We all have our favorite holiday food favorites. You know, the dishes that it just wouldn’t be (fill in holiday) without (fill in food). These foods are meaningful to us, links to past celebrations and to family and friends. So, I’m all for bringing those special food traditions to the table this Passover and any other Jewish holiday.
Buuuut….what if we added a new dish or two this year? What if we went outside the comfort zone of our own Jewish cultural heritage – which means outside of Eastern European Ashkenazic food for most American Jews – and brought Turkish, Greek, Moroccan, Persian or other Jewish food traditions to our holiday tables through their unique cuisines? If you’re already doing this, wonderful! I hope it’s adding delicious pleasure and meaning to your holiday.
If you’re still sticking to the same holiday dishes, Passover is the perfect holiday for adding at least a little something different or extra. After all, we can travel around the world to some of the many places Jews have lived and cooked just with haroset alone! Good place to start if you’re risk-averse. Another way to ease into some new dishes is to think about what type of cuisine you love or have been wanting to try. You’re almost guaranteed that whatever you think of, there are Jewish dishes to satisfy those tastes.
My Seder and Passover food throughout the week often reflects the combination of my Sephardic and Ashkenazic heritage, although what I eat most is good, fresh food and flavorful dishes with Turkish, Greek, Moroccan or Persian influences. I love trying new haroset and new dishes along with some favorites from my Turkish Sephardic heritage, like the mina (spinach-matzah pie) and tishpishti (syruped cake) below and prasa (leeks with tomatoes) and apyo (celeriac and carrots with lemon and dill).
Contrary to the pressure we often put on ourselves to achieve perfection in what we prepare and serve, especially on significant holidays, it helps to keep in mind that Passover is not meant to be a performance. It’s really all about the participation, starting with the preparations. So, before we make the journey out of Egypt, let’s make a trip into the kitchen to prepare some food that reminds of all the many exoduses Jews have made throughout our history.
MINA DE ESPINAKA
Spinach and Matzah Pie
6-8 servings main dish servings
- 20 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed
- 5 or 6 sheets plain matzah
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- Salt to taste
- 1 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped small
- 1/2 cup fresh dill with thinner stems, finely shopped
- 1 cup (about 4 ounces) crumbled feta
- 2/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, divided
- 1 1/2 cup milk (can be low-fat)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
- 3 eggs, divided
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Put the spinach into a fine mesh strainer and set in the sink or over a bowl to drain.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and a couple pinches of salt, stir and sauté about 5 minutes until the onion starts to soften. Mix in the chopped artichoke and cook another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, as the artichokes and onions begin to take on a little color. Remove from the heat to cool as you work.
While the onion and artichokes cook, fill a large baking pan with tepid water. Break two sheets in half as equally as possible. Add the matzah to the pan of water for 2 minutes, making sure they are submerged. (You can gently lay a couple heavy pieces of silverware across the top of the matzah to hold down.) The matzah should be pliable, but still hold their shape. Take each sheet out by lifting it holding onto two corners. Let some of the water drip off for a moment, then lay the softened matzah in a single layer on a thick dish towel or two. You can do the matzah in batches depending on the size of your pan with water.
Use a large spoon or your hands to squeeze the as much liquid as possible out of the spinach. Set the squeezed spinach into a large mixing bowl, breaking up the clumps. When the onion and artichokes are ready, add to the bowl with the spinach and stir to blend the vegetables. Add the dill, feta, 1/3 cup grated cheese, milk, pepper and nutmeg, if using. Mix until well blended, then taste for saltiness. Depending on the saltiness of the feta, add salt as needed. Beat two eggs and stir into the mixture until well blended.
Put 1 tablespoon olive oil in an 8 x 11.5-inch (2 quart) glass baking dish. Swirl the oil to cover the bottom and a bit of the sides, then put the dish in the preheated oven for 4 to 5 minutes. Heating the baking dish will help create a good bottom crust and keep it from sticking. As soon as the dish comes out hot, cover the bottom completely with about 1 1/2 sheets of matzah, slightly overlapping. The matzah should sizzle as it hits the oil. Spoon half the spinach mixture onto the matzah and gently spread evenly. Cover with another layer of 1 1/2 sheets of matzah, then the remaining spinach mixture making sure it’s even. Add the top layer of matzah, covering the filling edge to edge. Use the extra half piece of wet matzah to fill in any of the layers as needed.
Beat the remaining egg and tablespoon of oil together. Pour the mixture all over the top of the matzah. Some will drip down the sides and that’s fine. Use a pastry brush to spread any pools of egg so the coating on the matzah is even. Bake for 40 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining 1/3 cup grated cheese evenly over the top. Continue baking another 10 to 12 minutes until the top is golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting. Serve warm.
TISHPISHTI PARA PESAH
Passover Nut Cake with Honey-Lemon Syrup
Makes 24-30 pieces
Syrup-soaked sweets are very much a part of Sephardic cuisine, as is baking with nuts. Tishpishti, with many variations according to different family and cultural traditions, is a very old Sephardic cake originally made from a thick dough and no eggs. It is a traditional dessert for Rosh Hashanah and break-fast meals at the end of Yom Kippur, symbolizing wishes for a sweet new year and the sweet fullness of life. The cake is also popular for Sukkot and Purim. At Passover, matzah meal and/or matzah cake meal along with ground nuts are used instead of flour. Note that fine nut meal is not the same as a much more powdery nut flour.
Ingredients for the cake
- 2 cups finely ground almond or walnut meal
- 2 cups matzah cake meal
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup good vegetable oil (avocado, peanut)
- 1 cup water
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 24-30 almond slices, whole almonds, or walnut halves for top, or 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts for serving
Ingredients for the syrup
- 1 cup honey
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9×13 or 8×11 1/2 baking dish. The pieces will be thinner with the larger dish.
In a mixing bowl, add the dry ingredients––nut meal through salt––and whisk to blend well. Add the rest of the ingredients except the almonds or walnuts for the top. Blend well with a wooden spoon and, if needed, your (clean) hand. The batter will resemble a dough.
Scoop the mixture into the greased pan and, with your hands, gently pat flat so it is spread evenly and the edges are straight. Score the cake into small diamond shapes, about 24 to 30 of them, cutting about half way down. Press one almond slice, whole almond or walnut half on top of each piece. Bake for about 45 minutes until the edges are starting to brown.
While the cake is baking, stir the syrup ingredients together in a heavy saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Stop stirring, bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle boil. Cook for about 15 minutes until the mixture thickens but is still syrupy. Turn off the heat and let the syrup cool while the cake bakes.
Take the cake out of the oven. Let it stand for just a few minutes, then pour half the cooled syrup evenly over the still-warm cake, which will absorb the syrup as it cools. Wait 5 or 10 minutes, then follow the scoring to cut all the way through the pieces. Pour the rest of the syrup evenly into the cuts and over the whole cake. This cake is best when left for a few hours, or even 24 hours, before serving so the syrup penetrates the cake. Keeps for 2 days at room temperature or for a week refrigerated, although it won’t last that long.