Mexican flavors for Passover

Mexican cuisine is continually being updated as cooks use traditional ingredients in new ways.

Matza-ball soup with mushrooms and jalapeño peppers (photo credit: ELLEN SILVERMAN)
Matza-ball soup with mushrooms and jalapeño peppers
(photo credit: ELLEN SILVERMAN)
 When I asked Pati Jinich to suggest dishes for Passover from her just-published book, Mexican Today – New and Rediscovered Recipes for Contemporary Kitchens, some people in the audience at her presentation at Melissa’s Produce chuckled.
They probably found the question funny because they did not realize that Jinich celebrates Passover, and that her Passover dishes have Mexican flavors.
Jinich replied that she makes matza-ball soup, inspired by her grandmother’s recipe, with jalapeno peppers steamed with mushrooms. Her grandmother’s secret, she added, was to use sparkling water in the matza ball batter to make them fluffy. (See recipe.)
Jinich’s beautiful roasted asparagus and cherry tomato salad is also ideal for the festival of spring. She roasts the vegetables with olive oil and herbs, combines them with avocado and uses the vegetables’ roasting juices in the dressing. (See recipe.)
In her book, Jinich focuses on popular Mexican street foods and homey, easy-to-prepare dishes. For example, she turns potatoes with roasted chili pepper strips, a popular filling for enchiladas (stuffed tortillas served in sauce), into a light, flavorful potato salad. (See recipe.)
We were surprised to see that the potato salad’s dressing contained sesame oil, which we associate with Chinese cuisine. Mexican cuisine, said Jinich, has incorporated many flavors from other lands, including the Middle East and Africa, and has had a significant Asian influence on its food since the 1500s. That’s when the Spanish opened up the route to Asia, and people from China and the Philippines came to Mexico.
Mexican cuisine is continually being updated, said Jinich, as cooks use traditional ingredients in new ways. If the word fusion had existed in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, she added, all Mexican food would be considered fusion.
Outside Mexico, especially in the US, Mexican cooking is also evolving.
“As our cooks settle in different regions of the US,” wrote Jinich, “they are exposed to different food cultures. And so we blend our techniques and the ingredients we love and cannot do without, with those that we learn to love.”
Since Jinich’s family loves pasta, for example, she adds Mexican seasonings to American-style pasta casseroles and makes dishes like macaroni and chicken with smoked chili tomato sauce.
Mexicans love a beverage called Jamaica water that’s made by simmering dried hibiscus flowers in water with sugar or honey. After making it, Jinich removes the flowers and adds them to chocolate cookie dough, a combination that resembles strawberries with chocolate.
“People say the French are frugal,” said Jinich, “but the Mexicans are beyond frugal! They extract the goodness from everything.” 
Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.
In this Mexican matza-ball soup, jalapeño peppers cooked with mushrooms add subtle heat to the broth, wrote Pati Jinich. “My maternal grandmother used to season her matza balls with nutmeg and a bit of parsley. I add a splash of toasted sesame oil, too.”
If you avoid sesame oil on Passover, substitute vegetable oil.
Serves 6 to 8
■ 1 cup matza ball mix
■ 2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
■ ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
■ kosher or sea salt
■ 4 large eggs
■ 8 Tbsp. vegetable oil
■ 2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
■ 2 Tbsp. sparkling water
■ ½ cup finely chopped white onion
■ 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
■ 2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped (seeded if desired), or to taste
■ 225 gr. (8 ounces) mushrooms, trimmed, cleaned, and thinly sliced
■ 8 cups chicken broth
In a large bowl, combine matza ball mix, parsley, nutmeg, and ¾ teaspoon salt. In a small bowl, lightly beat eggs with 6 tablespoons vegetable oil and the sesame oil. Fold beaten eggs into matza-ball mixture with a rubber spatula. Add sparkling water and mix until well combined. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and chili and cook, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, until they have softened a bit. Stir in mushrooms and ¾ teaspoon salt, cover, and steam mushrooms for 6 to 8 minutes. Cook uncovered until liquid in pot evaporates. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasonings.
When ready to cook matza balls, bring about 3 liters (3 quarts) salted water to a rolling boil in a large pot over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and keep at a steady simmer. With wet hands, shape matza ball mix into 2.5- to 4-cm (1 to 1½-inch) balls and gently drop them into the simmering water.
Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes, until matza balls are completely cooked and have puffed up. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to soup. Serve.
“This combination of creamy, crunchy, and juicy vegetables holds the number-one slot on my list of favorite salads,” wrote Jinich. “You toss cherry tomatoes and asparagus in an aromatic olive oil and herb marinade, then you roast them until the asparagus is lightly charred but still has some crunch and the tomatoes are soft... The flavorful juices from the vegetables and herbs are swirled into a luxurious dressing that envelops big chunks of ripe avocados.”
Serves 6
■ 450 gr. (1 pound) asparagus
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil or 2 tsp. dried
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint or 2 tsp. dried
■ 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh sage or 2 tsp. dried
■ ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extravirgin olive oil
■ Sea salt
■ 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper or to taste
■ ¼ cup thinly sliced shallots
■ 450 gr. (1 pound) cherry tomatoes
■ Grated zest of 1 lime
■ 2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lime juice
■ 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
■ 2 large eggs, hard-boiled, cut in half, yolks separated from whites, and whites finely chopped
■ 2 large ripe Hass avocados, halved, pitted, flesh scooped out and cut into large bite-size pieces
Preheat oven to 220ºC (425ºF). Trim off dry hard asparagus ends, about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) from bottom. Using a vegetable peeler, peel each stalk, beginning 4 to 5 cm (1½ to 2 inches) below tips and peeling all the way down to bottoms.
In a large bowl, combine basil, mint and sage with ¼ cup olive oil, 1½ teaspoons salt, the pepper, and shallots. Beat with a whisk or fork until well mixed.
Set a rimmed 46 by 33 cm. (18 by 13 inch) baking sheet on countertop. Add cherry tomatoes to marinade, toss well and, with a slotted spoon, arrange on half of baking sheet. Place asparagus on other half. Pour remaining marinade over asparagus and toss until thoroughly coated. Spread out in a single layer.
Roast vegetables for 12 to 13 minutes, until asparagus is crisp-tender. Remove asparagus and set on a cutting board to cool. Return tomatoes to oven for another 5 to 6 minutes, until they have burst, deflated, and begun to char. Remove from oven and let cool.
Using slotted spoon, gently transfer tomatoes to a bowl. Pour all juices from baking sheet into a blender.
Once asparagus has cooled, cut 2.5 cm. (1 inch) from bottom of each stem and add ends to blender. Cut rest of asparagus into 4-cm. (1½-inch) pieces; set aside.
Add lime zest and juice to blender, along with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the mustard, ½ teaspoon salt, and egg yolks. Puree until completely smooth.
Place avocado chunks in large serving bowl, pour on the vinaigrette and gently toss until avocado is thoroughly coated. Arrange asparagus on top. Spoon roasted tomatoes over asparagus, garnish with chopped egg whites, and serve.
For this “new take on a potato salad,” wrote Jinich, “I toss the still-warm potatoes and rajas [strips of roasted chilies] in a warm, bold vinaigrette, along with lightly browned red onions that finish cooking in the dressing...The potatoes absorb the dressing as they cool.”
If you avoid sesame seeds and sesame oil during Passover, omit the seeds and substitute olive oil for the sesame oil; you can also substitute 1 or 2 teaspoons of white wine vinegar for the rice vinegar
Serves 6
■ Sea salt
■ 900 gr. (2 pounds) baby red potatoes
■ ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
■ 2 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
■ 1 medium-sized red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (1½ cups)
■ About 450 gr. (1 pound) semi-hot green peppers, roasted, peeled and cut into strips (see note below)
■ 1 tsp. dried tarragon
■ ¼ tsp. ground allspice
■ ½ tsp. sea salt or to taste
■ ¼ cup sesame seeds
■ 3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
■ 1 Tbsp. unseasoned rice vinegar
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Add potatoes and cook for about 20 minutes, until they are tender, but not falling apart. You should be able to insert the tip of a sharp knife all the way through without resistance. Drain. When cool enough to handle, cut them in half.
In a large deep skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add sesame oil, then carefully add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is completely softened and edges begin to brown slightly, about 8 minutes. Stir in pepper strips, then tarragon, allspice, salt and sesame seeds and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until ingredients are nicely blended. Stir in both kinds of vinegar and cook for another minute. Remove from heat.
Place potatoes in a large bowl. Add pepper mixture, scraping every last bit out of pan with a rubber spatula. Gently toss together. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold.
Note: To roast semi-hot peppers: Place peppers on a foil-lined baking sheet. Place in preheated broiler, 5 to 7.5 cm (2 to 3 inches) from heat, and roast for 6 to 8 minutes, flipping peppers at least once with tongs, until they are blistered and completely charred on outside. Place them in a plastic bag or a bowl and seal or cover tightly. Let stand at least 10 minutes or up to 12 hours. Hold peppers under a thin stream of cold running water and remove charred skin with your fingers. Make a slit down one side of each pepper and remove cluster of seeds and veins. Pat dry with paper towels.
Jinich likes this bright, crunchy vegetable mixture with chicken dishes, in sandwiches or on rice. To make it, she flavors the onions and cabbage with the juices of grapefruits, oranges and limes and with sautéed jalapeño peppers.
“Don’t be alarmed by the chilis – they remain whole,” she wrote, “so the heat they share with the other vegetables is mild. If you want more heat, you have the option of biting into them, which is what we do at home.”
If you avoid rice vinegar on Passover, substitute 2 or 3 tablespoons wine vinegar or other vinegar.
Makes generous 4 cups
■ 1 large red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 2 cups)
■ ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
■ 2 jalapeño peppers or to taste
■ ¼ cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
■ ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
■ ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
■ ¼ cup unseasoned rice vinegar
■ 1¼ tsp. sea salt, or to taste
■ ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
■ 3 cups finely shredded green cabbage (about 350 gr. or 12 ounces)
Place onion in a small bowl, cover with cold water and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes; drain well.
In a small skillet, heat oil over medium- low heat. Add jalapeños and cook, turning a few times, for about 2 minutes, or until lightly browned on all sides. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
In a large bowl, combine grapefruit, orange and lime juices with vinegar, salt and pepper. Add oil from skillet and whisk to combine well. Toss in onion and cabbage and mix well. Add jalapeños and toss. Let the mix pickle at room temperature for 20 minutes to 1 hour, then cover and refrigerate.