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Celebrating Passover With the Bounty of Spring

I have a confession. I pretty much hate Jewish Food. Not all Jewish food, of course, but the ubiquitous beige and brown kugels and meat-heavy holiday tables I grew up with never really did it for me. Passover in particular, with hidden matzo meal and farfel at every turn was never something I looked forward to. But at the same time the experience of Passover as a whole always had a strong impact on my understanding of Jewish values, history and biblical narrative.

Passover (Chag Ha Aviv, or the holiday of spring) is meant to do more than recall the exodus, we are to celebrate the abundance of spring vegetables and herbs that have just sprouted. I took a vegetarian cooking class for Passover a few years ago taught by Rabbi Hillel Norry of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta. He taught that Passover did not need to be thought of as a week of deprivation. It is a time to rejoice in abundance of spring and to enjoy unprocessed, wholesome and healthy food. It is the Jewish version of a “cleanse” both spiritually and physically. Focus less on replacements for bread and other starchy items, let the seasonal produce shine, and take the time to prepare it impeccably.

The ritual of karpas, which represents the newness of spring, and the practice of dipping it twice in saltwater is meant to arouse curiosity. It is also a perfect entry into a meal that tastes of spring, and entertains everyone at the table. Try going beyond the traditional parsley to include local spring lettuces, arugula and — a family favorite — kale chips (place kale leaves on a pan, drizzle with olive oil and salt, then roast on high heat until crispy). Pair each with delicious dips, and introduce them to the Seder table immediately after the ceremonial dipping of the parsley in the salt water. You can incorporate a vegetarian twist on more traditional items like a green bean based “mock liver,” which gets its rich flavor from slowly caramelized onions. Or pair watermelon radishes with pistachio dip for a colorful and delicious Seder appetizer.

Involving children in the preparation of a few varieties of haroset and doing a taste test at the Seder table is another fun way to elicit questions and conversation while focusing on fresh local food. I am starting to think about crafting a Southern version using dried peaches, figs, pecans and Muscadine grape juice.

Two years ago I faced a challenge that could have been on Top Chef: make a Passover meal for friends who keep strictly kosher, are vegans and eat only gluten free foods. It forced me to re-think the traditional Passover foods and focus on seasonal fresh flavors and foods. What resulted was a true feast of vegetables that expressed my family’s interpretation of Passover cuisine.

We started with soup of pureed Leeks, Jerusalem Artichokes and sweet potatoes which was so creamy and flavorful; no one missed the matzoh balls. Then came an array of colorful salads; roasted red pepper and mushrooms, red and gold beets with arugula, walnuts and a tarragon vinaigrette, and a tomato salad with avocado, hearts of palm and a hint of cumin. The main course was roasted curried cauliflower and an herbed quinoa using veggie broth, and a carrot and squash stew (paying homage to tzimmes). Our desserts included a rhubarb-strawberry crumble (adapted using almond meal and walnuts and coconut oil) and chocolate covered dried pears and apricots.

By honoring this holiday of Spring with seasonal vegetables, you can bring vibrant colors, deep meaning, and great conversation to your Seder table. Your kids may surprise you with their adventuresome palettes, and your guests will be grateful for a break from the usual fare. May this be a Passover with abundant, wholesome, healthy and unprocessed foods and lively Seder tables your whole family will enjoy.

Naomi Rabkin is an educator, organizer and food enthusiast who lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband and two children. She is Executive Director of Limmud Atlanta+Southeast and the founder of the Jewish Food Alliance, a coalition committed to building awareness, skills, knowledge and community around food access, sustainability and culture.

Roasted Red Pepper and Mushrooms

Red, Yellow or Orange Bell Peppers
1 lb assorted mushrooms (shitakes, creminis, chanterelles)
2 garlic cloves
Olive oil
Sea Salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped sage, rosemary, thyme or combination
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar (If your practice is to not use vinegar on Passover, replace with lemon juice.)

1) Open and remove seeds from peppers and coat lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper.

2) Roast at 400 degrees on baking sheet for 15-20 minutes.

3) Remove from oven and place in paper or plastic bag and seal to steam off skins – set aside.

4) Slice mushrooms and place in well oiled sauté pan (do not add any salt yet) Make sure mushrooms have plenty of “room” and leave on medium heat for about 5 minutes.

5) Sauté mushrooms with salt, pepper to taste, minced garlic and herbs for 3 more minutes (add an additional drizzle of oil if needed).

6) Deglaze pan with balsamic or wine.

7) Remove skins from pepper and slice into strips. Combine with mushroom mixture. Serve warm or at room temp.

Red and Golden Beets with Arugula Walnuts and Tarragon Vinaigrette

2 Large Golden Beets and 2 Large Red or Candy Cane Beets
1 pound arugula
¾ Cup toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons agave nectar or 1 tablespoon sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar (or another red wine vinegar)
¼ cup olive oil

1) Roast beets in oven in a ½ inch water covered with foil for an hour at 400 degrees.

2) Remove from oven and place in Ziploc bag or another bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap.

3) While beets are cooling, prepare vinaigrette. Combine minced shallots with agave nectar or sugar and lemon juice. Whisk in tarragon and vinegar. Stream in olive oil while whisking. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4) Beets should now be cooler and ready to peel, slice thinly and halve. Combine beets with arugula, sprinkle with walnuts and when ready to serve, toss with vinaigrette.

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