When I was growing up, I never had to ask my mother what she would be serving at the seder. It was essentially the same menu every year: dishes like homemade chopped liver, chicken soup with matzah balls, turkey with gravy, mom's special "Shabbos potatoes" (first boiled then roasted with seasonings) and matzah farfel with mushrooms. All tasty foods, of course, but the predictability was not that exciting, to put it mildly, in deference to my mother, who surely worked hard.
Why is this night the same as every other seder night? I'd ask. "Because that's what my mother made," she'd reply.
As she talked about the seders she'd had with her parents and grandparents, her face glowed, as if they were there preparing the seder with her. She even used my grandmother's cooking methods: She chopped the liver by hand, in a large wooden bowl, using a hockmesser -- a sort of cleaver with a rounded blade. She cut up fresh horseradish for maror, instead of using milder romaine lettuce.
Here was my dilemma when I came of age and began making my own seders: Should I maintain tradition even though I didn't have the same associations with these foods that my mother did? Since Passover celebrates freedom (another traditional name for the holiday is Zman Cheiruteinu, or The Time of Our Freedom), I wanted to express my freedom by making foods of my own choosing, rather than feeling bound by a menu that was "traditional" only due to its roots in Eastern European cuisine.
Over the years I've served at some nontraditional dishes at seders, including beanless chili, gazpacho, short ribs and bruschetta served on small pieces of matzah instead of the traditional toast. But my favorite dishes are those that tap back into the deep roots of this holiday. They allow me to create new traditions via foods that took on Passover-related significance.
Another name for the holiday is chag ha'aviv, or the spring holiday. So I focus on foods that are seasonal, whose flavors evoke the freshness of spring. Other dishes aim at connecting with the many ceremonies associated with Passover.
Ceviche is a fish dish of Peruvian origin, now served widely across South America. The fish is marinated in lime or lemon juice, with the citric acid actually cooking the fish without the use of heat. In this version, the two different kinds of fish present a nice mix of color and texture, while the vegetables also add color and flavor. The tangy freshness of this blend awakens the palate, as spring weather does to the body.
While Sephardim have it a bit easier on Passover, Ashkenazim have basically two starches to choose from: potatoes and matzah. Nearly every other starch falls under the category of kitniot, which are literally legumes, but include rice and corn, and are forbidden to Eastern European Jews.
There is, however, another choice that offers variety, along with taste and healthfulness. Quinoa. The grain was never classified as kitniot because it was unknown in Europe at the time the custom was established. It has a vaguely nutty taste, is extremely high in protein and low in carbohydrates. In this recipe, the lemon juice picks up on the ceviche's citrus, and the dish is prepared almost like tabouli. But the key ingredient is certainly the fresh mint, which adds a perky crispness that clearly recalls spring.
A great centerpiece dish is lamb and Jerusalem artichoke stew. Lamb has particular Passover significance, connecting with the paschal lamb offering both in Egypt, and later in the Temple. And although Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes (they are actually sunflower tubers with an artichoke-like flavor), the name still reminds us of our annual seder proclamation to celebrate "Next Year in Jerusalem." Plus, they are fresh in season during March and April, as are many of the wild mushrooms in this hearty stew.
Of course, there are many other dishes that can tap into the seasonal and customary aspects of Passover. Express your freedom by cooking almost anything you'd typically make for a Sabbath meal, just leaving out certain ingredients!
1 1/4 pound tuna steak
1 1/4 pound firm white fish (tilapia, trout or sea bass work great)
2 medium jalapenos, seeds and membranes removed, diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 small red onion, diced
juice of five to 10 limes
1 avocado, sliced
Remove any skin from fish, using a sharp paring knife. Cut tuna into cubes about 1-inch wide. Slice white fish into strips, about 1/2 inch by 1 1/2 inches.
In a glass or plastic bowl, mix fish with jalapenos, cilantro and lime. Add juice of limes. If limes did not yield enough juice to cover all fish, add enough lemon juice to cover.
Refrigerate, covered, for 90 minutes to two hours, stirring mixture every 15-20 minutes.
Serve in small bowls or cups. Garnish each with a half-moon of avocado.
Note: If made earlier in the day, remove most of the juice after two hours (or once all fish has darkened in color) to avoid over-marinating.
Quinoa Pilaf With Fresh Mint
2 cups raw quinoa (available in specialty markets)
4 cups water
1/2 medium red onion, diced
2 scallions, diced
1/2 cup pine nuts
3 ounces sun-dried tomatoes, julienned
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Mix quinoa and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce flame and simmer covered for 15 minutes, or until most of the water has been absorbed.
Remove quinoa to a large bowl and let cool.
Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly. Serve at room temperature.
Lamb and Jerusalem Artichoke Stew
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups dry light red wine (Chianti or Cote-du-Rhone, for example)
2 cups water
1 1/2 pounds Jerusalem artichokes, peeled, larger ones chopped to uniform size with smaller ones (available in specialty markets, sometimes sold as "sunchokes")
2 pounds mixed wild mushrooms, chopped thick (cremini or shitake, for example)
2 medium yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
2 carrots, chopped large
2 small turnips, chopped large
2 white or golden potatoes, chopped large
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh thyme
In a Dutch oven, brown lamb in 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, approximately five minutes. Add Jerusalem artichokes, wine and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and skim any excess fat from the top of the pot.
Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add brown mushrooms, stirring, approximately five minutes. Remove to bowl. Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, sweet onions and garlic for about three minutes. Add to mushrooms.
Add carrots, turnips and potatoes to lamb pot. Stir to cover vegetables, and cook for 15 minutes, or until vegetables are softened.
Add mushroom mixture, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook uncovered until liquid reduces by about one-third, then continue covered, 45 minutes to an hour in total.
Remove thyme and bay leaves, and serve on plates.
Joel Haber (funjoel.blogspot.com) is a freelance writer and screenwriting consultant. He loves to cook because he loves to eat.