The vegetarian Pessah puzzle

Vegetarians worldwide have come up with interesting solutions.

mushroom dish 88 (photo credit: )
mushroom dish 88
(photo credit: )
Designing meatless meals for Pessah can be difficult, but vegetarians worldwide have come up with interesting solutions. These days, even people who plan their holiday meals around meat try to incorporate more vegetable dishes into their menus. Cooks of diverse origins have created Pessah casseroles based on vegetable purees, potatoes or matza. Sephardi cooks prepare lasagne-like mina, composed of matza layered with fillings of spinach, potatoes or eggplant, or for dairy meals with cheese. I've often had Moroccan mashed potato pashtidah flavored with onions, garlic and turmeric as an appetizer, but it makes a good meatless main course, too. According to Gil Marks, the author of Olive Trees and Honey (Wiley, 2005), this delicious dish is popular as Pessah fare. My mother, who was born in Warsaw, often baked mushroom and matza kugel with sauteed onions, which made a savory vegetarian entree or parve side dish, or could be enriched with cottage cheese for a dairy meal. Pessah meals present a greater challenge for vegans, who do not eat eggs or dairy products and base their meals mainly on grains and legumes. Bean and vegetable stew served over rice, a common vegan entree, works for many Sephardim but is problematic for observant Ashkenazim. Marks, a rabbi and a chef, explained this: "The Bible forbids the consumption of hametz (leavened grain) during Pessah. Among Ashkenazim, an interdiction emerged against eating legumes (kitniyot) on Pessah as well as rice, millet and some seeds... Sephardim, prolific rice and legume consumers, not only rejected these prohibitions, but frequently featured these foods at the Pessah Seder." Yet even with these restrictions, you can prepare substantial meals. In my household, our menus are often vegan. We discovered that certain vegetables can be very satisfying, even without grains and legumes. Obviously, tubers and roots like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and turnips can fill you up and, when spiced well, can be delicious. Ashkenazim created many delectable dishes from mushrooms, taking advantage of their unique, meaty texture. If you chop them into fine bits and saute them with shallots or onions, they become a French dish called duxelles, a tasty topping for matza or filling for peppers, tomatoes or zucchini. Eggplant, the king of Middle Eastern vegetables, is also meaty and satisfying. Normally I serve Mediterranean stews of eggplant with tomatoes, peppers and zucchini over rice, but they taste fine with baked or steamed potatoes or with whole wheat matza. Even leafy greens can become filling when cooked at length. Braised cabbage with onions and carrots is served as a side dish in France, but I occasionally eat it as an entree with creamy mashed potatoes. Cooks from India simmer spinach with sauteed onions, chiles and spices to a thick, concentrated puree. It's great with boiled potatoes, spread on matza or just eaten with a spoon. Naturally, these dishes also make good accompaniments for chicken or meat. A delectable, filling way to enjoy light vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower is to combine them with plenty of onions sauteed in extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil is a year-round favorite of many Sephardim, but on Pessah it gains prominence on the menus of observant Ashkenazim as well due to the kitniyot issue. According to How to Keep Kosher by Lise Stern (Morrow, 2004), many of the foods used to make vegetable oil - such as corn, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and soy beans - are included in lists of kitniyot. Canola oil, made from a plant in the mustard family, is considered kitniyot-derived, too. Rabbi Shraga Simmons of, the Web site of Aish HaTorah, notes that those who are strict about kitniyot-based oils use only olive or walnut oil. Since walnut oil is expensive and not easy to find, olive oil is the choice of many cooks. A fine, fruity olive oil enhances most vegetables, whether raw or cooked. Instead of using imported oils, Pessah is a good time to try olive oils now being produced in Israel. One superb example I tasted recently at the Natural Products Expo in California is Halutza Olive Oil, produced in the Negev. This luscious, aromatic oil would make vegetable dishes sing. Let's not forget nuts, another useful and healthful Pessah ingredient. For a finishing touch, I like to sprinkle my vegetable dishes with pecans or toasted almonds. They make the dish festive, a perfect celebration of spring. CARROTS AND ASPARAGUS WITH SAUTEED ONIONS Serve this colorful, spicy dish as a first course salad, an entree with potatoes (or rice, if you eat it) or a side dish. If you like, serve it sprinkled lightly with toasted sliced or slivered almonds. 1 kg. medium carrots (about 10), peeled 700 gr. medium-width asparagus, peeled and cut in 5-cm. pieces 1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil 2 medium onions, halved and sliced thin 1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes 1⁄2 tsp. paprika 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or more to taste cayenne pepper to taste Cut carrots in 5-cm. lengths and quarter the pieces. Halve any pieces that are wider than the others. In a saucepan cover carrots with water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat 15 minutes or until just tender. Remove with slotted spoon. Add asparagus to cooking liquid and boil uncovered 3 to 4 minutes or until just tender. Remove asparagus, reserving cooking liquid. Rinse asparagus with cold water; drain well. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in onions and saute 10 minutes or until tender. Add 1/3 cup vegetable cooking liquid, pepper flakes, paprika and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to low. Add carrots. Simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes or until sauce is reduced and coats carrots thoroughly. Add asparagus and mix gently. Serve hot, warm or cold. Add lemon juice just before serving, and more salt and cayenne to taste. Makes 8 appetizer servings. Faye Levy's latest book is Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).