Every culture has culinary rituals to herald the arrival of spring and celebrate the abundance and renewal of the season.
For Jews that is the holiday of Passover, also known as the festival of spring, which begins each year with a festive meal on the first full moon following the vernal equinox - March 25 this year.
Family and friends gather to read, sing, and eat traditional and symbolic foods to recount the exodus from Egypt, the move from slavery to freedom.
The dietary dictates of Passover have spawned a huge market of mixes, boxed, packaged, and prepared "kosher for Passover" goods. Matzo alone is a $130 million-dollar-a-year industry. But there is no need to include these processed, premade foods in the celebration, especially if they are avoided the rest of the year.
In an effort to find the joy of the season, it's best to focus on all the fresh and flavorful foods available during Passover, instead of trying to replace what is off limits with processed substitutes.
It's not as hard to avoid eating bread, noodles, or peanut butter for one week if you have hash-brown pancakes with sauteed spinach and a fried egg for breakfast; tuna, feta, olive, and cucumber salad with tomato soup for lunch; and a stuffed chicken breast with sweet potato fries, roasted asparagus, and a chopped salad for dinner.
A little planning goes a long way.
Enjoying breakfast and lunch without bread for toast or sandwiches requires the most planning.
While matzo, sliced cheese, and jam is a fine way to start the day, you could do more to enliven and fortify a busy morning. Add frozen and fresh fruit smoothies; veggie- and potato-filled omelets and frittatas; warm quinoa with toasted nuts and maple syrup; corned beef or smoked salmon "hash" with potatoes and peppers; yogurt fruit parfaits.
Since finding Passover-friendly meals out of the house can often be a particular challenge, having a plan for packed lunches helps. A bell pepper makes a fine container for tuna, salmon, or egg salad, and can be eaten out of hand much like a sandwich. Hard-boiled or deviled eggs travel well. Children and adults will appreciate small kebabs of cheese or meat cubes, alternating with grapes or peppers. Sliced meat can be rolled up to pack as finger food, to be eaten alongside or atop a green salad.
Roasted carrots, beets, butternut squash, and cauliflower are savory and filling eaten warm or cold, dressed in vinaigrette. Why not pack yourself celery sticks filled with goat cheese and topped with chopped almonds? Quinoa, which is actually a vegetable in the beet family, rather than a grain, makes a pilaf or salad.
Mixed nuts, dried fruit, and pieces of chocolate are a great midday pick-me-up.
Dinners seem the most straightforward, with grilled, pan-seared, fried, or broiled meat and fish the easiest center-of-the-plate dishes to offer. A chicken or roast of lamb can be cooked alongside chopped onions and root vegetables or potatoes for an easy one-dish meal.
Leftovers of these roasts make great additions for lunch, or in a casserole topped with mashed potatoes.
Twice-baked potatoes with chopped broccoli and cheddar cheese make a fine simple dinner, and well-oiled grated potatoes layer nicely as a crust for a vegetable pie.
Skewered kebabs of salmon, beef, lamb, or chicken alternated with colorful vegetables cook quickly, and make a midweek meal feel festive.
Most vegetarians and vegans adopt the traditions of Sephardic Jews for whom legumes and rice are permitted during Passover.
When it comes to desserts, flour and grain deprivation is almost a nonissue.
Finely ground nuts make for fine flourless chocolate, orange, or ginger cakes. One can feast on all manner of meringues and pavlovas.
But fresh, dried, or poached fruit is also a welcome treat during a week of heavy and rich foods.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
4 whole chicken breasts, skin on
Juice of 2 lemons (grate rind first, see below)
1 small onion, minced fine
6 scallions, minced fine
3 cloves of garlic, minced fine
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 large bunch of fresh spinach, stemmed, washed well and sliced thin, (or 1 thawed bag frozen chopped spinach)
1 bunch dill, minced
1 to 2 teaspoons Aleppo or other hot pepper flakes
1/2 cup matzo crumbs or matzo meal
Grated rind of two lemons
Salt, pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chicken stock
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Using a sharp boning knife, carefully slice along the breastbone of the chicken and remove the individual breasts from the bone. You will be left with 8 breasts with the skin on. (A butcher will be happy to oblige you in this task). Carefully loosen the skin from the flesh with your finger or a knife. Pour the lemon juice over the chicken, toss to coat. Set aside.
3. In a medium pan, heat the oil and add the onion. Cook until browned and caramelized, stirring often. Add the scallions and garlic and cook one minute more, stirring often. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the spinach. Cook briefly, stirring, until spinach is wilted. Turn off the heat. Turn this mixture onto a cutting board (or into a food processor).
4. With a large knife chop until spinach and onions bits are small. (If using a processor pulse two or three times). Add the dill, red pepper flakes, and matzo crumbs with the lemon zest, and season well with salt and peppers. Taste and adjust seasoning. The mixture should taste a bit salty and peppery, as it must season the chicken during cooking. The mixture should just be moist - not soggy.
5. Divide the filling evenly among the breasts and carefully stuff each breast under the skin. Tuck the breasts snugly into a baking pan, sprinkle skin well with salt and pepper. Pour chicken stock into the bottom of the pan.
5. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the meat reads 160 degrees. If the skin isn't well-browned, place the pan under a hot broiler for a few minutes to crisp the skin and brown evenly. Allow chicken to sit for at least 10 minutes. Cut each breast into 4 or 5 slices, taking care to retain the integrity of the filling. It is easiest to slice skin side down on a cutting board. If serving the next day, remove from the refrigerator one hour before serving to allow the dish to come to room temperature.
Per serving (based on 10): 234 calories, 32 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 8 grams fat, 78 milligrams cholesterol, 927 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Mediterranean Salmon Kabobs
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound salmon filet and/or bluefish, skinned and cut into 1-inch cubes
40-50 pieces of a mixture of chopped vegetables (choose from red, yellow, and green peppers, fennel, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, onion, mushrooms - use whole or halved)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup pitted mixed olives
3 to 5 fresh basil leaves or mint leaves, minced
1. Soak 4 to 12 wooden skewers (depending on size) in water for at least 10 minutes to keep them from burning under the broiler. Preheat broiler.
2. Alternate cubes of fish with vegetables on each skewer, leaving at least 11/2 inches on one end to handle. Place on a broiler pan or cookie sheet, brush with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and fresh-ground pepper.
3. Place kabobs under the broiler for 3 to 6 minutes per side until well browned. Pour lemon juice evenly over the kebobs and serve garnished with mixed olives and and basil or mint.
Per serving (based on 6): 228 calories, 18 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 16 grams fat, 48 milligrams cholesterol, 344 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Easy Chocolate Almond Cake
Makes 8 servings
10 ounces dark chocolate, cut into pieces
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup strong espresso
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup almond flour or ground almonds
Butter and matzo meal or matzo cake meal for preparing cake pan
Optional toppings: fresh fruit, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, or candied orange peel
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare a 9-inch cake pan, or 6 to 8 ramekins, by buttering the bottoms and sides, lining the bottom with a circle of parchment cut to fit, and dusting the buttered sides with matzo flour or meal. You could also bake these in muffin pans lined with paper baking cups.
2. Melt the chocolate with the butter in a metal bowl over a pan of simmering water. Add the espresso and sugar and stir until combined. Remove from heat and add the eggs one at a time until well blended. Stir in the almond flour.
3. Bake in prepared pans until the sides of the cake look firm but the center sill appears soft. The will take about 35 minutes for a cake pan, or 12 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the individual-serving pans you use.
4. Allow cake(s) to cool fully. Place a flat plate to cover the pan and invert. The cake should drop from the cake pan onto the plate.
5. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream and/or fresh berries, or drizzle with warm chocolate sauce and candied orange peel (or any combination of toppings).
Per serving: 449 calories, 10 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 27 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 163 milligrams cholesterol, 168 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.