"When I think of Passover, two things come to mind: many bowls of matzo ball soup and those great cardboard-esque macaroons from a canister," says chef Michael Solomonov, reminiscing about his childhood holidays. "Those macaroons were the move."
You won't find said canister macaroons at Solomonov's Philadelphia restaurants, as he is one of the country's most recognizable and successful purveyors of fresh, modern Israeli cuisine. But he does understand that, when celebrating a meal as steeped in tradition as a Passover Seder, families come to expect certain dishes and flavors. The thought of deviating from your typical menu of brisket or roast chicken is daunting, and after making the obligatory Seder plate, your grandmother's famous chicken livers and a heaping potato kugel, inspiration for a revamped main dish may be scant.
To update the classic Passover menu without upsetting your tradition-loving in-laws, Solomonov recommends looking to his homeland. "The expansive diversity in Israeli cooking is something to be celebrated. The rich history and culture means so much to so many. It's such a special thing." He celebrates the pan–Middle Eastern flavors of Israel in his restaurants Zahav and Dizengoff, and through the recipes of his cookbook, also titled Zahav.
With Passover falling in the warmer days of late April, it's worth experimenting with a lighter, fresher dish for this year's celebration. Grilled branzino fillets with chickpea stew, a recipe from the cookbook, summon the quintessence of the coastal country. "This recipe is a simple-to-prepare dish that marries that smoky and bright branzino with the slow-cooked flavors of a Persian stew," Solomonov explains. "Branzino is a Mediterranean fish that, when grilled, almost becomes meaty, making it a great main." Plus, the dish is kosher for Passover.
With a searing-hot grill and a little patience, the branzino cooks in less than five minutes. "We let the fish cook most of the way skin-side down to achieve that extra-crispy and salty, potato chip–like skin," Solomonov says.
Both accompaniments to the dish can be made in advance. The fava-labneh puree is rich; Solomonov describes it as half sauce, half dip. If you don't have access to labneh, Solomonov recommends adding a teaspoon of salt to a cup of Greek yogurt. After sitting in a strainer to drain overnight, the yogurt becomes creamier and richer in flavor.
The chickpea stew calls for green, fresh chickpeas, but dried or canned chickpeas or even frozen English peas will suffice. The stew is hearty yet invigorating, he says, with "a fresh fava element, lemon, dill and dried lime, all bright flavors to be had in the warmer weather when sharing in a holiday meal."
The influence of the Holy Land also makes its way into Solomonov's wine programs. At Zahav, an entire section of the list is dedicated to Israeli wines and many also meet kosher standards. Brian Kane, sommelier and general manager at Solomonov's Jewish-American restaurant Abe Fischer, likes a Provence-style wine with this branzino dish. "Domaine Netofa from Galilee in Israel makes a dry rosé made from Mourvèdre and Syrah [with] notes of watermelon and subtle cherry, with high acid but still appropriately dry, a perfect complement to fish." Below, Wine Spectator recommends 16 kosher wines.
Grilled Branzino Fillets With Chickpea StewRecipe excerpted from ZAHAV © 2015 by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Reproduced by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
For the chickpea stew:
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1/2 cup diced peeled carrot
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 whole dried lime
- 1 cup fresh chickpeas, or dried or canned chickpeas
- 2 cups fish fumet (a concentrated fish stock) or water
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
For the fava-labneh puree:
- 1/2 cup shelled fresh fava beans, boiled for 1 minute and peeled
- 1/2 cup labneh
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- Pinch ground mace
For the branzino:
- 2 large, skin-on branzino fillets (about 1/2 pound each), halved
- About 1 teaspoon kosher salt
To make the chickpea stew:
1. Warm 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet over medium heat and add the onion, carrot, garlic and turmeric. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables have softened but not begun to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the dried lime, chickpeas, fumet or water, and salt. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, cover and cook until the chickpeas are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
2. Transfer about one-quarter of the mixture to a blender, add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and puree until smooth. Stir back into the stew. Add the lemon juice and dill, and keep warm while you make the puree and grill the branzino.
To make the fava-labneh puree:
1. Puree the fava beans in a food processor. Put the labneh in a small bowl and fold in the fava beans. Stir in the salt and mace. Set aside.
To make the branzino:
1. Make sure your grill grates are clean, hot and well oiled. Season the branzino on both sides with the salt. Grill the branzino pieces skin-side down directly over hot coals until the skin is crisp and releases easily when you try to flip it, about 3 minutes. Be patient! Turn and cook flesh-side down until cooked through, just 1 or 2 minutes more.
2. To serve, spread the puree on a serving plate and top with the branzino. Spoon the chickpea stew on the side. Serves 4.
Recommended Kosher Wines
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good kosher red, white, rosé and sparkling wines from recently rated releases from Israel, California, Oregon and Spain. More recently rated kosher wines can be found here in our Wine Ratings Search.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY Gewürztraminer Galilee Yarden Heights Wine 2012
A fresh, pure sweetie, this shows notes of candied lychee, brown honey, marmalade and sweet spice, and a white floral note and vibrant acidity add nice balance and freshness through the finish. Kosher. Drink now. 500 cases made.
TABOR Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Limited Edition I/II.000 2011
A elegant, full-bodied red, this offers blackberry, currant and boysenberry notes, accented by charred herb and iron flavors. Supple tannins add good structure through the sweetly spicy, smoky finish. Kosher. Drink now. 917 cases made.
CARMEL Mediterranean Galilee 2010
Smooth tannins encase this mouthcoating red, sporting flavors of black cherry compote, plum preserves, herbs and sweet spice. A dusting of cocoa powder adds a touch of richness through the juicy finish. Kosher. Drink now. 800 cases made.
CITY WINERY NEW YORK Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Ein Sof Hyland Vineyard 2011
Lithe, with a sprinkling of crinkly tannins around a light but pulsing core of cherry and floral flavors, finishing with a wet, loamy note. Kosher. Drink now through 2019. 150 cases made.
ELVIWINES Rioja Herenza Crianza 2010
This red offers harmonious flavors of cherry, licorice, tea and spice, energized by fresh citrusy acidity and supported by light, well-integrated tannins. A traditional style. Kosher. Drink now through 2022. 1,250 cases made.
BARKAN Cabernet Sauvignon Galil Altitude +624 2009
Solid acidity lifts the dried red berry, cherry, herb and mineral flavors in this crisp red. Licorice and underlying mocha flavors add appeal through the floral and sweetly spicy finish. Kosher. Drink now through 2017. 921 cases made.
DOMAINE DU CASTEL Haute-Judée C Blanc du Castel 2013
This full-bodied white shows finesse, with apple cobbler, creamed pear and pastry flavors. Supple-textured, this concludes with a vanilla-, cream- and sweet spice–infused finish. Kosher. Drink now. 2,500 cases made.
CLOS MESORAH Montsant 2013
Leafy and tarry notes lend a pleasant savory complement to the cherry and red plum flavors in this firm red. The texture is supple but there's some density. Orange peel acidity keeps this focused. Cariñena, Garnacha and Syrah. Kosher. Drink now through 2020. 300 cases made.
COVENANT Chardonnay Sonoma Mountain Lavan 2013
Offers a graceful mix of baked apple, honeydew, spicy oak, tangerine and fig. Nothing fancy, but appealing for the direct fruity purity. Kosher. Drink now. 450 cases made.
DALTÔN Alma Galilee 2012
Fresh plum and blackberry fruit are well-matched to black pepper, smoke and mineral accents in this medium-bodied red. A crisp acidity and easy tannins provide solid structure through the herb-, mocha- and red berry–laced finish. Kosher. Drink now through 2018. 1,500 cases made.
GALIL MOUNTAIN Viognier Upper Galilee Yiron Vineyard 2014
Creamy-textured, this medium-bodied white shows notes of honeysuckle, peach and lemon preserves. Hints of sweet spice add appeal through the mineral and sweet grass finish. Kosher. Drink now. 1,000 cases made.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY Sauvignon Blanc Galilee Yarden 2014
Juicy grapefruit, lemon and white peach notes are encased in a supple texture in this fresh, medium-bodied white. The underlying mineral and grassy accents lead to a creamy, clean finish. Kosher. Drink now. 4,000 cases made.
PSAGOT Edom Judean Hills 2012
This supple red shows bright plum, dried berry and savory herb flavors. Spice and crisp mineral notes are highlighted by solid acidity, with tannins that ease through the dark cherry– and mocha-accented finish. Kosher. Drink now. 1,200 cases made.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee Yarden 2012
Red currant and briar notes are matched with dusty cocoa, cedar and smoky accents in this full-bodied red. A tangy, firm acidity cuts through mid-palate, revealing dried berry, spice and herb details on the finish. Kosher. Drink now. 15,000 cases made.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY Brut Rosé Galilee Yarden 2009
Chalky-textured, this has a firm acidity that highlights the raspberry, blanched-almond and smoky notes. Citrus and herbal accents highlight the finish. Kosher. Drink now. 800 cases made.
JACQUES CAPSOUTO Cotes de Galilee Village Cuvee Eva Rosé Galilee 2014
Delicate strawberry and raspberry notes mingle together in this fresh rose. A crisp minerality and subtle herbal notes lead to a lightly spiced finish. Kosher. Drink now. 360 cases made.