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By Matthew DeBord
For many Jews, Passover isn't just a religious holiday -- it's also a culinary celebration. Depending on family traditions, however, the food served at Passover, though rich in symbolic associations, isn't always a festival of flavor.
Gefilte fish and matzo balls don't usually set palates on fire, but that doesn't mean plenty of chefs aren't willing to play around with Passover staples. For some, Passover is viewed as an opportunity to improvise on some true standbys.
There are basically two strains of Passover cooking, both of which can be kosher or non-kosher, depending on how fastidious home or professional kitchens are. (For food to be kosher, it must be prepared according to strict Jewish dietary laws.)
In America, Passover menus are either of Ashkenazic or Sephardic lineage. Ashkenazic Passovers are more familiar to American Jews, many of whom can trace their families back to Eastern and Central Europe. Sephardic Passovers derive from an Iberian/North African/Middle Eastern tradition.
The common denominator is symbolic food, drawn from the classic seder-plate inclusions: unleavened bread (matzo), bitter herbs (usually horseradish or romaine lettuce), haroset (a fruit, nut, wine and spice mixture), a green vegetable (parsley, celery, watercress), roasted or boiled meat (generally a lamb shankbone) and an egg (roasted or boiled). Each of these elements represents an aspect of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
Around the country, a number of chefs already serve Passover dinners. Often consisting of a traditional seder followed by a multicourse meal, these menus range across the Ashkenazic and Sephardic ingredient list.
At Chef Allen's in Aventura, Fla., Allen Susser transforms red snapper into gefilte fish, makes matzo pasta and tops everything off with a matzo baklava.
At Brasserie Perrier in Philadelphia, chef Chris Scarduzio whips up a lamb shank in red wine sauce (kosher, of course) and offers a side of ultratraditional potato kugel, as well as a selection of kosher wines.
Peter Hoffman of Savoy in New York continues his longstanding Passover tradition of serving up Sephardic dishes for the entire week. He can get pretty exotic: wood-grilled chicken livers with spicy carrots share space with an Indian-inflected coconut-milk fish stew; a mussel pilaf is preceded by wood-roasted red peppers with preserved lemons.
At Levana, a New York kosher restaurant, dietary observances are commingled with snazzy presentation. The gefilte fish, made from whitefish and salmon, gets a dill-and-leek wrapping and a horseradish sauce. Cornish hen is stuffed with chicken, veal and potatoes. For dessert, there's a terrine of Belgian chocolate with mocha sauce.
Sometimes, cross-cultural encounters yield new recipes. At New York's Union Square Café, chef Michael Romano says that when owner Danny Meyer ("a good Jewish boy") and he ("a good Italian boy") got together, the result was matzo polenta.
All of which got us thinking: If chefs can experiment with the Passover feast, could they also improvise on the seder plate?
"The seder plate is set in stone," said Azrum Kirschenbaum, Levana's owner. "You really can't do much. Bitter herb is bitter herb. Shankbone is shankbone."
Savoy's Hoffman was equally stern: "The seder plate doesn't get messed with. You're telling a story, so it's not a place for interpretation." That said, he has made a few tweaks, substituting cilantro for parsley and replacing the old-school Ashkenazic apples-and-walnuts haroset with a Middle Eastern date-nut combination.
Undaunted, we ran the challenge past an expert. "There is some room to maneuver," said Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, director of adult services at San Francisco's Jewish Community Center.
Haroset, for example, can be very different, depending on local traditions. "We've actually conducted 'haroset-offs,'" he said. "You know, taste tests, to compare versions."
What about the egg? "Well, it must be an egg from a kosher bird, so a duck or goose egg should be OK." He then explained that he had heard of wasabi being substituted for horseradish in Japan, as well as tofu for the shankbone at vegetarian seders.
Armed with this knowledge, we got some chefs on the phone.
"I can think of a million things," said Michel Nischan of New York's Heartbeat. He argued for a grilled matzo flatbread that would come out soft, not crispy, and that could be used to spoon up a haroset of Asian pears, pecans and an Indian spice blend. In place of a chicken egg, he opted for a quail egg.
Laura Frankel, who owns Shallots kosher restaurants in Chicago and New York, was ahead of the curve. She makes her haroset from dates, dried figs and apricots, then rolls them into balls. Her horseradish must be freshly ground, and she infuses her boiled eggs with tea to given them a marbled look.
"Judaism evolves," says Isaak-Shapiro. And so, it appears, does the seder.
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