Time was, when planning my Passover menu, I'd pore over cookbooks and magazines, wade through those yellowing newspaper clippings that I'm going to file some day -- I swear -- or just call Aunt Sally. But these days, with the click of a mouse, I can lean over a virtual back fence and schmooze with 1,900 Internet neighbors from New Zealand to Kalamazoo to exchange recipes and customs or solve culinary crises.
"We're now five generations or so from the great immigrations," says Brian Mailman (yes, his real name), owner/moderator of the Jewish Food List, established in 1996 as an international e-mail community. Members from 45 countries, including Israel, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Iceland and Japan, focus on Jewish food, cooking history and traditions.
"A lot of knowledge is getting lost by assimilation and attenuation," notes Mailman, who was classically trained in French cuisine and writes the column I Can't Believe It's Kosher for www.ujc.org. "The younger folk wanting to 'return' are tutored by the empty-nesters who are eager to share, kids asking the village elders some of the basic how-tos and how muchs."
While the focus of the list is Jewish food, perusing its offerings is like enjoying the old commercial for Levy's Rye Bread: You don't have to be Jewish to love it. Nor do you have to be Jewish to join in.
"Members range from ultra-Orthodox to not even Jewish, from barely past teens to well into their 80s, from hardly able to boil water to full professionals," Mailman says.
Eliane Driessen of Amsterdam posts a typical request: "At my dentist's today I picked up an old Gourmet magazine, but the Passover recipe for Porcini Matzo Polenta Wedges was ripped out. Does anyone have it?" Within hours Nancy Berry of San Francisco and Maxine Wolfson of Rhode Island have posted it.
Moderators Wendy Baker (New York), Sharon Kuritzky (Buffalo) and Maxine Wolfson (Rhode Island) assist Mailman with some 12,000 e-mails posted each year. And even non-members can browse the 5,300 or so recipes (about 2,000 for Passover), archived by members Naomi Horowitz (Chicago), Shayla Gunter-Goldstein (Toronto), Annice Grinberg (Israel), Liliana Wajnberg (Brazil) and Hindy Gershman (New York.)
Besides recipes and cooking tips, the daily e-mails awaken forgotten food fantasies. Dalia Carmel of Manhattan, who owns over 5,000 cookbooks, remembers growing up in Israel when eggs were rationed to five per week for their family of three. "As a result my mother and I dreamt of the day that we could eat as many eggs as we wanted. In 1951 we were invited to a seder by relatives who raised chickens. On the table was a large bowl filled with peeled hard-boiled eggs. I managed to consume nine!"
Members may discuss unconventional choices for the seder plate. Vegetarians take note: Michele Wolgel Rose of Chicago substitutes an avocado pit for the roasted egg, and Sue Honeyman of Connecticut replaces the shank bone with a roasted beet. Francine Weistrop of Massachusetts uses ginger for the bitter herbs.
"A potato was often used by Eastern European Jews for karpas because of the absence of green vegetables at Passover," Baker of Upstate New York writes.
"My father's family always used potato," Lori Cahan-Simon of Cleveland agrees, "but added parsley as karpas in the new country, so we have, in effect, parsley potatoes!"
And why an orange on the seder plate of late? A widely circulated myth has it that Dr. Susannah Heschel once addressed a convocation of Orthodox rabbis, one of whom commented, "A woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate." Actually, Heschel began the tradition as a gesture of solidarity with gays and lesbians.
"It does lead to lively discussions both from the enthusiastic feminists and the skeptical traditionalists," Malkie Altman from Long Island writes.
"Among those who attend our seders are people from a variety of traditions," Lorri Lewis of Palo Alto adds. "Unexpected foods on the table help create interest among the guests."
Here's a sampling of Passover foods from the Jewish Food List.
Poached Pears Stuffed with Chocolate Sauce
Posted by Valerie Kanter (Source: "Crowning Elegance: A Kosher Culinary Experience" by Arie Crown Hebrew Day School)
Zest of 1 lemon, peeled into 1-inch strips
Juice of 1 lemon (3 tablespoons)
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
6 cups water
2 teaspoons kosher-for-Passover vanilla
6 large, firm, ripe Barlett pears
16 ounces good quality semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped, or chocolate chips
About 1/2 cup nondairy creamer or heavy (whipping) cream
6 slices spongecake
Poached Pears: In an 8-quart stock pot over medium high-heat stir together sugar, wine and water. Stir in zest, lemon juice and vanilla. Cook for two minutes to dissolve sugar. Turn off heat.
Slice 1/8-inch off bottom of each pear to stand pears upright. Peel pears, leaving stems and 1/2-inch diameter around stem intact.
Using a melon baller, scoop out cores of pears through flat bottom end, leaving stem intact.
Add pears to hot poaching syrup. Syrup must cover pears completely. Lay a few plain paper towels over pears. Place an inverted plate on top of paper towels to keep pears submerged and prevent discoloring.
Bring syrup to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle boil. Poach until a knife can pierce pears easily, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat. Let pears cool for at least three hours or refrigerate overnight, submerged in poaching syrup.
Chocolate Sauce: Melt chocolate in a small saucepan over low heat. Add creamer 1 tablespoon at a time until it thickens to the consistency of mayonnaise. Remove from heat.
Syrup: Remove pears from cooking liquid, set aside. Reduce cooking liquid over high heat, uncovered, to about 1 cup, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; let cool to room temperature.
To Serve: Cut 6 (3-inch) circles out of spongecake. Place on dessert plates. Fill pear cavities with chocolate sauce. Place on pound cake circles. Spoon syrup over pears.
Makes six servings.
Note: After Passover, heavy cream, pure vanilla extract and pound cake may be substituted.
Posted by Steve and Marilyn Kerman (Adapted from "Mediterranean Cooking" by Paula Wolfert)
2 onions, peeled, halved and sliced
8 chicken thighs with bone, skin removed and discarded
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon Spanish sweet paprika
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
11 ounces pitted green olives in brine, drained
Juice of one lemon
In bottom of large flameproof casserole dish, arrange onion and top with chicken pieces. Sprinkle with ginger, turmeric, cumin, paprika, garlic and cilantro. Pour chicken broth over all.
Place over high heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes, turning once. Meanwhile, in small saucepan, combine olives with several cups of water and bring to a boil. Boil two minutes, drain well and set aside.
Add olives and lemon juice to chicken, and simmer uncovered 10 minutes, or longer to reduce and thicken sauce. Serve hot.
Makes four servings.
Note: Recipe may be doubled. Can be prepared ahead and refrigerated, then reheated before serving.
Kurdish Charoset (Halik)
Posted by Ruth Baks (Source: The Jerusalem Post, March, 21, 2002, "The World of Haroset," by Elizabeth Levy)
1/2 cup pistachio nuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup almonds
1/4 cup sultana raisins
3/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup dates
2 apples, peeled
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate juice
Grind the nuts coarsely together in a food processor. Add dry fruit and blend to a paste with texture.
Grate apples and add to mixture. Stir in cinnamon, and pomegranate juice. Mix well. The paste should be sweet, tart, and crunchy.
Makes about four cups.
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of "Cooking Jewish: 652 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family" (Workman, July 2006) and can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.