What really makes the meals of Passover, which begins this year on Monday at sundown, different? It may not be what you think.
The simple answer is found in Exodus 13:6-7: “For seven days you must eat matzos (unleavened bread).... No chametz or leaven (starter dough) should be seen anywhere in your territory.”
But it’s more complicated than that. Often chametz is translated as leavening, yeast or fermented food, but Rabbi Gil Marks, the author of “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” says that this is inaccurate. Yeast is used in making wine, and cheese is a fermented food, yet both are permitted on Passover. Pasta made from wheat is not a leavened food, but it is chametz. The correct definition of chametz, writes Marks, is degradation — the result of “enzymes breaking down starch in the presence of water into complex sugars and simple sugars.”
The Talmud specifies that five grains can become chametz when exposed to water. These grains are suitable for making matzo, but any other use of them on Passover is forbidden. In the past, the list was translated as wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Modern scholars have revised the translation because oats and rye were not grown in the Middle East in biblical times. According to Marks, the grains on the list are einkorn, emmer, durum wheat and two kinds of barley.
Besides replacing the customary challah by a plate of matzos, there’s another major difference in Passover meals. Many foods used to prepare satisfying side dishes are excluded.
The reason? Over the centuries, Ashkenazi rabbis extended the list of foods prohibited on Passover to include all grains and legumes, because wheat grains might have been inadvertently mixed in during packing. (Some rabbis now allow quinoa.) Various restrictions regarding grains and legumes were adopted in some Sephardi communities too. Certain Sephardim abstain from eating rice and beans, especially garbanzo beans, because the word for them in Hebrew — hummus — sounds like chametz. On the other hand, North African Jews use fresh legumes, such as green fava beans, in traditional Passover dishes.
The challenge for observant Jewish cooks is to prepare filling Passover meals without most of the usual carbs: bread, grains and legumes. This might seem almost like menu planning for the paleo diet, but there’s a perk: Matzo is allowed.
On its own, matzo might seem uninspiring, but Jewish cooks use it to create a variety of tasty Passover side dishes and entrees. Most of them are combinations of matzo, eggs and vegetables baked as casseroles or sautéed as cakes. Some are flavored with ground meat or, for meatless meals, enriched with cheese or yogurt. They’re at their best when they have generous amounts of flavorings, such as sautéed onions, garlic, herbs and seasonings, and just enough matzo or matzo meal to give them structure. To American Jews, most of whom are Ashkenazim, matzo kugel is the most familiar example of such dishes.
Growing up in an Ashkenazi home, I always looked forward to my mother’s matzo kugels. She made them like her noodle kugels, substituting moistened matzo or farfel (chopped matzo) for the noodles and mixing it with eggs. For savory kugels, she added sautéed onions and mushrooms, and for sweet ones, apples and cinnamon. We often flavor savory kugels, such as our Passover cauliflower kugelettes, with Middle Eastern spices and serve them with green salads.
A popular Sephardi Passover dish, mina, sometimes called matzo lasagna, is made of whole matzos layered with green vegetables, meat or cheese and enriched with olive oil. Sephardim also make fritada, a casserole of grated or mashed vegetables baked with eggs and matzo meal until it’s firm enough to be cut. Jews of Greek origin bake Passover spanakopita from sautéed chopped spinach, dill and green onions mixed with matzo meal, eggs and lemon juice and layered with matzos sprinkled with olive oil. To make sfoungato, they add lamb to a similar sauté of greens and bake the casserole with a matzo meal crust. In Israel, these kinds of sliceable casseroles are often called pashtidot.
The paradox of Passover is that, in spite of the restrictions, there are so many delicious dishes that the eight days of the holiday, as it is celebrated outside Israel, are not enough to enjoy them all.
Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and “Jewish Cooking for Dummies.”
Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan with water to cover by about 1 inch and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer over medium-low heat until the potatoes are very tender, about 35 minutes; check by piercing the thickest potato with a fork. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle. Fill the pan two-thirds full with water and bring again to a boil. Add another pinch of salt.
Trim the tough ends from the asparagus, and cut the stalks crosswise into one-half-inch pieces. Add the pieces to the boiling water and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Remove the asparagus with a slotted spoon (leave the water at a boil), and rinse the pieces under cold water to stop the cooking.
Add half of the spinach to the pot. Cook quickly, stirring a few times, until the spinach is just wilted, about 1 minute. Remove the spinach with a slotted spoon to a strainer and rinse under cold water, then drain. Add the remaining spinach to the cooking water to blanch, then remove, rinse and drain. Squeeze the spinach dry by the handful, then finely chop. Transfer the spinach to a bowl.
Chop the leeks and mash the potatoes: Trim the dark green tops from the leeks (discard or save for another use), and halve the leeks lengthwise. Cut the halves crosswise into thin slices about one-fourth-inch thick. Submerge the pieces in water, rubbing them to dislodge any dirt, then drain. While the potatoes are still hot but are cool enough to handle, carefully peel them, then mash them by hand in a large bowl using a potato masher. Set the potatoes aside.
In a deep sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-low heat. Add the sliced leeks and season with one-eighth teaspoon each salt and pepper, or to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks are very tender, about 15 minutes. If there is any liquid in the pan, uncover and continue to cook the leeks over medium heat until the liquid is evaporated and the leeks are sizzling. Add the asparagus and heat, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with one-eighth teaspoon each salt and pepper, or to taste. Remove from heat. Transfer 2 cups of the leek-asparagus mixture to a medium bowl and set aside (this will be added to the potatoes in Step 7).
Drain any excess liquid from the bowl of spinach. Heat the remaining leek-asparagus mixture in the pan over medium-low heat, adding the garlic and 2 tablespoons of the pine nuts. Add the spinach and heat for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and season with one-fourth teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper and one-eighth teaspoon each of the cayenne pepper and nutmeg. Set the mixture aside to cool completely, then add 1 tablespoon dill. Taste again and adjust the seasoning if desired. Fold in 2 of the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the matzo meal and mix well. Set aside.
To the potato mixture, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, one-half teaspoon salt, the remaining cayenne, nutmeg and dill, the parsley and the green onion. Add the reserved 2 cups asparagus and leek mixture. Taste and adjust seasoning. Fold in the remaining 3 eggs, mixing well after each addition.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart square baking dish with olive oil (the dish should be just large enough to fit squares of matzo). Quickly dip the matzos in a large bowl of water just to soften, then transfer to a towel. Pat the matzo dry.
Put one matzo inside the baking dish and brush it with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Top with the spinach mixture. Place the second matzo over the spinach and brush with the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Spoon over the potato mixture and smooth the top. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts.
Bake the pashtidah uncovered until it is firm, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes before slicing. Before serving, run a metal spatula or thin knife carefully around the edges. Serve hot or warm.