For Jews, late April/early May can be a trying time. Passover is right around the corner. Relatives come in droves to devour our food, pinch our cheeks, wear out our sofas. They come from everywhere. They come from Florida.
They gather themselves around our tables while we wrangle the children into seats and tear the house apart to find a set of matching haggadahs. Meanwhile, we have been slaving away—with no government-recognized day off, mind you—to produce a five- to seven-course masterpiece of gastro-historical cuisine with all the culinary imagination of the son too simple to ask a question. Leaden matzo balls sink into bowls; gefilte fish arrives, dressed in sweet jelly, regret, and carrots. This is, of course, after a three-hour delve into our forgotten Hebrew and tried patience in the face of saccharine wine. Oh, and the story of the Exodus. I think.
And after the great meal is done—the plates cleared, the remaining Manischewitz dumped down the sink, the tablecloth blotted of recklessly spilled food—the relatives leave. Our reward? A week of no-carb semi-fasting depressing enough to make you wonder if the ancient Egyptians were so bad. Hey, at least there's Coke with real sugar!
Fortunately, at least some Passover malaise can be avoided. The seder meal doesn't need to be a bland affair of worn-out recipes. My secret? Be conservative with what you change, but let those changes be dramatic. Nothing can change so much with so little as spices, a surefire way to spruce up tired traditional meals. Yes, the seder menu has its immovable classics: Done right, matzo ball soup is perfect as is; others, like gefilte fish, can't be saved (at my table we eat latkes instead). But some dishes, with the careful application of spices and seasonings, can be immeasurably improved. What follows are some tips to liven up Passover mainstays: crowd-pleasers for adventurous cooks and Uncle Morty alike.
Horseradish is a saving grace in a meal dominated by sweet, mild flavors. But the pre-chopped jarred stuff isn't helping anyone. Fresh horseradish is increasingly easy to find, especially come Passover time. A few hours or days before the seder (its bite mellows with time), finely grate some horseradish. This is your proto-spread, begging for add-ins. Try mayonnaise, vinegar, and/or dijon mustard, some minced pickles, maybe roasted beets. Coriander and dill seed fit nicely here, as would an herbally-infused vinegar.
Orange or lemon zest brighten horseradish, as does raw minced garlic and pink peppercorns. The general method here is to add something creamy, something sour, and something spicy. On its own, with matzo and charoset, or just on a sandwich, horseradish spread wakes up the tongue without ripping it out of your mouth.
Let Your Charoset Shine
I could, if need be, live off charoset. And for the spice-happy cook, it may be the highlight of the meal. I serve a Sephardic-style compote with dates, raisins, walnuts, and almonds. This mix is simmered in wine and classic Middle Eastern spices: cinnamon (I opt for spicy Saigon), clove, allspice, and cardamom. Towards the end, slip in some rose or orange blossom water. Other spices that take well to these fruits include star anise, fennel seed, caraway, and (sparingly) vanilla and orchid root. No matter what, salt your charoset well to draw the flavor of your spices out of all the sweetness.
For the Ashkenazi charoset of apples, wine, and nuts, skip the powdery cinnamon and try lemon zest and freshly ground coriander and cardamom. Black and pink peppercorns pair nicely with apples, as does caraway; just keep in mind a little goes a long way with these.
Main Dishes: Think Like An Egyptian
At my seder, the main dish is almost always some braised meat; it just wouldn't be Pesach (or Jewish cookery, for that matter), without it. As many times as not, I seek inspiration from the Middle East for my braises. This week's recipe features lamb shanks braised with dried fruit and a blend of Middle Eastern spices, tagine-style. In fitting with tagine cooking, the meat is not heavily browned before braising (trust me, it's not missing out on flavor), and the accompanying plums, apricots, and ginger plump into buttery jam. All it needs is a flourish of lemon juice and pomegranate molasses before serving.
Jewish braised meats are typically sweet and sour affairs, so rely on fruit and the spices that pair well with them: coriander, cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, and the like. In Egypt, beans are often braised with tomatoes and similar spices. Such a dish would make an unusual but welcome vegetarian main course.
Seder Sides: Keep 'Em Simple and Simply Spiced
Seder side dishes seem to fall into three categories: starches (by which I mean potatoes), bitter greens (such as dandelions), and new spring crops. All of these benefit from simple spicing so as to not overwhelm their delicate flavors. My advice? Keep your chiles close at hand. Smoked paprika on roasted potatoes, chile oil drizzled over braised or sautéed greens, aleppo-dusted artichoke hearts with lemon and olive oil—these are all simple dishes that are easy for the frazzled cook to execute. A light hand with chile keeps them interesting, but still approachable for conservative diners.
What Are Your Seder Plans?
Looking to branch out with your seder menu, or are you kicking it old school? Share your Passover menu ideas in the comments.
About the author: Max Falkowitz is a proud native of Queens, New York. He'll do just about anything for a good cup of tea and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter.