Matzo Brei (rhymes with “fry”), literally fried matzo, is the most beloved of Passover week traditions, the centerpiece of a simple brunch or breakfast: softened matzo, usually with egg beaten into it, fried in hot fat.
This mixture may be scrambled, formed into little pancakes or cooked like an omelet. I have eaten it in many places, prepared by people from very different backrounds, from my father in the suburbs of Newton to my Polish friend Shuka, the gardener, on Kvutzat Kinneret, a founding kibbutz in northern Israel southwest of the Sea of Galilee. All versions were basically the same, probably very similar to the matzo brei fried in goose or chicken fat (schmaltz) that our Ashkenazi forbears first dreamed up in the shtetels of Eastern Europe sometime in the 19th century.
Who am I to mess with tradition? So here are directions for traditional matzo brei, with a twist: Instead of serving it with the traditional sweet (jam, cinnamon-sugar, maple syrup) try flavoring it with fresh-ground whole pepper, fresh herbs and spring greens. These pareve ingredients are okay to use on Passover. Happy Hag Ha’Aviv (the ancient name for Passover when the barley ripens).
Traditional Matzo Brei
Makes 3-4 servings
3 sheets of matzo
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons kosher vegetable oil, pareve margarine, or butter for frying (if you use chicken fat, omit dairy products from the rest of your meal)
salt and fresh-ground whole pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped herbs and/or a small handful of chopped spring greens
1) Break up the matzo, whatever kind you like as long as it is kosher for Passover. I prefer using plain so you get the full flavor of the fresh herbs and greens. I like a chunky version so I break up the matzo into medium-size, rather than small pieces, into a mixing bowl.
2) Pour hot or boiling water over the matzo and let it soak for no more than a few minutes. You can experiment with how long you soak it to get the texture you like. Note: Some observant Jews do not make this dish because it is gebrochts: the soaked matzo may become impure.
3) Drain off water, let matzo cool if still hot, then squeeze it dry.
4) Heat the fat in a heavy skillet.
5) Pour mixture into the hot pan by the spoonful to make pancakes, or all at once to make scrambled or omelet style.
6) Add the seasonings, and cut-up herbs and spring greens just before the matzo brei is done cooking.
In whatever form, the matzo brei should be lightly browned and crispy on top and softer inside, infused with an herby, slightly earthy flavor, the taste of spring.
Fresh Herbs and Spring Greens for the Seven or Eight Days of Passover
These herbs and greens are available from local markets, Whole Foods or as indicated, from your own garden. Serve with sliced or quartered tomatoes, fresh, sliced sweet peppers and cottage cheese (for a dairy meal).
Parsley, Italian, Curly
Make sure you have plenty of fresh parsley on hand. Like basic black, it goes with everything. It is often used as karpas, the fresh vegetable of the Seder Plate that is dipped in salt water, symbolic of the tears of our people remembering their slavery in Egypt. But karpas is also interpreted to remind of spring renewal the hope of the future. If you grew parsley in your garden last season, its reappearance in your garden may be a graphic reminder of this symbolism. Although plants may produce enough new leaves to use in Matzo Brei, they quickly go to seed and will need to be replaced for the new growing season. Curly parsley is intensely green, very curled, and on the sweet side. Italian or flat parsley is medium green, and has a flat leaf with a somewhat celery-like flavor.
Chives are the joy of every gardener, not only because they are indestructible (their endurance speak to us) but because their pointed green spears push up so early in the growing season. Like karpas, they represent future bounty. The first leaves are the fattest and tastiest. If you don’t have your own, look for the freshest ones in the market.
Sometimes I winter over a pot of bush basil on a sunny windowsill. This is the one with small pointed leaves and flavor on the nutmeg side. Market basil is usually the familiar Genovese type with wide, glossy leaves and a more clove-like flavor.
Marjoram, Greek Oregano
Marjoram is an annual with sweet flavor. Greek Oregano is a hardy perennial, with a sharper, more camphorous taste. Marjoram needs to be planted every year, but if you grew Greek Oregano last season, it may return with enough leaves to season your Matzo Brei. Both should be available at the market. Go easy on the Greek Oregano. I love it but my husband says it tastes like mothballs, so take care. Both these herbs, when combined, bring to mind the hyssop of the Bible (a species of oregano), the one that was used, like a brush, to mark the doors of the Israelites so God would “pass over” and spare them from the 10th plague.
A tall feathery herb whose finely cut leaves are known as a flavoring for pickles, dill has been grown since biblical times when it was a tithed plant. Once sown in the garden it will self-seed until destroyed by a bolt from heaven (in other words, it will always be with you, since when the ground is cultivated in spring, the seeds will just be moved around, waiting to germinate all over the place). It is also delicious when used sparingly in egg dishes, especially if it is combined with a bit of freshly pressed garlic (one of the foods the Israelites pined for in the desert). Dill seed makes a natural digestive tea, so having an over-supply in the garden is a good thing.
When the freed Israelites were wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, they missed the sweet, juicy vegetables of Egypt, among them onions (Numbers 11:5). Perennial Egyptian or walking onions (Allium xproliferum), hybrids of unknown origin, are great garden plants requiring little care and may be more like the ancient snacking onions from Egypt. They produce multiple scallion-like shoots on each plant, just ready to harvest by Passover. Later in the summer, the top cluster of bulbs can be used, too. For Matzo Brei, cut off 2-3 short scallions from the base of the plant and chop the bulblet and top greens into Matzo Brei or use slender, market scallions. Adjust the amount to suit your taste.
I once sent an Israeli friend some seeds of arugula we had harvested from our garden. He told me that it grows wild in Israel and is mentioned in the Talmud as a medicinal plant (gargir, to treat eye infections, scurvy, and intestinal worms). It is possibly the orot, wild vegetable, of the Bible (II Kings 4:39-40). When I was in Israel I saw it growing luxuriantly by the roadside. Who knew this garlicky, mustard-flavored plant (Eruca sativa) was the same one we have been growing for decades in our lettuce patch, the same one that is widely known and is under its common Italian name? Use only small, young leaves.
Sorrel is a roadside and garden weed, a cultivated plant, and a fresh market green, whose tart-flavored leaves are traditionally used in Ashkenazi cuisine to make schav, cold sorrel soup. At Passover, look for bunches of small, young leaves. They combine well with chives.
Jo Ann Gardner is a writer living in the Adirondacks. Her latest book is “Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants” (Decalogue Books, 2014), from which this excerpt has been adapted. Her website is www.joanngardnerbooks.com