Passover is the Jewish holiday most centered around food.
Family and friends get together around the dinner table to tell the story of their ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. A number of foods with symbolic meanings are always present at the meals, including parsley dipped in saltwater to represent the tears shed, bitter herbs (usually horseradish) to represent the bitterness of the years of slavery and matzo as a reminder of the bread that did not have time to rise before the Jews fled for Israel.
After a long ceremony, partly involving these and other foods, dinner is served. And it is always a feast, not the least because everyone is hungry after sitting around so long before the dinner begins.
As “Fiddler on the Roof” pointed out, much of Judaism is rooted in tradition. For many families, that includes serving the same Passover dinner, year after year. It is what is expected. It is what is comfortable.
But there is no reason you can’t change things around a little.
On Passover, only one rule must be followed: In memory of the ancestors whose bread was baked before rising, no flour that could rise if mixed with water may be served. In practical terms, that means no wheat products or anything made with barley, oats, rye or spelt. Some Orthodox Jews also forgo beans, peas, rice and other foods that could be used to make bread.
So, while keeping this one rule in mind, you can break the chains of the culinary past and make the trek to the promised land of new culinary delights.
With that thought to guide me, I made four dishes appropriate for a Passover Seder, the ceremonial dinner held on the first and sometimes second nights of Passover. One of the dishes is traditionally part of the Seder ceremony, two are more familiar in other parts of the world than here and one is completely out of left field.
I started with the left-field one, which is the entree. Chicken is often part of the meal, but I decided to look for a brand-new take on it – at least, brand new to Passover. I opened my copy of Steve Raichlen’s “BBQ USA,” a great book but one not previously associated with religious holidays. In it, I found a recipe that absolutely grabbed me.
Cinnamon-Brined Chicken with Orange Cherry Barbecue Sauce is meant to be cooked on a grill or smoker, but I opted to take the easy route and cook it in the oven.
The result is ridiculously good, a chicken to remember. And because it has no connection to Passover whatsoever, it is certainly worth serving any day of the year.
You begin with a brine, which makes the chicken tender and juicy, but this version adds a couple of cinnamon sticks for a subtle jolt of flavor that is as welcome as it is unexpected. You roast the chicken in the oven until it is almost done, and then you paint it with a homemade orange cherry barbecue sauce. This is an intensely flavored sauce – its ingredients include cherry jam, orange marmalade, cloves and port wine – that would also go brilliantly with duck, turkey, pork, salmon or shrimp.
But try it on the cinnamon-brined chicken. It is sublime.
For the other three recipes, I turned to Joan Nathan, who is one of the country’s foremost authorities on Jewish cooking. In her “Jewish Holiday Cookbook,” I found a recipe for Greek Leek Patties, which are sort of like potato pancakes with leeks in them. And potatoes mixed with leeks is one of those perfect food combinations, like chocolate and bananas.
I cooked the patties the way Nathan recommends, but too many of them fell apart in the pan. So I added just enough matzo meal to hold together the mashed potatoes mixed with leeks, eggs and cheese. With the patties actually holding together, I fried them and they were amazing. They are also a dish that is worth serving any time of the year.
For a healthier vegetable side dish, I turned to a recipe for wilted spinach mixed with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, cumin and paprika. The cumin and paprika make this a Moroccan take on the familiar northern Mediterranean combination of spinach, olive oil, garlic and lemon. They take it to an entirely new level; entirely new and entirely delicious.
And yes, it could absolutely be served any day of the year.
Finally, I made one of Nathan’s takes on everyone’s favorite Passover standard, haroset. Always part of the Seder meal, haroset is a chopped mixture of apples and nuts, plus cinnamon, sugar and lemon.
Why was this haroset different from all other harosets? Well, to start with I used Gala apples, which are sweet. Walnuts are usually the nut of choice for haroset, because they go so well with apples, but I followed Nathan’s advice to use almonds, and I’m glad I did. And for the splash of red wine that lends body to the dish, I opted for port. I love the way its complexities brought out the best of the other ingredients, but mainly I used it because I already had it open for the chicken.
This was world-class haroset. But no, you can really only serve it for Passover.
Yield: 12 servings
4 Gala or McIntosh apples (2 pounds), peeled, cored, seeded and chopped
∏ cup chopped almonds
3 tablespoons granulated sugar, or to taste
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Grated zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons sweet wine (port is ideal)
Combine all the ingredients, mixing together thoroughly. Add a little more wine as needed. Chill before serving.
Per serving: 83 calories; 3 g fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 10 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 1 mg sodium; 21 mg calcium.
Adapted from “Jewish Holiday Cookbook” by Joan Nathan
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 large bags spinach, washed and cut in small pieces
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
Juice of 1 lemon
1. Cook the spinach in salted water just until wilted. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible; this is important. This entire step can be eliminated if you have a 14-inch skillet or larger.
2. In a skillet, sauté the garlic in the oil until golden. Add the spinach, cumin, paprika and salt to taste. Cook until wilted (if you skipped Step 1). Add the lemon juice.
Per serving: 79 calories; 7 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 3 g carbohydrate; no sugar; 1 g fiber; 41 mg sodium; 54 mg calcium.
Greek Leek Patties
Yield: 12 servings
2 pounds leeks
2 large boiling potatoes (not russets), peeled
3 large eggs, beaten
3 tablespoons matzo meal
½ cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Wash the leeks carefully, slicing them vertically to remove all of the grit. Dice the white base and the palest green part of the leaves. Parboil in salted water for 5 minutes. Drain.
2. Boil the potatoes until they are soft. Drain and cool. Using a potato masher or food processor, mash the potatoes. Add the leeks, blending them in well. Add the eggs, matzo meal, cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Form this mixture into 12 patties.
3. Pour oil ½-inch deep in a heavy frying pan. When the oil reaches 375 degrees, drop the patties into the oil, 2 or 3 per batch. Fry until golden brown on each side. Drain on paper towels.
Per serving: 119 calories; 4 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 51 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 16 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 87 mg sodium; 71 mg calcium.
Cinnamon-Brined Chicken With Orange Cherry Barbecue Sauce
Yield: 3 servings (from a 3-pound chicken) to 8 servings (6-pound chicken)
½ cup coarse salt, such as kosher, plus more for sauce
∏ cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 small onion, thinly sliced
3 thin lemon slices
3 cinnamon sticks (2 inches long), divided
1 whole chicken
1 medium orange
1 medium lemon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
½ cup cherry or sour cherry jam or preserves
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon port wine
¼ cup orange marmalade 1 tablespoon ketchup
2 teaspoons cornstarch
∂ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1. Brine the chicken for at least 2 hours, or preferably overnight. Do this in a Dutch oven, stockpot or extra-large resealable plastic bag: Add 1 gallon (4 quarts) cool water to ½ cup coarse salt and the brown sugar, and whisk until dissolved. Add the onion slices, lemon slices and 2 of the cinnamon sticks, and submerge the chicken. Refrigerate for 2 or 3 hours, or up to 24 hours.
2. While the chicken is in the brine, make the barbecue sauce. With a vegetable peeler, remove 2 strips of zest from the orange and 2 strips of zest from the lemon. Squeeze the orange and lemon and strain the juice into a medium-size nonreactive saucepan. Add the strips of zest, the remaining cinnamon stick, cloves, cherry jam and stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and let the mixture simmer until the jam dissolves and the mixture is reduced by a quarter, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard the zests and the cinnamon stick.
3. Add ½ cup of the port, the orange marmalade and ketchup and simmer until the marmalade is dissolved and the sauce is richly flavored, about 5 minutes. Dissolve the cornstarch in the remaining 1 tablespoon of port, and whisk this mixture into the sauce. Simmer for 15 seconds; the sauce will thicken. Add the cayenne and season with salt (and more sugar, if needed) to taste. This sauce can be served warm or at room temperature, and can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 3 days.
4. When ready to cook the chicken, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drain and discard the brine and pat the chicken dry. Place the chicken on a rack in a roasting pan, breast-side up, in the lower third of the oven. Roast 30 minutes, then lower the temperature to 375 degrees. Cook 45 minutes more for a 3-pound chicken, 1 hour more for a 4-pound chicken, 1 ¼ hours more for a 5-pound chicken, or 1½ hours more for a 6-pound chicken. Check on the chicken from time to time, and if it is getting too brown cover it with a piece of aluminum foil.
5. Five minutes before the chicken will be done, paint it with a coating of the barbecue sauce and return to the oven for 5 minutes. Serve with additional barbecue sauce on the side.
Per serving (based on 8 and using all the sauce): 514 calories; 22 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 143 mg cholesterol; 45 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 23 g sugar; no fiber; 588 mg sodium; 36 mg calcium.