome addition to the Passover menu for Murray and Shifra Singerman and their eight children, who live in Pikesville and Frederick. They're all strict vegetarians, and he is rabbi at Frederick's Beth Sholom Congregation.

Shifra Singerman, 48, said they were "really thrilled" to discover quinoa several years ago.

"I don't think it's really caught on much in the standard Orthodox home, but for those of us who do enjoy it and use it, it's a wonderful grain and very, very healthy," she said.

The Singermans eat quinoa year-round, sometimes using it to stuff peppers, or preparing it like a rice pilaf with sauteed onions, garlic, peppers, mushrooms and grated carrots. It is a good source of protein and, during Passover, it helps satisfy their cravings for starch.

Even with help from quinoa, it's not easy being vegetarian at Passover, Pollak said.

"Generally, as with any holiday and particularly with Passover, holiday foods emphasize meat dishes, fish dishes," Pollak said. "People who are very strict vegetarians do face somewhat of a challenge."

Yunich and Milstein's cookbook offers recipes such as Matzo Lasagna and Crustless Quiche. The book is not exclusively vegetarian. The authors eat mostly vegetarian, but they do consume some meat. They're just not willing to eat it for eight days straight.

"We've done that and - since we don't eat a lot of meat, even if it's chicken - we say, 'Can we go strictly vegetarian for three weeks?' " Yunich said. "Red meat is hard to digest anyway."

"Basically, Passover, if you're not creative, it could be meat every night," Milstein said. "We didn't want to do that. We wanted to find alternatives. ... Since we eat a lot of vegetarian, we had to find foods that would satisfy our predominantly vegetarian lifestyle without compromising our love of Passover."

Peruvian Quinoa Stew
Makes: 4 servings

1/2 cup quinoa

1 cup water

2 cups chopped onions

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 carrot, cut on the diagonal into 1/4 -inch thick slices

1 bell pepper

1 cup cubed zucchini

2 cups undrained chopped canned or fresh tomatoes

1 cup water or vegetable stock

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground coriander

Pinch of cayenne

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