Sweet gefilte fish with a dollop of eye-watering horseradish. Fluffy matzah balls floating in golden chicken soup, raisin-dotted matzah kugel, tangy stuffed cabbage, crunchy charoset, mile-high sponge cake.
This time of year, you may come upon recipes faded by the years in the handwriting of beloved mothers or grandmothers tucked into old cookbooks or recorded on yellowed index cards. These, along with the fragrance of the Passover kitchen itself — and the first taste of matzah smeared with horseradish and charoset — can transport you back to the sights, sounds and tastes of seder nights a half-century ago.
But when the nostalgia lifts, if you’re not careful, eight days (seven in Israel) of these wonderful time-honored Passover foods can also widen your waistline, dull your brain in a perpetual carb-fog and slow your kishkas to a near standstill.
Fortunately, there’s an art to preparing traditional foods that retain the power to pass on to the next generation this beloved family holiday while eating smart, creating a Passover that’s healthful without losing its soul.
Joan Nathan, the Julia Child of Jewish cooking, has updated many of her family’s Passover dishes, including Passover recipes, for her latest, “King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.”
“Seder night is a big deal in our family,” said Nathan, who each year hosts as many as 40 guests for the big event and, the week prior, holds a “gefilte-in” for friends to come and cook together.
Beginning with the salad, Nathan adds the key ingredient of creativity to every course, with a special focus on using vegetables to keep the “HQ” (health quotient) high. And she loads her mother’s traditional brisket recipe with plenty of carrots.
Paula Shoyer, author of “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen” and “The New Passover Menu,” suggests an easy formula for “lightening up” traditional recipes: Take down the sugar a notch; replace some matzah meal with other kosher-for-Passover options like a mixture of almond and coconut flour; and use coconut oil (look for extra-virgin with a reliable hechshers, kosher symbols) instead of the ever-present margarine.
“And people will find that if they cook from scratch, they’ll avoid all the unhealthy chemicals in the packaged Passover foods — and save money, too,” noted Shoyer. “It only takes a few more minutes to make brownies yourself.”
Creating a salad dressings of olive oil and vinegar with spices can help you dodge some of the arguably less healthful oils (peanut and cottonseed among them) long associated with Passover cooking.
Israelis are mad about cauliflower and zucchini, and both of these are spotlighted in Steven Rothfeld’s love letter to Israeli cuisine “Israel Eats.” Note: On Passover Israelis are split between Sephardic tradition, which allows the eating of kitnyot (most notably legumes and rice), and Ashkenazi custom, which considers these things to be chametz — not kosher for Passover. (Though in the spirit of what Rothfeld calls “Israeli fusion,” in recent years many Ashkenazim in Israel and elsewhere have opted to spend Passover eating like Sephardim.) Tip to shoppers: You’ll notice that many “Kosher for Passover” products add the word “Kitniyot” somewhere on the package as a warning to consumers whose tradition is to avoid it. (Not sure what’s kitniyot? Arlene Mathes-Scharf of kashrut.com put together a list with the late Rabbi Zuche Blech. Go to askcrc.org.)
“The best advice I can give for keeping healthy on Passover is to listen to your body,” said Rothfeld. “Just because it’s a holiday, don’t overeat, and even though it looks amazing, don’t eat it if you’re not hungry.” (Kind of the flip side to the Haggadah notation: “All who are hungry, come and eat.”)
Then there the folks whose food sensitivities — to gluten, nuts or dairy for instance — make Passover a dietary challenge. When Marcy Goldman’s nut-allergic son longed to eat her charoset, a delicious part of the seder that calls for nuts, she quickly went to work concocting a version he could safely enjoy. The result? “Paradise Charoset” in her “Newish Jewish Cookbook.”
Goldman also makes a point of slipping healthful, colorful veggies and fruits into other traditional dishes, creating such treats as her “Three-Level Kugel.”
“You can eat smart over Passover,” she said. “You don’t have to recycle potatoes, kugels and roast all week. And remember, it only takes one or two Passovers to make your adaptations into your family Passover traditions.”
There is also oat matzah on the market that solve the gluten-free problem, as they’re kosher for making a bracha (“blessing”) over. (Not all gluten-free matzah are, just the oat.) And those sensitive to nightshades such as white potatoes will have to be vigilant about scouring the labels due to the literally tons of potato starch used in prepared kosher-for-Passover foods.
As for the most common health complaint from Passover — the infamous constipating powers of matzah and its by-products — Nathan says her ancestors were wise enough to build relief right into their traditional holiday recipes. “Our family always serves our krimsel (matzah fritters) with plenty of stewed prunes … even way back then, they understood.”
Below, we have a few tips for a healthy Passover, as well as several recipes that can be made throughout the week to get through the eight days without gaining a ton. Added prunes are optional.
Stuffed Cabbage from Oratorio in Zichron Ya’acov, as published in Steven Rothfeld’s ‘Israel Eats’ (Meat)
1 medium green cabbage
1 cup jasmine rice, rinsed
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small onion, minced
21 ounces ground lamb
½ cup chopped mint leaves
2 medium tomatoes, grated
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons chopped
1 teaspoon ras el hanout
(a Moroccan spice blend)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 generous cup chicken stock or broth
⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
1 large garlic clove, crushed
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Freeze the cabbage for 24 hours to facilitate separating of leaves.
Defrost cabbage. Separate leaves, trying not to rip them. The more whole leaves, the better.
Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the rice and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the lamb and sauté until browned and no pink remains, 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the blanched rice, mint, tomatoes, pine nuts, cranberries and ras el hanout. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Arrange one-fourth of the cabbage leaves in the bottom of a medium-size Dutch oven or heavy pot. Top with a third of the meat mixture. Cover with another fourth of the cabbage leaves. Top with another third of the meat mixture. Cover with another fourth of the cabbage leaves. Top with the remaining third of the meat mixture. Cover with the remaining fourth of the cabbage leaves.
Pour in the chicken stock and lemon juice. Add the garlic clove; season generously with salt and pepper.
Cover tightly and cook for 1½ hours. Remove the lid from the pot. Cover contents of the pot with a plate, then top the plate with a brick or cans as weight.
Refrigerate overnight. Bring the cabbage cake to room temperature. Cut into slices and serve.
Joan Nathan’s Favorite Brisket (Meat)
2 cups dry red wine
2 stalks celery with leaves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
8 carrots, peeled and cut into
½-inch diagonal slices
¼cup chopped fresh parsley
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place onions and garlic in a 5-quart to 6-quart casserole. Season brisket with salt and pepper.
In a large skillet, heat oil over high heat and sear brisket until browned, 3-4 minutes on each side.
Place fat-side-up on top of onions. Add tomatoes and their juice, breaking them up with a fork.
Add the wine, celery, bay leaf, thyme and rosemary.
Cover casserole and bake for 3 hours, basting with pan juices every half-hour.
Marcy Goldman’s Three-Level Kugel (Pareve)
1 pound broccoli, cooked, chopped fine
½ cup matzah meal
1½ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon salt
3/8 teaspoon pepper
2cups carrots, shredded
1cup butternut squash, cooked
¼ cup brown sugar
1½cup matzah meal
⅓cup orange juice
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup diced onion
1 pound cauliflower, cooked,
1 cup matzah meal
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line a 10-inch springform pan with parchment paper (bottom and sides). Spray with nonstick cooking spray. Place pan on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.
Prepare first layer by cooking broccoli and then combining with rest of ingredients (for that layer) in a bowl. Spread in springform pan.
For the second layer, in a bowl, blend the carrots, with squash, sugar, egg, matzah meal, salt, cinnamon and orange juice. Gently spread over broccoli layer.
For the third layer, prepare cauliflower. In a small skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onion until lightly cooked and golden. Place with cauliflower in a large bowl and stir in the eggs, matzah meal, salt and pepper. Gently spread this over carrot-squash mixture.
Bake 50-60 minutes or until a skewer inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 8-10 servings
Marcy Goldman’s Nut-Free Passover Paradise Charoset (Pareve)
2 cups fresh cranberries
½ cup dried cherries
¼ cup dried cranberries
⅓ cup yellow raisins
2 cups coarsely chopped apples
½ cup sugar
¾ cup water
½ cup water or orange juice
2 tablespoons sweet red wine
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan.
Over low-medium heat, cook the fruit slowly until the apples soften and the cranberries pop open. Stir, ensuring mixture does not burn on bottom. You may have to lower the heat.
After mixture is cooked down and is thicker, adjust tartness to taste with more orange juice and sugar. If it seems too thick, add a touch more water or orange juice. Cool well. Refrigerate after it cools down.
Serve cold or room temperature.
Makes about 1¾ cups
Paula Shoyer’s Chocolate Quinoa Cake
Ingredients for cake:
¾ cup quinoa
1½ cups water
Nonstick cooking spray
2 tablespoons potato starch
⅓ cup orange juice (from 1 orange)
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons kosher for Passover
¾ cup coconut oil
1½ cups sugar
1 cup dark unsweetened cocoa
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
Fresh raspberries for garnish (optional)
Ingredients for Glaze (Optional):
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
1 tablespoon sunflower or safflower oil
1 teaspoon kosher-for-Passover
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the quinoa and water into a small saucepan, and bring it to a boil over medium heat.
Reduce the heat to low, cover the saucepan, and cook the quinoa for 15 minutes, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Set the pan aside. The quinoa may be made 1 day in advance.
Use cooking spray to grease a 12-cup Bundt pan. Sprinkle the potato starch over the greased pan and then shake the pan to remove any excess starch.
Place the quinoa in the bowl of a food processor. Add the orange juice, eggs, vanilla, oil, sugar, cocoa, baking powder and salt, and process until the mixture is very smooth.
Melt the chocolate over a double boiler or place in a medium microwave-safe bowl, putting in a microwave for 45 seconds, stirring and then heating the chocolate for another 30 seconds until melted. Add the chocolate to the quinoa batter and process until well-mixed.
Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake it for 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Let the cake cool for 10 minutes and then remove it gently from the pan. Let it cool on a wire cooling rack.
To make the glaze, melt the chocolate in a large microwave-safe bowl in the microwave (see above) or over a double boiler. Add the oil and vanilla; whisk well. Let the glaze sit for 5 minutes and then whisk it again. Use a silicone spatula to spread the glaze over the cake.
Garnish with fresh raspberries, if desired. JN