“For now the winter is gone, the rains are over and gone; the blossoms appear in the land,” joyfully proclaims the Song of Songs, the biblical book read in synagogues throughout the Jewish world on Passover, the spring festival of freedom. How vividly too the words describe the arrival of Passover here in Los Angeles. The hills, so brown and bare-looking in summer, are bursting now with rich green foliage, thanks to the winter rains. Vivid red, white and purple wildflowers dot the canyons, as the earth shows signs of rebirth and renewal.
Most people associate Passover with eating unleavened matzo, and the gathering of friends and family from far and wide for the ritual meal called the Seder (celebrated on one evening in Israel and two consecutive evenings in the Diaspora), when it is incumbent upon Jews to recall and teach their children the miraculous story of the exodus from Egypt.
“Remember you were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt,” the Bible says, and the journey from slavery to freedom became the basis of the Jewish pursuit of justice and concern for the poor and downtrodden throughout the generations.
On Passover, or Pesach, Jews of all ages all over the world read from a Hagaddah, the book that tells the story of the exodus in narrative, ritual, legend, prayers, blessings and song.
Certain foods carry special meaning, symbolizing concepts and events in the Passover story. On the Passover plate, a roasted egg symbolizes the festival’s temple sacrifice. A roasted bone, traditionally a shank bone, serves as a symbolic substitute for the paschal lamb.
The charoset (a pebbly mixture of dried fruits, nuts and wine) symbolizes the mortar used by the slaves in building the pyramids, and maror, usually horseradish, is designed to be a sense-memory reminder of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.
Even the karpas -- usually parsley, a spring herb representing rebirth and hope -- is dipped in salt water, which represents tears, lest we forget how lucky we are to be free.
In ancient Israel, the Passover season once had profound agricultural significance as well. Falling on the 14th of Nisan, the first month of the year, according to the original Hebrew calendar, Passover was the crucial time in the annual grain cycle, heralding the arrival of spring and the ripening of the barley and wheat crops that meant feast or famine for the year to come.
“Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the Passover,” the Bible says, when the word aviv referred to both spring and the ripening stage of the grain, after the stalks had hardened.
The Bible also mentions Passover as one of the three pilgrimage festivals to the Great Temple in Jerusalem, celebrating both the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and the harvest to come after the winter rains in Israel. Feast or famine was a matter of the weather, the ancients believed, and the weather was in the hands of God.
So this year, if you’re looking for a theme for your Seder meal, think spring. Whatever the menu, plan to feature nature’s fresh, colorful young vegetables, fruits and herbs in creative main and side dishes and desserts.
Feel free to add quinoa to your Passover menu as well. Quinoa is kosher for Passover, because, although the Incas called quinoa “the mother grain,” it is not a grain at all but a seed. In 1999, American rabbinic authorities declared quinoa kosher for Passover, suggesting only that if you omit legumes ( kitniot) on Passover, make sure to use previously unopened boxes of quinoa that have not been processed on machines that also process corn or rice.
Mix red and yellow quinoas in salads, vegetable patties and cooked dishes. Serve delectably savory quinoa-stuffed peppers as a vegetarian main dish or side dish. Make them the day before and they’ll taste even better. Top the peppers with roasted kale, reminiscent of the “bitter herbs” of the Seder ritual.
For a lighter take on chopped liver, we suggest our mother’s tasty vegetarian version, made with walnuts. The secret is to slowly saute the onions until they are well-browned (but not burned!), to achieve a rich, old-fashioned, chopped liver flavor, minus all the cholesterol of the traditional version. Make it a day in advance, cover tightly and chill well.
And for a main course, bring bright spring colors to your table with easy-to-prepare, fragrant roasted salmon with marinated fennel and thyme. Like the stuffed peppers, the marinated fennel will become more flavorful if refrigerated overnight.
Serve these recipes together and you have a Seder meal that honors tradition yet is not enslaved to it, casting off the heavy foods of the past in favor of a vibrant, healthful and truly delicious seasonal menu.
Prepare the peppers: Cut off the tops of the bell peppers and set the tops aside. Remove the ribs and seeds from inside the peppers. Turn over on a wire rack to drain while preparing the filling.
Prepare the filling: In a large saucepan, add the quinoa to 2 cups water. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook until the liquid is absorbed, the quinoa is translucent and the germ has spiraled out, 10 to 15 minutes. (Alternatively, follow the cooking instructions on the package.) Remove from heat and set aside, covered, until just barely warm. Fluff with a fork.
To the quinoa, add the mint, cilantro and basil, chopped green onion, cinnamon, allspice, figs, dates, cranberries and pistachios or pine nuts and mix well with a fork. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper, or to taste. Stuff the peppers with the mixture and replace the lids.
Prepare the sauce: Pour the olive oil into a medium, heavy-bottom pot heated over high heat. Saute the onion until golden, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and saute until aromatic, a few seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, honey, remaining 1 3/4 cups water, red wine, basil, oregano, thyme and paprika. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook, covered, over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the cover and continue to cook till just thickened, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour one-third of the sauce in the bottom of a large, wide oven-proof baking dish or pan and snuggly place the peppers standing up inside (other vegetables, such as carrots, may be used around the sides of the pan to keep the peppers in place). Pour the remaining sauce around the peppers. Cover the pan with foil and bake until the peppers are tender and fragrant, 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours (the time will vary depending on the size and crispness of the peppers). If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it with a little boiling water.
Serve with roasted kale either sprinkled on the peppers or as a side dish.
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Wash and dry the kale, stem the leaves and cut into bite-sized pieces (about 2 inches each). Place the kale in a bowl and pour in the olive oil, making sure to coat all sides. Sprinkle with salt to taste.
Line a baking sheet with parchment and grease the paper lightly. Add the kale in one layer, and bake. Check for crispiness after 15 minutes. Continue to bake the kale until it reaches the crispiness you desire.
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