The expansive nature of the Passover seder gathering can present a fantastic opportunity to use food to bring together the different elements that are part of each family's history.
Since Jews have spread to all parts of the world, dishes that may be traditional at Passover for many families often take on regional characteristics that can make the meal downright exotic, says Jewish cooking expert Joan Nathan, author most recently of "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous."
For instance, during her seder Nathan serves several varieties of haroset, a mixture of sweet fruits and nuts that is meant to symbolize the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build for their masters.
She always includes two versions of a traditional Eastern European haroset made of apples, walnuts, cinnamon and wine to celebrate her and her husband's heritage. But then Nathan offers versions of the dish from other regions, such as a Venetian variation based on chestnut paste, dates, dried figs and nuts.
Nathan also always includes a course of gefilte fish, a minced fish quenelle, which she prepares from her mother-in-law's family recipe.
When it comes to the main course, Nathan plans to include an Algerian-style beef cheek stew with cilantro and cumin that she discovered from a friend in Paris. One benefit of this exotic stew is that it is meant to be made a day ahead, then reheated. This not only improves flavor, but also frees up the host during dinner prep.
The low and slow cooking results in an incredibly tender meat with tons of flavor. It also is a particularly versatile recipe. If you have trouble finding beef cheeks, use beef or veal shanks, beef stew meat or flanken, a cut of beef from the same area as short ribs.
Besides the central seder plate and absence of leavened breads and other grains, there really are few rules about what the menu should be. Given the timing of the holiday, why not make the meal a celebration of spring foods?
The seder also has inspired many creative approaches to baking. Below, a flourless carrot dessert from Nathan has a beautiful pale orange color and is perfect for Passover. Traditionally, it would not be served with a topping (especially at a seder), but could be lightly sprinkled with some chopped hazelnuts for garnish.
>Beef Cheek Stew with Cilantro and Cumin
5 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
3 large yellow onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 pounds beef cheeks, beef or veal shanks, beef stew meat or flanken, cut into 2 pieces
2 bay leaves
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon cumin
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
2 cups chicken broth
In a large skillet with a cover or a large Dutch oven over medium, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil. Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer the onions and garlic to a plate and set aside.
Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the pan and increase heat to medium-high. Add the meat and brown on all sides.
Return the onions and garlic to the pan. Stir in the bay leaves, salt, pepper, cumin and all but 2 tablespoons of the cilantro. Pour the chicken broth over the meat. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Remove the pan from the heat, let cool, then remove the meat with a slotted spoon and cut into 1-inch cubes.
Return the meat to the pan, cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove any fat that has accumulated and reheat the stew over low, adjusting the seasonings if necessary. Serve topped with the reserved fresh cilantro.
Start to finish: 2 hours 15 minutes, plus overnight in the refrigerator (15 minutes active) Serves four.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 608 calories; 357 calories from fat (59 percent of total calories); 41 g fat (11 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 100 mg cholesterol; 12 g carbohydrate; 48 g protein; 2 g fiber; 666 mg sodium.
(Recipe from Joan Nathan's "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous," Knopf, 2010)
>Passover Carrot Torte
7 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
5 large carrots, peeled and grated (about 2 1/2 cups grated)
1 1/2 cups finely ground hazelnuts or almonds
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 10-inch springform pan with cooking spray.
Separate 5 of the eggs into yolks and whites. Set aside the whites. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the 5 eggs yolks with the 2 remaining whole eggs. Add 1 cup of the sugar, the cinnamon, salt, vanilla and the lemon zest and juice. Mix in the carrots and hazelnuts or almonds.
In a clean bowl and using a clean whisk attachment, use an electric mixer to beat the 5 egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the 2 tablespoons of sugar once the whites are foamy. Working in batches, gently fold the whites into the carrot batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a wooden skewer or cake tester inserted at the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool for at least 1 hour before unmolding.
Start to finish: 2 hours 5 minutes, including 1 hour cooling time (15 minutes active). Serves 10.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 189 calories; 91 calories from fat (48 percent of total calories); 10 g fat (2 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 151 mg cholesterol; 23 g carbohydrate; 6 g protein; 2 g fiber; 118 mg sodium.(Recipe from Joan Nathan's "Quiches, Kugels and Couscous," Knopf, 2010)