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.