Gregg Greenberg is executive chef at RSVP Catering in Fairfax, Va. He is a graduate of the Hotel and Restaurant Management school of Penn State University and the Culinary Institute of America.
There is no more-ritualized meal in Jewish tradition than the Passover Seder, the sumptuous meal commemorating the exodus from Egypt. In fact, Seder means "order." Bringing a contemporary palate to a 5,000-year-old celebration, however, calls for some adjustment.
I'm a chef, so when it comes to the palate, I'm a great believer in bending rules a little anyway. Therefore, my matzo ball soup gets a little Asian kick and becomes lemongrass matzo ball soup. I easily replace that gefilte fish swimming in a glass jar on the supermarket shelf with an up-to-date roasted tilapia with horseradish beet coulis. Traditional stewed vegetables and fruit called tzimmes become roasted root vegetables with Moroccan spices. Even the brisket gets a makeover with a subtle coffee-and-red-wine sauce.
There are, however, some unbendable rules. Let's start with a universal: The eight-day celebration must start with the Seder, a ritual meal that recounts the Jews' exodus from Egypt. This is done through story, prayer and song, all while eating symbolic foods, dining lavishly and drinking four cups of wine.
The other universal rule: During Passover, Jews eat no flour or products that have leavening agents. That means that bread is replaced by matzo, a baked flatbread made only from white flour and water. This reminds us that the Jews left Egypt in such haste that they couldn't wait for their bread dough to rise. Also forbidden are wheat, spelt, barley, oats or rye that have been in contact with water for more than 18 minutes.
However, from here there is room for interpretation. Ashkenazim, Jews whose ancestors came from Europe, don't eat legumes such as peas, beans or lentils; or rice or corn. Sephardim, whose heritage is from the Iberian Peninsula or North Africa, do eat legumes and rice, staples of the Middle Eastern diet and approved by Sephardic rabbis.
Americans living in the 21st century often come from homes of mixed heritage, tradition and culture. The Passover Seder, therefore, can be a canvas incorporating a little bit of this and a little bit of that, with a nod to this guest and an appreciation for that one.
Then there's the problem of our own internal conflict. We like it the way it's always been, yet we want our Seders to reflect our contemporary lives. We love the traditions, yet we want to bring something different to the table. Most of all, we want it to be memorable.
We negotiate. We tweak. We look to what we've eaten lately. In fact, it's safe to say that every person hosting Seder this year has been perusing cookbooks looking for something unmistakably traditional, yet new and creative.
As a caterer, that's my job. I cook for many Seders, so I am constantly creating menus to both honor tradition and bring new flavors to the table.
For example, I've always been taken by the resemblance of matzo ball soup to similar soups in Asian cultures: wontons, dumplings. So my lemongrass matzo ball soup pays homage to tradition by starting with a rich chicken base but then adds Thai flavors.
Gefilte fish: This poached carp has always been a staple at Jewish holiday tables, usually served with a red horseradish. I've one-upped tradition by using tilapia and serving it with a horseradish beet coulis. Who knew this dish could be so light and bright? Even kids who will rarely touch gefilte fish love this tilapia dish.
The brisket: At many Seders, people roll their eyes when this meat course comes around. They think it's going to be dry, or taste like some onion soup mix that it sat in for hours. I like to make a dry rub, sear the meat in it, and braise it in a coffee-wine-tomato mirepoix (vegetable mix). Then, I serve it with a red-wine-and-coffee sauce.
I make a modern-day tzimmes to accompany the brisket, a riff on the traditional stewed-carrot-and-dried-fruit ragout. I thought it would be fun to create a "fusion" tzimmes, expanding the European carrot base to include other root vegetables — beets, parsnips, carrots, turnips — and roasting them with Moroccan spices to bring out the true flavors. Then, I finish the dish with golden raisins and a honey glaze.
To conclude the Seder, I like to bring the meal full circle. Remember the matzo? Now I use it to make a sweet, crunchy and totally satisfying chocolate matzo brittle. I promise you won't miss the cake.
Lemongrass is a tall tropical grass used in Southeast Asian cooking. It imparts a clean, lemonlike flavor and is often added to meats, poultry, seafood, curries, coconut milk and tea. Use the bulbous lower part of the stem. It can be minced, ground, sliced or used whole.
Makes 8 servings
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 cup seltzer water
1 cup matzo meal
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cilantro, minced
Mix the eggs, oil and seltzer together. Add matzo meal, salt, pepper, ginger, garlic and cilantro. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring the broth (see recipe below) to a boil. With wet hands, form small balls of the dough and drop into the boiling soup. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover pot and cook 30 minutes. Remove to bowls.
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 lemongrass stalk, chopped fine
2 tablespoons ginger, minced
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped scallion
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 head bok choy, green part, cut into threads
Combine all ingredients in stockpot except bok choy. Bring to boil. Simmer for 45 minutes. Ladle soup into bowls with matzo balls and add the bok choy before serving.
Tilapia 'Gefilte Fish' With Horseradish Beet Coulis
Makes 6 to 10 servings
For The Fish Stock
2 pounds fish bones
2 whole bay leaves
10 black peppercorns
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 leek stalk, cleaned and chopped (white part only)
2 large onions, minced
2 quarts water
Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to boil, lower heat and simmer approximately 45 minutes. Strain. Return to pot and bring back to a simmer.
For The Fish
1 onion, finely diced
3 1/2 pounds tilapia filets
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup matzo meal
3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Finely chop onions in a food processor. Add fish, eggs, sugar, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Let sit for 10 minutes. Moisten hands and shape mixture into small ovals. Poach the fish ovals in simmering broth for 5 to 10 minutes, or until firm. Let them cool or put away for the next day. When ready to serve, place in a saute pan over medium-high heat and sear 1 to 2 minutes on each side. Serve at room temperature or put in 350-degree oven for 5 minutes or until heated through.
For The Coulis
1 pound red beets
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
Salt and pepper, to taste
Place beets in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer until fork-tender. Drain and slip off skins. Cut in pieces and puree the cooked beets in a blender. Add some cooking liquid until you like the consistency. Add the horseradish, and season to taste.
Always choose a "first cut," also known as a "flat cut" brisket. Weighing 7 to 9 pounds, the meat should have a layer of fat along the bottom and a nicely marbleized interior. Plan for about one pound per person to allow for trimming and shrinkage. Start this recipe a day before so the brisket has time to marinate.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 8- to 9-pound brisket
Extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 cup medium Spanish onion, diced
1/2 cup carrots, diced
2 cups strong, brewed coffee
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 cup cider vinegar
1 quart chicken stock
1 quart beef broth
1/2 cup tomato paste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons spice rub
1/2 cup chili powder
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup dried oregano
1/4 dried thyme
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup granulated garlic
1/8 cup kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brush a light coat of extra virgin olive oil over brisket. Spread spice rub over brisket. Marinate for 2 to 24 hours.
Heat a saute pan to medium-high and add 1/4 cup vegetable oil. Saute the diced onions, carrots and garlic until the onions are translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and set aside. Turn heat to medium, add the other 1/4 cup oil and sear the meat on both sides. Remove meat to a cutting board.
Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil, allowing a 6- to 8-inch overlap on all sides. Place brisket in the center of the lined pan and add the remaining ingredients and the onion-garlic-carrot mixture. Bring foil together and pinch closed to create an airtight bag.
Roast for 2 1/2 hours, then check to see if meat is fork-tender.
Remove from oven and let brisket rest covered and in the foil for 20 minutes.
Defat the remaining liquid by skimming the surface with a ladle. Pour remaining liquid into a blender and puree. Salt and pepper to taste.
Slice brisket against the grain. Serve hot with sauce.
Peel and cut all vegetables into equal-size chunks and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper, dried parsley and Moroccan spices. Place on cookie sheet lined with foil. Do not let vegetables pile on each other. If necessary, use a second cookie sheet.
Roast for about 20 minutes or until fork-tender.
Meanwhile, soak golden raisins in 1 cup boiling water until soft. Drain. Add the raisins to the vegetables. Pour honey over all.
Reheat in oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Just before serving, garnish with freshly chopped parsley.
Cover a cookie sheet with foil. Cover the lined sheet with matzo. Break up the matzo and arrange in a solid layer in the pan.
Melt the margarine with salt and brown sugar, over medium heat, stirring until it begins to boil. Continue to stir and cook 6 minutes. Remove from heat and add cinnamon and vanilla. Pour over matzo. Sprinkle with nuts.
Bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes.
Remove from oven. Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top of matzo. Spread melting chocolate with spatula to cover the matzo. Refrigerate for 1 hour. When hardened, break into pieces and serve.