Like skilled novelists, Jewish cooks miss no opportunity for symbolism.
Think of Chanukah latkes sizzling in oil or Purim’s hamantashen, a filled cookie that’s a metaphor for a story within a story about a queen who married under false pretenses and revealed her secret to save her people.
Among Jewish holidays, Passover is the most abundant in symbols, which are turned into ingredients that are chopped, braised and baked into dishes such as matzoh farfel, vegetables as green as spring, and pastries puffed with eggs.
These symbols start on the seder plate, where clues to the story about Pharaoh and Moses, bondage and freedom are brought to life. Jews at the seder taste in maror (bitter herbs) the harshness of slavery; in charoset (a mixture of nuts and fruit) the mortar our enslaved ancestors made into bricks for Egyptian pyramids; in matzoh, the bread of affliction; and in karpas (a green herb or leaf), the new growth of the season. The roasted egg represents the cycle of life, mourning, and rebirth.
Once the seder service concludes and the ceremonial plate is removed, guests often lose their awareness of these vibrant symbols while they partake in a sumptuous meal.
"The Passover story becomes a part of us when we eat symbolic foods," says Jayne Cohen, a food writer and the author of "Jewish Holiday Cooking," just published by John Wiley and Sons. "In the Haggadah, we read that every person should experience the Exodus personally. What better way to do so than to eat foods that symbolize what happened to our ancestors in Egypt?"
Cohen’s new cookbook not only offers celebration ideas and menus but also presents sophisticated recipes that are contemporary and essentially Jewish.
"When I taste something I like, I ask how can I make this into a Jewish recipe," she says.
After trying salted caramels, she duplicated the contrast of sweet and salty by creating "Caramelized Apple Matzo Brie."
"My aim in writing this cookbook was to develop specifically Jewish foods and to imbue them with a holiday’s symbolic attributes," she says. "I’m interested in the story of foods, so that’s why symbolism fascinates me."
Conveying the misery of the Israelites’ slavery, bitter herbs vary from place to place and even family to family. Ashkenazim favor freshly ground or sliced fresh horseradish root, bottled horseradish, or romaine lettuce. Sephardim prefer bitter greens such as endive, escarole, chicory, sorrel, arugula, dandelion, or watercress.
"Gnarled horseradish root in its native state may look positively prehistoric, but it was not the original maror, bitter herb, of the ancients," Cohen says. "Biblical scholars surmise that greens like chicory, dandelion, sorrel, and hyssop, which grow wild in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, first symbolized the bitterness of bondage at seders."
For dinner, her "Salad of Bitter Herbs and Oranges" offers a tart contrast to a rich brisket or braised lamb.
Cohen explains that throughout the diaspora, Jews have created rituals to concretize the story of the Exodus. Iranian and Afghani Jews bring home the themes of oppression, freedom, and redemption by beating each other with leeks on their backs and shoulders as they sing the refrain of "Dayenu."
Many Ashkenazi families have adopted this custom a symbol of the slave masters’ whips and a potent reminder to appreciate our freedom.
With the exception of matzoh, charoset is the only food displayed on the seder plate that is consumed in its original state during Passover’s eight days. Reminiscent of some Sephardic charoset, Cohen’s recipe, originally developed for Food and Wine magazine, is a medley of walnuts and chopped dried fruit rolled into balls and placed on apricot halves before being topped with an almond.
This presentation makes the charoset an accessible snack during the seder and throughout the holiday.
The evocative roasted egg recalls the festival offerings brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and reinforces our sense of loss at the Temple’s destruction. It also stands for life’s mysteries and rebirth in the spring.
Many Sephardim enjoy eggs long simmered with onions and coffee grinds. Cohen’s delicious "Chopped Eggs and Onions" recipe originated with her grandmother and substitutes for the customary Ashkenazi hard-boiled eggs in saltwater. Made with both sauteed and raw onions, it is served in soft green leaves, a symbol of karpas and the green of spring.
"I first ate eggs in saltwater at a boyfriend’s seder when I was 17," Cohen recalls. "They tasted like a picnic ruined by high tide."
Cohen suggests trying boiled eggs in salty water at another season chances are you will agree with her assessment.
Foods from the seder plate often fade after the ceremonial part of the meal ends, Cohen says.
"Cooking symbolic ingredients into recipes becomes a way to discuss them once the Haggadah is closed," she says. "The roasted egg in particular is rarely mentioned. We need to figure out a way to thread back to the ceremonial plate, making it relevant."
Cohen suggests engaging the children by explaining the meaning behind the foods. Tell them the spinach salad represents spring; the matzoh kugel reminds us of the bread our ancestors made in great haste as they fled Pharaoh’s tyranny.
"When I was a child, my grandmother made enticing foods at holidays, things especially for me, which I loved," Cohen says. "She whipped up an extra batch of golf ball-sized matzoh balls for me to nibble, as I readied the plate of ceremonial foods used in telling the Passover story.
"Cuisine connects us to our past, and encoded in our recipes we find our family story and history. Jewish food is not just something to eat at celebrations it defines who we are."
Recipes from "Jewish Holiday Cooking" follow.
Tangy Charoset Bites
1 cup walnuts
1/’ cup black raisins
1/’ cup dried, pitted dates (choose a soft variety like Medjool), coarsely chopped
1 1/’ heaping tbsp. dried tart cherries or cranberries
1/4 cup unsweetened purple grape juice or kosher sweet Concord wine
‘ tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
30 to 35 almonds
30 to 35 tart dried apricots, plumped in very hot water until softened and patted dry with paper towels
1. Preheat oven to 350. Spread the nuts out in a single layer in a baking pan and toast them, shaking the pan occasionally, until the nuts are fragrant and lightly toasted, 10 to 1′ minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.
‘. Put the raisins, dates, and cherries or cranberries in a bowl. Stir in the grape juice or wine, lemon juice, and cinnamon. Let the fruit macerate for at least 15 minutes.
3. When the nuts are cool, set the almonds aside and place the walnuts in a food processor. Using the steel blade, pulse on and off until the walnuts are coarsely chopped.
4. Add the macerated fruit and any liquid remaining in the bowl to the food processor. Pulse on and off until the mixture is a coarse paste. Transfer to a bowl and chill so that mixture will be easier to roll. (The charoset tastes best if flavors are allowed to mingle for several hours.)
5. Form heaping teaspoons of the mixture into balls and place each on a softened apricot half. Press an almond into each ball at a jaunty angle. Yield: about 8 servings.
Chopped Eggs And Onions
3 to 5 tbsp. best-quality olive or avocado oil, perhaps a bit more
1/’ cup thinly sliced onions, plus 1/’ cup finely chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 hard-boiled large eggs, peeled and cut into eighths
1. Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a medium skillet; add the sliced onions. Saut? over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until rich golden brown. Salt and pepper lightly and remove from the heat to cool.
‘. Scrape the saut?ed onion and all the oil remaining in the skillet into a wooden bowl and chop coarsely. Add the eggs and raw onion, and continue to chop until the mixture is well blended but not pasty. Mix in salt and lots of pepper as you chop or blend in the seasonings afterward with a fork. The mixture should hold together loosely; you will probably need to add a bit more oil. Chill well, but remove from the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before serving. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Salad Of Bitter Herbs And Oranges
For the dressing:
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
‘ tbsp. minced shallot
1 1/’ tbsp. chopped fresh thyme
‘ tsp. grated orange zest
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
1′ to 14 cups mixed greens (choose 3 or more of the following: arugula, sorrel, watercress, Belgian endive, romaine, radicchio)
1/’ cup thinly sliced radishes
4 to 6 thinly sliced scallions (use white and pale green parts)
1/’ cup snipped fresh dill
‘ blood or navel oranges, peeled and white pith removed, quartered lengthwise and sliced widthwise
1. Make the dressing: Combine the lemon juice, shallot, thyme and zest in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil. Season with salt and pepper.
‘. Place the greens in a large bowl. Top with the radishes, scallions, and dill. Toss with enough dressing to coat. Add the oranges and toss again. Yield: 8 servings.