Beyond chopped liver, Passover dishes from Jews around the globe, even India and Iraq

Indian Chicken with Cardamom, Cumin and Cilantro from Joan NathanÕs new cookbook King SolomonÕs Table (Knopf).

Over the years, my family’s Passover table has been dominated by Ashkenazi foods -- dill-garnished chopped liver on Tam Tams, brisket and/or chicken, green- and orange-flecked vegetable kugels, and, if Hebrew-school children came door to door with a sales pitch, some kosher pareve chocolate-covered raspberry jelly candies. No one questioned this order of things. It was almost as though the menu came straight from the basket with baby Moses -- this was the sum total of the Jewish holiday food experience, and with my grandmother’s ethereally light matzo balls, no one was complaining.

 

Yet as Jewish food maven Joan Nathan’s latest cookbook, King Solomon’s Table, shows, these “typical” Passover dishes are but one thread in a multitude of cross-cultural iterations of Jewish cooking, many of which have been lost to American Jews who carried on only the Eastern European recipes of their forebears.   

 

The concept of the Wandering Jew comes into sharp culinary focus in Nathan’s thoroughly researched book, which draws on biblical and recorded history to trace Semitic foodways across the globe. Like the book’s namesake, King Solomon, who reportedly had hundreds of wives, Jewish cooking turns out to be somewhat libertine, wildly scooping up traditional flavors and remixing them with available ingredients over centuries of settlement and relocation.

 

Some of the most surprising findings here: Italian Jews favored the sweet and savory holy trio of pine nuts, raisins, and onions. The chopped liver we eat is a close cousin of the foie gras preparations from settlers in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France and Germany. Eggplant, initially cultivated in Asia, came over the Silk Road via Jewish and Arab merchants, and became known in Europe as “Jewish fruit.” Gefilte fish, with its colorless suggestion of thrift and necessity (and I use this description as a loving fan!), would seem to be an invention of 19th century Polish or Russian peasants, but it likely evolved from Spanish or Middle Eastern fish balls from the Middle Ages or even earlier.

 

So many of the dishes Nathan offers could enliven the Passover table with some novel -- but clearly not new, as she points out -- flavors. Nathan includes four recipes for haroset, the symbolic “mortar” on the seder plate, meant to be eaten on matzo “bricks.” Typically, it’s some combination of fruit, nuts, and wine. Nathan’s collection encompasses a Persian haroset with dates, bananas, pomegranate juice, and cardamom; an Italian take with pears, prunes, orange juice, and chestnuts; a Brazilian version with cashews; and, finally, a Maine-style recipe with blueberries, cranberries, ginger, and maple syrup.

 

Then the beloved chopped liver could, for example, be swapped out for Italian caponata, enhanced by the raisin-pine-nut-onion trifecta and spiked with red wine vinegar or even hummus.

 

Certainly, brisket is not the only way to go. In Yemen, the main course for Passover is an egg dish, and the matzo it’s served with is closer to a flatbread than the cracker that’s mass-produced around the world today.

 

It turns out that roasted lamb, which we usually associate with Easter dinners, is verboten in many Jewish communities around the world during Passover, but Roman Jews still serve it on the holiday, and  Middle Eastern Jews might eat a lamb shank in the form of a tagine with a kind of tsimmes (braised fruit and sweet vegetables) cooked right in.  

 

From India, Nathan offers a braised chicken with cardamom, cumin, and a cilantro-ginger swirl. Long before Jewish mothers extolled the virtues of chicken soup, domesticated chickens originally came from India. Nathan’s fragrant recipe originates from a cook she met in Kochi, descended from Iraqi Jews who migrated to India during the Spanish Inquisition and who recalls hand-drying spices harvested in December and January in preparation for the Passover holiday.

 

And though the gummy coconut macaroons from a can prevail in most Jewish American households these days, they most likely evolved from Italian Jews, who used almond paste to create a kosher-for-Passover treat. Nathan’s Persian version makes a refreshing alternative. The dough of ground nuts gets dutifully mixed with one hand, then shaped with rose-water-dipped fingers before being filled with either pistachios or raspberry preserves.

 

Exploring these global influences and incorporating them into the seder dinner can help shake up the predictability of the meal, much like a sprinkle of farfel can add some crunchy interest to a bowl of soup. Speaking of soup, however, some things on the Passover table are nonnegotiable, and, at least in my family, there will be no messing with the matzo balls. 


Indian Chicken with Cardamom, Cumin, and Cilantro

Makes 4-6 servings

INGREDIENTS

Seeds from 4 cardamom pods

6 cloves

6 black peppercorns or 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

3 heaping teaspoons coriander seeds

One 2-inch Ceylon cinnamon stick

½ teaspoon anise seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

3 large onions, diced in large chunks

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

3 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs

3 tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 to 5 curry leaves (optional)

2 tablespoons white vinegar

2-inch piece fresh ginger

4 to 5 cloves garlic

½ bunch (about 1 cup) cilantro leaves, chopped

¼ bunch mint leaves (about ½ cup), chopped

2 to 3 green chilies, minced

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Toast the cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns or pepper, coriander seeds, cinnamon stick, anise seeds, and cumin seeds for about 5 or 6 minutes, stirring often, until they start to pop. Immediately remove them from the pan and grind them in a small blender or mortar and pestle with the nutmeg, turmeric, and salt. Rub into the chicken and let rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

2. In a Dutch oven, sauté the onions for a few minutes in about 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat until golden. Add the chicken, tomatoes, curry leaves if using, ½ cup water, and the white vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until the chicken is soft and cooked through.

3. In a food processor, blend the ginger, garlic, cilantro, mint leaves, and 2 of the chilies. Sample and add more chilies to taste. Add to the chicken and simmer for another 5 minutes. Serve over rice.

-- From "King Solomon’s Table" by Joan Nathan

Per serving (based on 6): 523 calories, 67 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 202 milligrams cholesterol, 520 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Sicilian Eggplant Caponata Jewish-Style

Makes 6-8 servings

INGREDIENTS

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

One 14-ounce can high-quality plum tomatoes, or 2 large tomatoes, chopped and juice reserved

¼ cup currants or golden raisins

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 to 3 medium eggplants, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch cubes

¼ cup pitted green olives, chopped

¼ cup pitted black olives, chopped

2 tablespoons capers

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted, preferably Sicilian

Handful of fresh basil or fresh parsley, chopped

DIRECTIONS

1.  Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large, nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and 2 tablespoons of water. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes.

2.  Add the tomatoes and their juices, currants or raisins, sugar (if using), vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir and cook partially covered over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

3.  While the vegetables are cooking, heat the remaining oil in a separate large nonstick frying pan set over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant, in batches if necessary, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, once again stirring occasionally, until the eggplant softens and turns golden. The eggplant will quickly absorb the oil, but do not add more; the oil will release as the eggplant cooks.

4.  Add the eggplant, olives, capers, and pine nuts to the pan with the tomato mixture, stir gently to combine, and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the basil or parsley, and adjust seasoning. Serve cold or at room temperature as an antipasto with (matzo) crackers, or as a side dish. 

-- From King Solomon’s Table by Joan Nathan

Per serving (based on 8): 216 calories, 3 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, no cholesterol, 225 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.


Walnut-Almond Macaroons with Raspberry Jam Thumbprint

Makes 30 cookies

INGREDIENTS

1¾ cups blanched almonds

1½ cups walnuts

1 cup sugar, or a little less if you like

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 large egg whites and 1 egg yolk

1 cup rose water or water to dampen your hands

½ cup peeled pistachios or ½ cup good-quality raspberry jam made with sugar

DIRECTIONS

1. Put the almonds in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until mostly powdered but with a few crunchy bits remaining, about 15 to 20 pulses. Remove the almonds to a large bowl, then put the walnuts in the food processor, and, again, pulse until mostly powdered. Add the walnuts to the bowl with almonds.

2.  Add the sugar, cardamom, egg whites, and the egg yolk to the bowl and mix with one hand. Cover with a towel and let the mixture sit an hour or so or overnight in the refrigerator to dry out a little.

3.  The next day, preheat the oven to 325 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

4.  Pour the rose water into a small shallow bowl. Dampen your hands with the rose water, shake off any excess and scoop up about a tablespoon of the dough at a time, pressing it into walnut-size balls. Put the macaroons about 2 inches apart on the baking sheets, flattening the cookies slightly. Use your thumb to make a small indentation in the middle of each. 

5.  Bake for 15 minutes, then remove and either put a pistachio or dab  ¼ teaspoon of raspberry jam in each thumbprint. Rotate the pans and continue baking for 10 more minutes, or until golden and firm. Cool to room temperature on the baking sheets and serve. You can also make these ahead and freeze them.

 

-- From King Solomon’s Table by Joan Nathan

Per cookie: 235 calories, 8 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 7 milligrams cholesterol, 10 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.

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