Time-honored recipes, new-wave updates for Passover

Julienne Salad, from "Passover by Design," is a light counterpoint to any heavy main meal, such as brisket.
Julienne Salad, from "Passover by Design," is a light counterpoint to any heavy main meal, such as brisket.
Posted: April 05, 2012

I grew up in a rural town where there were only two Jewish families and, although one of the boys was a close friend in high school, I never thought to ask him what he was eating instead of the tuna noodle casserole and other standbys we Catholics were consuming.

With age came diverse neighbors and brazen mooching at their tables, especially on holidays.

I've now been to a multitude of Passover seders and have heard for two types of food-related conversations there: ones about heirloom Jewish family recipes that commemorate the ancient Israelites' hasty flight from slavery in Egypt; and spirited debates about what is acceptable to eat on the holiday, which this year begins at sunset on Friday with the ritual seder dinner and continues for seven days.

The first type of banter leaves me feeling warm and fuzzy because the meal provokes strong emotional responses and memories of growing up in observant Jewish families.

The second kind of conversations, about what's right to eat, leave me confused but delighted that so much passion can be aimed at the acceptability of, say, a bottle of artisanal teriyaki sauce from the local farmer's market.

Debates about the dietary guidelines associated with Passover revolve mostly around the leavening issue. In a nutshell, anything that leavens - or rises - is off-limits in order to honor that ancient flight, so hasty that taking bread was impossible because it had no time to rise.

But as Brian Wolly wrote last year in his helpful blog post, "A Gentile's Guide to Keeping Kosher for Passover" in Smithsonian Magazine, what is and isn't acceptable to eat during Passover has become far from a cut-and-dried question due to regional cuisines and the prevalence of processed foods - among other things.

The desire to stick to the rules (however they are interpreted) while incorporating regional and modern takes on traditional recipes has led to the publication of many cookbooks. Blossoming also has been the field of Jewish cookbooks that contain recipes but are also genealogies and valuable historical tomes.

I've chosen one of each for my cookbook shelf.

Passover by Design by Susie Fishbein is part of a lavishly illustrated series produced by Brooklyn-based Mesorah Publications. The cookbook once in a while delves into personal anecdotes but mostly sticks to modernizing the traditional Passover meal with higher-style courses.

Rather than gathering handed-down recipes, Fishbein created and "borrowed" from new-wave kosher chefs new recipes that have a decidedly modern take.

For example, mustard, because it is made of mustard seeds, is banned during Passover. And the imitation mustard sold for the holiday doesn't taste anything like the "real thing." It has, she writes, a decidedly curryish flavor. A home cook cannot simply substitute it in a recipe that calls for mustard. The entire creation must be rethought.

Here, her simple but fresh Julienne Salad would be a counterpoint to any heavy main course - say, brisket - served for the seder.

Fishbein's Stuffed Veal Roast was also created with certified-for-Passover mustard in mind.

As its title suggests, Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes From the Rabinowitz Family, by Judy Bart Kancigor, is stuffed with every recipe (and rule) you'll ever need.

But it's much more than that.

Kancigor, who lives in Fullerton, Calif., combined the exploration and dissemination of her large extended family's cherished culinary traditions with a massive genealogy project.

In 1999, after considering that a generation of her relatives were dying and another was being born, Kancigor gathered her clan's recipes and stories and self-published 500 copies of a tome intended just for her family. Eventually, nonrelatives clamored for the book and she sold 11,000 copies before Workman Publishing offered her a contract to expand it.

After 4½ years of writing recipes, testing them, gathering family photography, meticulously building the huge family tree that precedes the recipes, and recording the stories behind them, the book was published.

No recipe from Kancigor's family comes without a lively tale in Cooking Jewish.

Here, the flourless Chocolate-Chip Mandelbrot from her Aunt Estelle bring to mind Kancigor's mother, who ate one every night. She died a year ago.

Kancigor's Salmon Gefilte Fish "Muffins" (adapted from a recipe by cookbook author Marlene Sorosky) arose from her desire to come up with something that children in the family who hated regular gefilte fish would accept.

Passover has always been Kancigor's favorite Jewish holiday.

And now Workman has excerpted her book into an e-book entitled The Perfect Passover Cookbook.

"It was a magical time" when she was growing up because her family celebrated Passover at a hotel in the Catskills. Her father, Jan Bart, was a cantor - he was a regular on the American Jewish Caravan of Stars radio show in the 1950s - and her mother, Lillian, was a contralto in the choir for the hotel's Passover seder for 850 people.

"How to describe the Catskills of the 1950s and '60s? Like a Jewish land cruise - the breeding ground for so many entertainers, glamorous, fun-packed..." Kancigor writes in Cooking Jewish.

It was "the buffet that never ended."

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