Growing up in Los Angeles as an only child of a single parent -- my mom -- I experienced holidays as a fusion of our tiny family and the huge extended family my mom constantly gathered around us. When spring rolled around, Passover was celebrated at our house or my aunt’s with a crowd of nearly 30, an eclectic mix of secular and observant Jews, nearly all of Ashkenazic background. The table was covered with plates of gefilte fish, bowls of chicken soup with matzo balls, brisket -- the usual suspects. As I grew older and what would become a lifelong fascination with cookbooks began to take hold of me, I wanted to participate.
In Gourmet magazine I found a recipe for matzo balls graced with pretty flecks of parsley and a hint of freshly grated nutmeg. I was about 15, they were as light as air and I never lived it down. Oy -- the girl who thinks she can learn to cook Jewish from Gourmet!
But my personalization of the holiday began in earnest after I traveled to Italy the first few times in the early 1970s. When I was 18, I happened to be there during the holiday and was nearly snatched off the street by a kind, very cosmopolitan Florentine woman, who took me home to a slightly run-down urban palazzo straight out of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” She kicked off her stylish heels, stepped into her cooking slippers, tied an apron around my waist and then her own. I became her assistant in the preparation of the Seder.
I was fascinated with the food: Italian, but with the twists necessary to adhere to the prohibition against using flour during Passover (or even having it in the kitchen), a real challenge in a country whose culinary mainstays are pasta and bread.
This elegant woman forever changed the way I thought about the holiday. Rather than matzo balls, there were broken matzos floating in broth with lots of spring herbs; a beaten egg enriched with a tablespoon of matzo meal was stirred into hot broth, as if for stracciatella, the famous soup of “little rags,” normally made with eggs and Parmesan cheese. Succulent spring artichokes were braised with a little vinegar and sugar and abundant olive oil for that familiar Jewish sweet-and-sour taste. The revelation of the meal was the fish course. In place of the small plate of gefilte fish with the obligatory carrot coin placed atop each serving was pesce in carpione, a bit of fried fish lifted out of a piquant marinade in which it had been soaking for a day or two and topped with caramelized onions, a dish even a teenager could love.
The realization that other cultures celebrated this central holiday with different dishes than the ones familiar to me opened up my world. I began to buy cookbooks in a bookstore in the Jewish ghetto in Rome; my purchases quickly became a collection that I’d refer to every holiday. One year I even tried “Passover pasta,” (sfoglietti per Pesach). Sheets of fresh pasta went right from the rollers to a baking sheet in the oven (before they had time to rise), where they bubbled and turned crisp and golden. They were used in pasta dishes or soups. Although the pasta certainly had flour, it was “kosher” flour. A rationalization? Perhaps. But it afforded some Italians who weren’t very observant a way to enjoy pasta in some form during the holiday.
Then Edda Servi Machlin’s “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” was published, and I was in heaven. More fodder to play with and introduce to the table, accompanied by wry comments from the crowd. “When do I get my brisket back?” my mom still says every year.
Each successive Passover became an excuse to experiment with another “foreign” dish.
And then came Angeli, the restaurant I opened on Melrose Avenue in 1984. My first pastry chef, Victoria Granof, turned out to be a Sephardi with roots in Turkey. As we cooked together in the tiny space, we chatted constantly about food. I would tell her what I had seen in the Italian Jewish community, and she would share delicious descriptions of dishes found on her family’s Passover table. Through our conversations and her graciously proffered invitations to share the holiday at her family table, I tasted Sephardic dishes that would soon become my own.
The eggs to be dipped in salted water were haminados, eggs simmered for hours with onion skins to tint them a rich reddish brown. There were the most savory “meatballs” I had ever tasted. Loaded with soft, cooked leeks, the little beef croquettes called keftes de prasa were subtle and tender and unforgettable. (I later added a sauce inspired by the Iranian dish fesenjan, a stew made of duck or chicken cooked in pomegranate juice with ground walnuts.) So not-brisket! And the haroset -- made of pitted dates, raisins, dried figs, almonds, pistachios and a whole orange, skin and all, run through a meat grinder before just a hint of red wine and spices (cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne) are added. I will always love the apple-walnut-cinnamon haroset of my childhood, but this was ambrosia: sweet and sticky and loaded with flavor. As a bonus, the leftovers make the best Fig Newton-type cookies ever.
Then the idea for celebrating the holiday with a yearly dinner at Angeli came along. Over the years it has become a celebration of cooking from throughout the Diaspora.
My passion for gutsy, strong flavors and simple techniques led me most often to the Middle East, North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean for inspiration. Colleagues were generous over the years with recipes and the shared joy of the hunt for a new dish for the Passover table.
Beside the pesce in carpione, there was another gefilte fish alternative: fish croquettes, from a recipe shared by Kitty Morse, whose North African Jewish upbringing resulted in her book “The Scent of Orange Blossoms.” Her croquettes are made from a simple puree of fish (I’ve used red snapper or whitefish) with a bit of chopped garlic and plenty of cilantro, formed into balls and poached in a savory tomato sauce.
Celebration of spring
Joyce Goldstein, a noted cookbook author who wrote a trilogy documenting non-Ashkenazic Jewish food (“Cucina Ebraica,""Sephardic Flavors,” “Saffron Shores”), with whom more than once I had to fight for that one copy of the book we each had to have in that tiny bookshop in Rome, steered me toward another dish I just had to try. Tezpisti, the ubiquitous Sephardi nut cake, is soaked in a fragrant citrus-scented syrup that is light years beyond my Aunt Slava’s simple spongecake. (Sorry, Aunt Slava!)
What I’ve learned over the years from researching recipes to include in my Passover repertoire is that even beyond the story of Exodus and freedom the holiday celebrates, it is above all a celebration of spring and the rebirth of life. That rebirth is expressed in the many fresh springtime herbs and greens found in dishes on every Passover table.
That’s also why, throughout the Sephardic world, lamb is often a centerpiece of the meal. For my dinners, I’ve braised it with Moroccan spices, prunes and dried apricots or with green olives, whole garlic cloves and a bit of tomato sauce.
The sweet-and-sour flavors prevalent not only in the Sephardic dishes but in Jewish cuisine throughout the world remind one of suffering and of pleasure -- as well as the balance we all seek.