The matza holiday blessings of spring

Since Pessah meals tend to have plenty of potatoes, what menus require is an abundance of lighter-textured vegetables.

cauliflower popcoren_521 (photo credit: John Uher)
cauliflower popcoren_521
(photo credit: John Uher)
It’s lucky that Pessah is known not only as “hag hamatzot” – the matza holiday – but also as “hag ha’aviv” – the holiday of spring. Sometimes it seems that the matza aspect is gaining the upper hand. After several days of dining on matza balls and matza kugels and breakfasting on fried matza with eggs, it’s good to remember to give equal time to hag ha’aviv by serving plenty of veggies.
Since Pessah meals tend to have plenty of potatoes, what menus require is an abundance of lighter-textured vegetables.
The best choices are vegetable preparations that are fairly simple, yet festive enough so they feel like holiday dishes.
An easy approach is to start with a plainly cooked vegetable – steamed, boiled, baked or sauteed – and dress it up with a sauce.
To do this, I find ideas in just about every Jewish cuisine. Hungarian- style fried onions and mushrooms with paprika easily enliven simply cooked vegetables like sauteed zucchini or cooked broccoli. A Moroccan sauce of ginger, saffron, garlic, oil and parsley, normally used for meat tajines, can be added to carrots as they cook in water to enhance their flavor.
Sauteed mushrooms are tasty even plain, but they gain extra flair when prepared as a Greek yahni. Benny Saida, author of Food from the Balkans (in Hebrew), does this by cooking the mushrooms with a saute of red peppers, onion and garlic in olive oil and finishing them with black olives and parsley. It’s quick to prepare, but when you serve it, it looks and tastes like a special-occasion dish.
In many households, artichokes are a popular Pessah vegetable, and they are good pared down to their hearts and braised with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, dill, mint and parsley, as Saida does. A much simpler way to enjoy artichokes is to cook them whole, drain them well and serve them with a vinaigrettetype dressing combining the same flavors.
Salads are ideal for the holiday of spring, and an especially refreshing one is the Egyptian cucumber salad with mint, from Levana Zamir, author of Cooking from the Nile’s Land (in Hebrew). It is dressed with a light sauce of equal amounts oil and vinegar, flavored with crushed garlic and dried mint as well as salt and white pepper. I also like green salads topped with cooked vegetables. Beet slices are particularly nice as a sweet salad embellishment, paired with thin slices of red onion and crunchy slices of radish and sprinkled with toasted nuts.
If you’re in the mood for something nontraditional, New York chef Jeffrey Nathan, author of Adventures in Jewish Cooking, has plenty of ideas for interesting vegetable dishes. He believes that “all Jewish cooks should have a substantial collection of vegetarian main course recipes up their sleeves,” and not just for their health benefits: “Most important, they sidestep the issues of separating meat from dairy.” He cooks eggplant with fennel and sweet peppers sauteed in olive oil with a spice blend of cumin, turmeric, ginger and cinnamon, as well as a touch of honey.
Arugula strips and toasted pine nuts add pizzazz to his baked spaghetti squash, along with sauteed onion, fresh basil, nutmeg and cayenne pepper and, for dairy meals, grated Parmesan.
Caterer Susie Fishbein, author of Kosher by Design Entertains, also enjoys innovative combinations. She makes a savory orange fennel salad with warm tomato vinaigrette, baby greens and red onion slices. Fishbein prepares a variety of side dishes with few ingredients, such as golden cauliflower “popcorn,” for which the florets are roasted with spiced olive oil and turn into a tasty treat; you can find the recipe below. She treats green beans royally by turning them into champagne green beans; the beans are sauteed in olive oil with shallots and garlic, and then cooked briefly in champagne.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
Beets are a favorite on the Pessah menu in many homes. This is a lively and colorful way to serve cooked beets, set on a salad of baby greens with a bright lemon dressing and freshly toasted hazelnuts. Instead of the radishes, you can add very thin slices of fennel or kohlrabi.
Beets are much easier to peel after they have been cooked. If the beets are small, you can steam them; large beets are better simmered in water.
6 small or 2 large beets 1⁄3 cup hazelnuts 1⁄2 red onion, sliced very thin salt and freshly ground pepper 8 cups mixed baby lettuces 4 small red radishes, sliced 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice 3 to 4 Tbsp. walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil Rinse the beets, taking care not to pierce their skins.
To steam beets: Pour water into a steamer to a depth of 2.5 cm. and bring to a boil. Place the beets on a steamer rack above the boiling water.
Cover tightly and steam for 50 to 60 minutes or until tender, adding boiling water occasionally if the water evaporates.
To simmer beets: Put beets in a medium saucepan, cover them with water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 40 to 50 minutes or until tender.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 175º. Toast hazelnuts in a shallow baking pan in oven about 8 minutes or until skins begin to split. Transfer to a strainer. While nuts are hot, remove most of skins by rubbing nuts energetically with a towel against strainer. Cool nuts completely. Chop coarsely.
When beets are tender, let them cool. Rinse beets with cold water and slip off the skins. Cut beets in wedges.
Separate onion slices into slivers. If they smell very sharp, put them on a plate, sprinkle them with salt and let stand for 5 or 10 minutes, then rinse them with cold water and pat dry. In a large bowl, combine lettuce and radishes and toss.
To make the dressing:
In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper until blended.
Add to greens mixture and toss thoroughly. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve salad topped with beets and sprinkled with nuts.
Makes 4 servings.
This recipe is from Kosher by Design Entertains.
Fishbein writes: “You will pop these gorgeous golden carb friendly treats into your mouth like popcorn. The simple high heat roasting method brings out the natural sugars of the vegetable and the spice combination works great in both flavor and color. Don’t cut florets too small because they shrivel while cooking.”
2 heads cauliflower, cut into medium-size florets, stems discarded
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
1⁄4 tsp. onion powder
1⁄4 tsp. garlic powder
1⁄2 tsp. paprika
1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. ground turmeric
6 to 8 Tbsp. olive oil
Preheat oven to 230º. Line a jelly-roll pan or baking sheet with parchment paper. In a large bowl, combine the salt, sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, turmeric and oil. Add cauliflower florets and toss to evenly coat. Place in a single layer onto the prepared sheet.
Roast, uncovered, for 30 to 35 minutes, until the largest pieces can be pierced with a fork. If the tops are starting to get too brown, toss the cauliflower during the baking process. Serve hot or warm.
Makes 8 servings