Eight Days Celebrating Jewish Survival

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday, full stop.

The food. The preparations. The traditions. The gatherings with family and friends, even if for most of us that means Zoom again this year. Oh, and did I mention the food?

Of all Jewish holidays with their special foods, Passover is the one that most deeply ties food to the rituals and meaning of the holiday, both the extensive preparation of our homes and how we mark the eight days by the food we can and cannot eat. Mindfulness is built into this holiday through the food.

While some people feel the chametz restrictions as a source of suffering, I’ve always loved eating differently for these eight days. This is no doubt helped by my love of matzah, from simply schmeared with butter and salt to matzah brei, matzah pizza, matzah with leftover haroset for breakfast….you get the idea. Matzah is perhaps the most universally recognized Passover food among non-Jews and Jews of all different backgrounds. But with a holiday where food is at the center, it’s also a time that really points out the differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic food.

One of the biggest differences during Passover for generations was the Ashkenazic rabbinic exclusion of kitnyot, foods that are essential to many Sephardic cuisines. Kitnyot includes legumes plus such grains and seeds as rice, corn, millet and sesame seeds. Growing up, a bowl of sesame and honey candy (susam) was always on the coffee table during Passover, one of the concessions by my Ashkenazic mother to my Sephardic father, who never understood what he saw as nonsensical rules about foods so essential to Sephardic cuisines. 

In the past few years, many rabbinic authorities have come around to seeing things more like my father and other Sephardim–declaring kitnyot are no longer forbidden for Ashkenazim during Passover. This huge change has been especially welcome by vegans and vegetarians who now have a much easier path to healthy eating for Passover.

Sephardic Passover menus also rely on vegetable dishes, which means we can all eat fresh and healthy Jewish food. Some of the favorites at Passover are artichokes, fava beans and celeriac (celery root) joining the year-round popular leeks, eggplant, chard, spinach and zucchini. For Sephardim historically, preparing distinctly Jewish dishes became damning evidence in Inquisition testimony. Ironically, this is actually one of the most important ways we know about the original Sephardic foodways as there were no written recipes. One of the dishes mentioned most often in the testimonies is the egg-and-vegetable casserole called quajado (kuajado in Ladino), a Passover favorite. 

For Sephardim historically, preparing distinctly Jewish dishes became damning evidence in Inquisition testimony.

As the Jews of Spain – those still outwardly Jewish, those who converted (conversos) and those who converted but retained Jewish practices in secret (crypto Jews) – left Iberia over a few centuries for new homes, the largest number found safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. There the foods of the Sephardim, with recipes remembered and carried by the women, found a wonderful match with Ottoman cuisine. The results were dishes drawing from both cuisines. The recipes below are good examples of these delicious developments. Both are always on my Passover table as two of my favorites, more good reasons for me to enjoy these eight days of celebrating Jewish survival with special foods. 

Prasa kon Tomat (Leeks with Tomato)

My father, Poppi, grew up eating this dish, simply called prasa–Ladino for the main ingredient, leeks. A favorite of Sephardim, leeks have an even longer history among Jews dating back to Biblical times.

Although Poppi cooked quite a bit (unusual for a man who was not a chef in the 1950s and 1960s), unexplainably he never made it for us, his own family. Instead, in a fascinating example of enduring food traditions, prasa was introduced to my family by a newly-discovered cousin from Cuba decades after my father first ate it on the Lower East Side of New York. 

Dora, my grandfather’s brother Samuel’s daughter, was newly arrived in the US and resettled in Denver with her husband and two children, among the last refugees to make it out of Cuba in 1960. Finding our family name, Barocas, in the phone book, a phone call led to our finally having family living close by. Soon after we met our Cuban cousins, we began to share big family meals, and one day Dora made prasa. I’ll never forget my Poppi’s reaction, his look of joy connecting with something deep in his soul. When he finally spoke, he said it tasted exactly the same as his mother’s had so many years earlier.  

Like my grandmother, Dora had no written recipe, just the centuries of prasa being passed from generation to generation of women. Now the taste is embedded in my soul. 

The basis of Sephardic tomato-based dishes such is a sofrito, here made with oil, tomato and garlic. Prepare this adaptable dish in advance so the flavors can blend, then serve it hot, cold or at room temperature. Good as part of a mezze (assortment of appetizers) or a side dish on its own or over rice, quinoa or pasta. Since leeks are both symbols of spring and one of the seven symbolic foods blessed and served at a Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder, prasa is always on my holiday table.

  • 4 large or 6 medium leeks (2 to 2 1/2 pounds)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 14.5-ounce can whole tomatoes or 5-6 over-ripe fresh tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped, reserving juice 
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, crushed or grated
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

To clean the leeks, cut off the darkest green tops and root bottom. (Save for making soup stock.) Peel off the 1 or 2 tough outer layers of the stalk, then slice it into very thin rounds. Put the pieces in a colander or strainer and wash under cold water, separating and moving the pieces around with your fingers. If there is still dirt left on the leek, set the strainer or colander in a bowl of cool water deep enough to cover all the leeks and swish the pieces again with your hand. Wait a few minutes for any dirt to settle, then lift out the colander or strainer and wash under cool running water. Repeat if necessary until the leek pieces are clean of dirt and grit. Set aside to drain.

To make the sofrito, heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When just hot, carefully add the tomatoes without any of the sauce if using canned or clear juice if fresh. Watch out for splattering oil as the wet tomatoes hit the oil. Mash tomatoes roughly, then stir and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the garlic, stir and simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes. 

Mix in the leeks and juice from the canned or fresh tomatoes. Simmer the mixture, covered, for about 1 hour until the leeks are very soft and the flavors well blended. Add the lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Stir and simmer 10 to 15 minutes more, covered to preserve the liquid or uncovered to concentrate it. The dish will keep 7 refrigerated in a tightly covered container. It also freezes well. Defrost before re-heating and serving.

Option: For a sweet-and-sour dish, eliminate the garlic and add 1 tablespoon brown sugar with the lemon juice. 

APYO (Celery Root and Carrot)

Serves 6-8 as a side dish

Turkish Jewish recipes call this dish apyo which is the Ladino word for the main ingredient, celeriac, also known as celery root or celery knob. This ugly root vegetable is not properly appreciated by those who haven’t yet discovered its naturally sweet flavor and tender white flesh. Native to the Mediterranean region and parts of Europe, many cuisines use it in soups, mashes and raw salads.

Preparation with carrots, lemon and dill is a traditional Turkish Jewish favorite, especially at Passover. Cooked in oil and water, it’s most often served cold or at room temperature as a meze or appetizer before a main meal, with good bread to soak up the juices, or as a vegetable or side salad. When buying the celeriac, it should be firm and have a gently sweet celery scent. Buy it with the stalks and leaves if you can as they are delicious to include in the dish.

  • 2-3 lemons
  • 2 large, 3 medium celeriac 
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper or to taste
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 5 or 6 stalks of fresh dill
  • Chopped fresh dill for garnish

Fill a large bowl with cool water and squeeze the juice of one lemon into it. Wash the celeriac well. If there are stalks and leaves on the root, cut them off and save the fresh-looking ones, adding them to the bowl of lemon water. Cut off the other end as well. Stand the celeriac on one of the flat ends. Use a sturdy knife to cut down the sides, separating the peel and any dark brown parts. Rinse the celeriac under cool water if needed.

Lay the pieces with the large flat sides down and cut each half into about 1/4-inch thick slices. If the resulting slices are large, cut in half again, creating pie-shaped wedges. Put the cut pieces in the lemon water to keep them from turning dark before cooking. 

Peel the carrots and cut in slices about 1/4-inch thick and add to the lemon water. 

In a separate bowl, whisk together juice from a second lemon, sugar, salt, pepper, olive oil and 1 cup water. Using your hands or a slotted spoon, lift the celeriac and carrots pieces out of the lemon water, letting them drain for a moment before putting them in a medium saucepan. When all the pieces are in, lay the stalks of dill on top along with any nice celery stalks with leaves. Pour the olive oil-water mixture over the vegetables.

Turn the heat to medium high just until the mixture boils, then lower heat to medium low, cover the pan and let the vegetables simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Uncover and let the vegetables cool down to room temperature in the pan.

Gently remove the stalks of dill and celeriac and set aside. Take the celery root and carrots from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the liquid behind. Turn the heat on medium under the remaining liquid and let simmer to reduce a bit. Arrange the vegetable pieces on a rimmed serving plate or in a shallow bowl. Add the stalks decoratively around the edges and pour the reduced sauce over the vegetables. Garnish with lemon slices and some freshly chopped dill. The cooked vegetables and sauce can be stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Susan Barocas is a writer, chef, cooking instructor and speaker who served as guest chef for three Obama White House Seders. All recipes are the property of Susan Barocas and may not be reprinted or shared without her permission.