Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Creating Traditions: Passover Lite and Spiced Charoset

I'm simultaneously intrigued and intimidated by Passover. Intrigued because it's such a "Family food" holiday, to quote D: at its center is the dining room table and a family-friendly set of prayers and stories and symbolic foods. It's so cool that arguably the most fundamental biblical event is commemorated within the intimacy of the family circle. I'm charmed, perhaps because I'm a sucker for all things symbolic (oops, is that my Episcopalianism showing?). But I'm also intimidated: one of the primary purposes of the holiday is to remember and reaffirm membership in the Jewish family at large. Last time I checked with my mother and my priest, I'm not Jewish. And yet this year, I was the one who assembled the Seder plate, set the table, and made dinner. Hmm. Walking the walk of an interfaith couple definitely provides food for thought.

[D Steals Talky Stick and Runs to the Corner of the Room]

Well, while Neen is not a Jew, I am. I had better clarify: I am a 30-minute Jew. If observance takes longer than 30 minutes at a sitting, it had better be Yom Kippur - for anything else, it just isn't going to happen. So when it comes to Seders, well you can imagine. As far as I can glean, a proper Seder, in my Grandfather's tradition, takes approximately 5-6 hours. It starts around sunset and food is finally served around midnight. It is amazing to me that he managed that with 4 children in the house.

I don't have the attention span for that - so when it comes time for a Passover Seder, I turn immediately to a nifty little booklet called 30 Minute Seder. Despite the cheesy main-page, the actually Seder guide is well put together, and - best of all- thin! It covers all of the most basic mitzvot with little explanations for those of us who have no clue what the bitter herbs are supposed to symbolize, or who might not realize that a hard-boiled egg is to commemorate Jewish midwives (?!). Though I admit, the absolute best on our Seder plate was the bone that represents the strong arm of God - let me just say, the little chicken thigh bone was almost hilariously puny looking. But I get ahead of myself.

The Seder itself really took only 30 minutes, a miracle considering that last year with my parents (when I used the same book!) it took us nearly two hours to get through everything - though, we had not yet discovered Neen's mad "Warp-speed Narration" talents at the time. The Seder starts with lighting the candles, an opening prayer, and a blessing over the wine. (For those of you who are on top of the ball, you will realize that I am skipping the removal of the chametz from the house - well, it just wasn't in the game plan. That would definitely take more than 30 minutes ;). After that we did all of the basic prayers... to a degree. The hiding of the afikomen (a piece of matzah that is broken off in the early portion of the seder) was executed by placing it on the window sill to our left.

By far the two highlights of the Seder were the Warp-Speed Narration of the story of Moses (performed by Neen) and the seder plate (created by Neen). It seems like an obvious question to ask, "well Do, what exactly are you good for?!" That is a fair question. Overall, probably not very much on this kind of occasion. I was going to cook a dish, but since we didn't get around to having a Seder until Monday night, when I had kendo practice, I couldn't get home in time to help with the cooking. (Yeah I know, along with being a 30-minute Jew - I am also the kind that does everything a day late, it is a brutal combination). So if I seem a little under-represented in the workload here, it is because Neen is an inter-cultural saint. Besides, in the end it worked out - the Matzah Ball Soup that Neen made was FABULOUS! I was stuffed after one large bowl, and eating anything else would have really just been a waste of stomach space. It has taken me most of the last two days to convince her that not only do I like the matzah ball soup, it is one of the best things to come out of this kitchen for a long while. Maybe it is just because I haven't had matzah ball soup in so long and this soup is fulfilling some long forgotten desire, but I can't get enough of it. It will definitely be going into the all time favorites category!

But all of that is a tangent - the matzah ball soup will be posted separately, so keep an eye out for it! What I really wanted to talk about was Neen's mad narration skillz. Thats right, skillz. There is not other way to describe her ability to decimate a story and then recombine the pieces into a short, snappy little tale that hits all of the main points in modern language (and lots of laughs). Sometimes you just wind up with a Moses the rapper, or Pharoah as played by Darth Vader. No matter what, it's funny. Not a bad thing when you are dealing with a 30-minute Jew running to the end of his attention span for rituals.

Of course, there is also the Seder plate. This is can be a very intense item to make. Neen was in charge of it, and she pulled it off perfectly. If you would like to know what everything means I recommend this wikipedia page. Our particular tray included a Charoset inspired by the Yemenite tradition (very similar to the Sephardic, which is my heritage), made with nuts, dried apricot, raisins, port, and a diverse set of spices. Very good. I was impressed because last year we made the more common apple-based Charoset, and it just didn't work for me at all, so this was a very nice change of pace. Of course, the reason this is so important is the ever famous Hillel sandwiches. (For those not in know, a Hillel sandwich is charoset, bitter herbs (i.e. horseradish) smashed between two pieces of matzah.) On this particular occasion, the Hillel sandwiches were actually really, really tasty. Neen I kept going back for more because the strong flavor of horseradish really complimented the sweet, spiced flavor of the charoset. Of course, we also need to eat through a bunch of matzah (we bought a box), and - as Neen discovered - matzah is actually a really uninteresting flavor on its own. But covered in charoset and horseradish, the matzah simply becomes a vehicle to get delicious flavors to ones mouth. Go Charoset!

[Neen, in awe of Do's flood of reactions, wrestles the talking stick away]

Wow, I guess Do had something to say! I'll be brief and just throw in my two cents:
1) Matzah is awful stuff.
2) This Charoset is addictive. It's completely different from the classic apple one because of all the spices, and I would gladly eat it any time. I highly recommend it for anyone that doesn't already have their own traditions engraved in stone.

Charoset (Inspired by Gil Marks' Yemenite Version)

Handful of slivered almonds (or other nuts)
Handful each of raisins and dried apricots (or other dried fruit, dates and figs are particularly traditional)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
large pinch of dried cardamom
large pinch of cayenne.
Cheap Port (adds great spicing, but Kosher red wine would work too).

Pulse the dried fruit and nuts in the food processor until they are very finely chopped. Add the spices and pulse again to mix. Add just enough port to moistened, pulse to mix. Voila!


Kate said...

We're an inter-faith couple also, but our roles are reversed and Jon's Catholic, not Episcopalian. I feel bad dragging him to our family seders because currently they're an hour away and next year it'll be closer to 2 hours. This year we got out of there in record time as the seder only lasted 3 hours and 45 minutes. Bah!

Psychgrad said...

We're inter-faith too. Although, Do as a 30-minute Jew would look like a saint compared to me. My faith, if you want to call it that, does not extend beyond the food.

Every seder, I'm always trying to convince everyone to turn to page 27. When the eating starts. I can't remember the name of the Haggadah we use - the one with the orangy-yellow and burgundy cover.
Just give the matza with charoset and maror, the four glasses and wine (or 6 for good measure), we'll all sing One Little Goat and call it a night.

Hillel sandwiches (although the name is new to me) are my favourite. Something about sweetness combined with a burning nose is so nostalgic for me. I'm still partial to the apple-based charosets.

Good job on the soup Neen. Interested to see your recipe!

Deborah said...

I once went to a dinner at a college here that held a traditional Passover meal - plus all of the background and explanations to go along with it. It was probably the most interesting and educational meal I've ever had!

Kevin said...

That Charoset sounds really good! Nuts and dried fruits and spices...mmm... The port or wine is an interesting ingredient.

melissa said...

matzoh is awful? wha..?

that charoset does sound good. I only had the traditional kind when I was a kid.

I was born jewish, on both sides, but my dad was all over the place spiritually (and as an adult, I am buddhist, go figure). but we did seders about... 4 times? I used to really love it. the food, the symbolism.

I would love to know more about your soup neen. it's quickly coming up on my list and I actually have stock bags full of bones and vegetables ready to make stock, matzoh meal, etc. I got my recipe from smitten kitchen and she's fabulous, but I would love more input before I start.

p.s. I would love to hear neen's skillz hehehe. too funny.

Johanna said...

great post on the modern passover - love the sound of the charoset - a colleague was describing it to me and now it makes sense - thanks