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I was part of a fascinating conversation on Facebook recently, in which an American Jewish friend made a disparaging comment about gefilte fish. Lots of other Americans piled on with the disgust toward these unappetising jarred fish balls floating in gloopy liquid. One person even revealed a childhood with canned gefilte fish, even more questionable than the giant jars. But something funny happened in this thread – both of the British Jews who responded had very different memories of gefilte fish; positive memories of a tasty dish, much looked forward to on special occasions. I have always loved these light fish balls, and during the period that I lived abroad, it went without saying that when I came home for a visit, my mum would cook me gefilte fish as a welcome home treat. I don’t know if there is a transatlantic difference here (obviously it was a pretty small sample and I’ve already encountered one American friend who actually likes the stuff in the jar) but the discussion prompted me to look out our family gefilte fish recipe for Passover. Read the rest of this entry »

When I visited Ukraine last summer, I found the food to be mostly ho hum: some nice soups and dumplings, but nothing really memorable. The exception was an amazing meal at a Georgian restaurant that I took my friends on a rather extensive tour of Kiev to find. By the time we were passing the crumbling abandoned parking lot part of town, I think some of them were rethinking their committment to food discovery, but hey, I got to test out my crappy high school Russian asking directions. And besides, don’t the best meals always require getting lost in a strange city? So, we found the restaurant eventually, and were confronted by an extensive and mostly incomprehensible menu. They kind of had an English version, but many of the translations were less than helpful and the place wasn’t really set up for tourists. Nonetheless, the meal was fantastic: kidney bean with walnut sauce, khachapuri, which is delicious cheese-stuffed bread, aubergine salad with fresh cheese, and a range of succulent grilled meats. Unlike the Ukrainian food, which was too plain for my tastes, Georgian cuisine has strong echoes of Persia and Turkey, with its use of nuts, vinegar, fruit and spices. My favourite plate was pork stuffed with pomegranate, garlic and onion and served with a thick pomegranate sauce. Everyone at the table kept going back to the jug of that sauce, pouring it over everything. Even almost a year later, I still remember it clearly.

So, when I was thinking about what to cook for Passover, those Georgian flavours came to mind as an appealing alternative to traditional East European fare. Obviously pork was out and pomegranate somehow didn’t seem a great match for brisket, so I decided on lamb shanks. I don’t know exactly what was in the restaurant version but I remembered the flavours pretty well and, after reading a few other Georgian recipes (for example in Claudia Roden’s book The Book of Jewish Food and online) and some blog posts on the cuisine, I put together my own version of the dish. If anyone has a more authentic version, I’d be happy to hear about it, but this version came out pretty well for a first attempt.

Pomegranate braised lamb shanks

  • 6 lamb shanks
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 and 1/2 tbsp hot paprika
  • 1/2 tbsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp fenugreek seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds, ground
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 2 cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
  • 1 cup red wine
  • a head of garlic, cloves separated and lightly crushed
  • seeds of 1/2 a pomegranate

Heat the oven to gas mark 4/350 F/180 C. Mix the coriander, paprikas, fenugreek, cumin and salt with the oil to make a paste and rub it all over the shanks. Leave to marinade for a couple of hours. Next, brown the shanks all over in a large ovenproof pot, using plenty of oil and being very careful not to burn the spices. Remove the meat to a plate.

In the same pot, sauté the onions until they are very soft and beginning to brown. Add the garlic cloves and fry for a minute till fragrant. Add the shanks back into the pot and pour in the pomegranate juice and wine. The liquid should come quite far up the meat but there should be room for more liquid, as the shanks will give out quite a bit of fat. Cover and put in the oven for 3 to 3 and 1/2 hours, turning occasionally.

Once cooked, put the shanks and liquid in separate containers and refrigerate overnight. (You don’t have to do this stage, but it does give the opportunity to remove a lot of the fat and makes the sauce better.) The next day, skim the solidified fat off the surface of the sauce and reduce it by about two thirds over high heat. You’ll know it’s done when it becomes glossy and thickens a little. Heat the shanks up in the sauce, turning often. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.

Serves 6

Passover is one of my favourite holidays. I have happy memories of seders in Providence, New York and Iowa City, usually potluck affairs with assorted impoverished grad students and Jewish and non-Jewish waifs and strays. The evenings would be full of last minute discussions about the charoset recipe, culinary innovations both successful and not so successful (I’m not sure I’ll be having gefilte fish sushi again), and drunken debate over what comes next and how we might render the text less patriarchal, heterocentrist and Zionist. I love the particular challenges of cooking for Passover – in cooking, as in many other fields, restriction leads to creativity – but I’m also not religious and don’t especially mind if a few rules get broken here and there. At one memorable seder, a gentile friend brought pasta with ham, shrimp and cream, the most hilariously inappropriate dish imaginable and also delicious. This culinary mixture represents my attraction to the holiday: for all the conservative and religious aspects that chafe in the traditional seder, it’s a holiday that centres exactly that debate. What do oppression and freedom mean for Jews today? Who is included or not included and what part do we play? And how can we engage all of those ideas in the form of food?

So I was thrilled this year to discover the Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah, a progressive, activist and queer-inclusive text for the Pesach seder. It’s a sometimes hilarious lefty manual for the seder, inserting the oppression of the US government and the IMF into the explanation of matzah and replacing the traditional four children with new characters like the trans child. But funny as it is to read this critical theory/haggadah mashup, it’s also kind of great. It suggested an orange on the seder plate to represent the fruitfulness for all when lesbians and gay Jews are included, and rewrote the Kiddush to say, “This year, we drink to the people around the world who have taken to the streets, the buildings, the cities in prostest of unjust, racist and classist wars.” It suggested we share stories of active resistance that we had participated in or been inspired by over the past year, and we did. By focusing on activism, inclusivity and social justice, the haggadah provided a map for exactly the kind of engaged conversation that make the Passover seder a meaningful ritual even for an atheist Jew like me.

As in the seder, so in this post I’m taking forever to get to the food. It’s the way of Passover…there’s a lot of talking and drinking before anybody gets to eat anything, so you have to prepare food that won’t be harmed by sitting around in the kitchen for a couple of hours. Luckily, everyone’s so hungry and drunk by the time it arrives, that it always tastes good. So what did we eat? Well, in the spirit of inclusivity and as a result of recipes gleaned from a range of sources over the years, it’s a glorious hodge-podge of different culinary traditions. We had cinnamon and allspice flavoured chard pancakes, a recipe I read years ago in Bon Appetit magazine and which has become one of my Passover standards.

My friend A brought an Italian charoset, redolent of oranges as well as rich with dates. Charoset is one of my favourite things to eat and every year I wonder why I don’t make it year round. This was an especially good version, sweet and jammy.

From Claudia Roden’s invaluable Book of Jewish Food, I made Georgian hake with walnut and tamarind sauce. There was a bit of a Central Asian theme to some of my dishes, and Roden has a great introduction to the foodways of the Georgian Jewish community.

For the meat-eaters, there was Georgian lamb shanks braised in pomegranate and wine. I’m going to post the recipe for this dish separately, as it’s the only one I invented myself for the night.

Closer to my own East-European Ashkenazi background, there was cauliflower and leek kugel, a surprisingly light dish with heaps of dill and parsley.

I also made a red cabbage salad and harissa flavoured quinoa, which you can learn how to cook from wackjob filmmaker David Lynch if you’d like. Technically a grass, quinoa is completely acceptable for passover and makes a nutty alternative to rice or couscous at any time of year. We finished the meal with a decadent flourless chocolate cake, also made by A and the highly addictive caramel chocolate matzah that I make every year. It was a great evening of food, new and old friends, and political debate. As the haggadah says, “May we all live next year in a world of justice and peace. May we all work together to build that world.” Happy Pesach!

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