In biblical times, long stalks of barley and lush fields of green garlic signaled that Passover was near. The holiday's food was a reflection of the harvest.
In today's industrialized society, where our foods are imported from around the world, seasons and their unique foods often have become meaningless.
Now Phyllis and Miriam Glazer's new cookbook, "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking," takes us back in time to celebrate the foods of ancestral Israel, where our holidays originated.
"We discovered that [since] the roots of the festivals were in nature, then the food had to reflect that," Phyllis said.
Their cookbook features one of the latest trends in cooking, informally known as "seasonal cooking," where chefs scour local markets and use the produce nature intended for their daily specials.
The festival of Passover, the first month of the Jewish lunar New Year, opens the book with delectable treats highlighting the earth's renewal from the dormant winter months. Jews used the resources that were available to them. As they found themselves dispersed around the world, they adopted new symbols for the holidays. The recipes reflect the culinary traditions of both worlds. The European invention of gefilte fish and the British tradition of lemon curd on Pesach were not, of course, fare in ancient times, yet they pop up in many Jewish homes.
More than just recipes, the book is laden with the historical and religious origins of the symbols marking Passover. Miriam, a professor of literature at the University of Judaism and a rabbinical student at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, was responsible for adding the commentary to the book. She reveals the origins of the hagaddah, the seder plate, matzah and kitniot (the Sephardic tradition of eating legumes). The book, Miriam said, "is about rediscovering our heritage and the richness of it, and how our cuisine has echoed the miracle of our survival all over the world."
The cookbook gave the Glazers a chance to rediscover their sisterly bond, since Miriam moved away from their home in New York when Phyllis was a young girl.
"The love for healthy food and cooking has been in our family for generations, and it has been a precious opportunity to reconnect with each other, with our mom and, in absentia, with our grandmother in the process of doing this," Miriam said.
Although the process was rewarding, the sisters faced challenges. Phyllis, a well known food writer in Israel, and Miriam, a published scholar, had to find a way to weld their different writing styles.
"We screamed at each other over the phone," Phyllis said.
The cookbook highlights many recipes for all of the Jewish holidays, and recognizes a time to bond with family over food. Food is a major component of Passover -- ridding the house of chametz, preparing the kitchen, assembling the seder plate and, of course, making the meal. The preparations for Passover are often what makes the holiday memorable. Everyone wants to contribute, even the little kids, and moms are always searching for ways to engage them, while keeping them away from the hot stove.
Stuffing food is a safe way to involve the kids in the cooking tradition. Walnut-and-Herb-Stuffed Eggplant, Iraqi Chicken-Stuffed Patties and Marzipan-Stuffed Dates are some of the many delicious recipes where kids can lend a helping hand. Moshe b'Tayva (Moses in the Basket), is a kitschy spin on marzipan-stuffed dates traditionally served at a Memunah, the celebration immediately following Pesach for North African Jews. Kids can roll out body parts for baby Moses and stuff them in the large Medjool dates -- symbolic of the basket in which he floated.
When children grow up, they will remember the seder, but more so they will reminisce about the foods. The Glazers hoped to reclaim our old and new traditions through food, and give those who have no culinary history an opportunity to tap into the rich flavors of Jewish festival cuisine.
"I realized that if we do not pass on things with meaning to our children then we will have been responsible for the demise of those things," Phyllis said. "We can pass on food with meaning."
Nanuchka's Fabulous Walnut-and-Herb-Stuffed Eggplant
Contributed by Phyllis' best friend, Natasha Krantz, this Georgian (former Soviet Union) recipe of rich walnuts herbs and spices is perfect for an appetizer. Make extra of this flavorful filling and spread it over matzah as a snack.
3 3/4 pounds eggplant (two or three medium size)
Coarse sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups walnut halves (about 1 pound)
2 medium garlic cloves, pressed (1 tablespoon)
1/2 teaspoon white or red wine vinegar
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 small dried hot pepper or cayenne to taste
1/2 cup packed chopped cilantro
1/3 cup packed chopped fresh Italian parsley
Cut the stem end off the eggplant and slice the eggplant lengthwise into 3/8-inch slices. Sprinkle both sides with a little coarse salt and pepper and rub in. Let stand for 10 minutes, rinse off and pat dry.
Heat half the oil in a skillet and sauté half the eggplant slices on both sides until golden brown. Remove and place between two sheets of paper towel to absorb excess oil. Repeat with the rest of the oil and eggplant.
In a food processor, grind the walnuts to a powder. Add the remaining ingredients, blending until the paste forms a ball. Lay the eggplant slices on a work surface and place two or more tablespoons of filling (depending on type of eggplant) at the base. Carefully roll from the bottom into a compact roll. Serve on a serving platter decorated with fresh greens if desired.
Makes about 20-30 pieces.
Cabbage Walnut Salad: Cook 1/2 medium cabbage in boiling water until very tender, and squeeze out excess moisture by hand. Chop coarsely by hand together with a few tablespoons of the walnut mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Roasted Eggplant Walnut Salad: Roast one to two small eggplants. Chop by hand, blending in a few tablespoons of the walnut mixture. Use the filling to stuff fresh mushrooms, celery ribs and cherry tomatoes.
Iraqi Chicken-Stuffed Patties
Moshe Basson, a famous chef in Israel shared this Iraqi Passover treat. Biting into crispy mashed potatoes filled with sweet raisins, toasted pine nuts and chicken flavored in aromatic spices made all the stuffing preparation worth it.
1 1/2 pounds boiling potatoes (about four to five medium), cooked, peeled, mashed and chilled
1/4 cup matzah meal plus extra meal for dipping 3 eggs, beaten
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive or vegetable oil, for frying
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped red onion
2 butterflied chicken breasts, deboned, chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (optional)
1/3 teaspoon each black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom
Combine the mashed potatoes, matzah meal and eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and let stand 10 minutes.
For the stuffing: Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet and cook the onion until golden. Add the chicken, raisins and pine nuts, if using, and stir in the spices. When the chicken turns opaque, remove from the heat. Let cool slightly, then cover and chill.
Oil hands and make a ball of potato mixture the size of a large egg. Flatten it out between your palms and make an indentation for the filling. Put a heaping tablespoon of filling in the center, and fold the edges over it. Close and flatten out to make sure that there are no holes with stuffing peeking through.
Dip both sides in matzah meal and deep-fry as the Iraqis do, or fry in a generous amount of hot oil until golden. Turn carefully, and fry the other side. Place on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. Serve hot.
Makes about 25.
Moshe b'Tayva (Moses in the Basket) -- Dates Stuffed with Homemade Marzipan
Crunchy pistachios garnish these marzipan-made Moses bundled in a date basket. Encourage your kids to get creative, suggests the Glazers and make his/her own Moshe with personality.
14 to 16 large Medjool dates
Slightly Rounded 1/2 cup slivered or whole blanched almonds, ground
2/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon "kosher for Passover" vanilla extract
A few drops rose water or almond extract 1 to 2 teaspoons hot water. Garnish 1/4 cup crushed, toasted, unsalted pistachio nuts, whole cloves as needed, coriander seeds or mustard seeds (for the eyes).