How to Choose Passover Side Dishes
Shake things up and pass fresh seasonal dishes around the Seder table this year.
By Jayne Cohen
Why are Passover side dishes different from all other side dishes?
What makes planning the accoutrements to a Passover pot roast different from any large festive dinner?
After all, it would be easy enough to devise a Seder menu with side dishes culled from your regular year-round repertoire that wouldn’t contravene the Passover restrictions: perhaps roasted potatoes, broccoli sautéed with garlic, and a salad of mixed greens.
Or you could plan a slew of accompaniments, as my mother-in-law’s kosher caterer did, of the same generic Jewish foods for every holiday. After the chicken soup was cleared away, every dish served on her beautifully laid table looked and tasted brown. To match the turkey and brisket—brown and chocolate-colored, respectively—there was brown potato kugel and brown matzoh kugel, a platter of brown matzoh stuffing and one of fat potato pancakes glistening with oil—also brown. It was the go-to Jewish dinner that we ate on Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover.
But the Jewish calendar is firmly rooted in the seasonal cycle, and for me, keeping step with the rhythm of the seasons enhances the enjoyment of the holidays. Originally an agricultural festival, Passover celebrates spring, with the reawakening of the earth mirrored in the rebirth of Jews as a free people. So reflecting this renewal, my side dishes emphasize the flavors of the new season: the fresh vegetables and fruits that make an early appearance, like asparagus, artichokes, leeks, spinach, rhubarb, tender young greens and handfuls of fragrant herbs. True, my ancestors in frosty Belarus never tasted asparagus or saw an artichoke, but Jews have always adopted and adapted the ingredients of their new homelands.
Every Jewish holiday brings a unique set of aromas and tastes. In addition to the seasonal elements, Passover cuisine speaks to the particular rituals and traditions of the festival with its inventive dishes based on matzoh, recipes lightened with beaten eggs in the absence of leavening, and foods reliant on special Passover substitutes.
The Seder dinner often runs long, and besides, many of the well-loved Passover dishes are heavy and rich. So in addition to our special Passover recipes, I mix up the menu with some sides served in simpler dress: bundles of roasted asparagus (tied with scallion “ribbons” for easier serving); an arugula salad; or marinated cooked salads, served Sephardi-style—left on the table throughout the meal (such as carrot and celery root or sliced beets, red onions and watercress, drizzled with pomegranate molasses and walnut oil). And there are plenty of other simple, fresh recipes in the Diaspora repertoire from which to choose.
Passover calls for side dishes that will remain moist and flavorful during the pre-dinner service. Ideally, they can be made in advance with little last-minute preparation, other than brief reheating when needed. Room-temperature sides and salads not only save time, but also free up valuable oven and burner space.
The large gathering of family and friends usually means that at least one Seder guest will be vegetarian or vegan. So I always include a substantial side dish that can double as a main dish.Over the years I’ve developed some approaches to help create Seder side dishes that are different—and more delicious—than on all other nights.
Foods That Taste Like Passover
No Seder menu is complete without the special recipes that link us to Seders past, like Ashkenazi kugels and matzoh farfels or Sephardi minas (layered matzoh pies). But even beloved classics benefit from spiffing up, if not a more rigorous makeover. So, I’ve discovered some easy ways to create indelible new food memories. You don’t have to accept matzoh as-is. Gently toast matzoh meal in a dry pan (without oil) to give it some depth of flavor before adding it to recipes. Or, make your own “matzoh panko” by coarsely grinding matzoh: Either pulse in a food processor or place in a resealable plastic bag and crush into crumbs with a rolling pin, then sauté it in best-quality olive oil until golden, along with chopped garlic, salt, pepper, grated lemon zest and/or herbs of your choice. Or sauté your panko with chopped nuts—half matzoh and half pistachio is particularly flavorful. Use as a topping to add texture and wake up matzoh- and potato-based dishes or as a stand-in for bread crumbs in gratinéed recipes.
I like to rely on aromatics and savory vegetables to contribute deep, nuanced flavors. Taking the time to caramelize members of the allium family—onions, shallots, leeks—will really make a difference, tucked into a vegetable mina. Or blanket a root-vegetable kugel with deeply browned onions, chopped rosemary and a sprinkle of sea salt. You can create layers of flavor in a potato kugel by using a mix of sautéed and chopped raw onion. Sautéed mushrooms (fresh shiitakes are especially lovely here) and artichokes (yes, even thawed frozen ones turn tasty when slow-fried with garlic and fresh herbs) make a Cinderella side dish of humble breakfast matzoh brei.
Vary the notes in overly sweet traditional foods, like tzimmes. The hot and vinegary tastes of chopped chipotles in adobo will make a tzimmes sing. Or try fresh jalapeño and a sprinkle of cider vinegar for a similar effect.
A fine dusting of a finishing salt can work wonders on a starchy Passover side. Try grinding coarse sea salt with smoked Spanish paprika or crushed peppercorns, and serve in little bowls so guests can add their own at the table.
Polenta From Matzoh Meal
The first time I tried matzoh-meal polenta, which substitutes matzoh meal for the traditional cornmeal, was at New York’s Union Square Café (USC). A collaboration of the Jewish restaurateur Danny Meyer and the Italian executive chef Michael Romano, their recipe is the best version I have ever eaten. But apparently they were not the first to come up with the concept. At least as far back as 1949, Jewish cookbook doyenne Leah Leonard had published a recipe for matzoh-meal polenta, though it entails first frying the polenta mixture, instead of simmering it the traditional way.
For our Seders, I often freely adapt the USC recipe, eliminating the dairy and tweaking some of the other ingredients. It’s a welcome side for meat eaters and a delicious main course for my daughter’s vegetarian boyfriend. And the recipe lends itself to endless variations: You can stud the polenta with wild mushrooms or fried garlic chips, or flavor the mixture with a swirl of pureed basil or even a carrot puree. Let the cooked polenta cool so you can cut it into squares, which are then fried or baked to a light golden crust, creamy within. I like it topped with a light, fresh tomato sauce or herby roasted cherry tomatoes.
When I started Hebrew school at age 8, I was assigned the task of making up our Seder plate, in addition to folding the dinner napkins. In our old family Haggadah—probably the Maxwell House version—I read that the karpas, the spring vegetable, called for chervil. Chervil? My mom, the crossword puzzle aficionado, knew it was a feathery herb, but she confessed she had never seen it fresh. We made do with parsley.
I don’t know why our Haggadah named chervil as the karpas at a time when most American Jews had never heard of it, not to mention had no access to it at their market. These days, though, a veritable herb garden—including chervil—is available not just at my farmers’ market, but often at large, well-stocked supermarkets as well.
For me, a generous shower of fresh herbs is still the taste of karpas, of springtime, whether scattered over vegetables and salads or traditional Seder foods. If your family is not fond of strong-tasting herbs like rosemary, try a mix of mint, parsley, dill and/or basil. Or use these herbs to make a sprightly gremolata topping, combined with ingredients like garlic, grated citrus zest or even freshly grated horseradish. The more delicate fresh herbs quickly lose their potency, so if you’re cooking with them, add them shortly before the dish is done for optimum flavor.
If vegetable purees conjure up jars of runny baby food, imagine a puree of roasted fennel scented with thyme or silken cauliflower embellished with roasted garlic and toasted hazelnuts. Some time ago, I sampled a restaurant dish of halibut atop a winter squash puree. The squash was not only deliciously oniony, but it also kept the fish exceptionally moist and fresh-tasting. There was no need to indulge in the rich beurre blanc served alongside. I realized that savory vegetable purees would make excellent Seder sense. Used as a bed for poultry, fish or meat, the puree prevents the protein from tasting dry, and it can often eliminate the need for a sauce or gravy. And because it’s pureed, there are no worries about the texture turning mushy with all the other cooking going on. Prepare it ahead of time and reheat easily.
The Quinoa Question
A complete protein and gluten-free to boot, quinoa has been the darling of health-conscious eaters for quite a while. But when Star-K, a kosher certifying authority, gave its imprimatur, okaying quinoa for Passover use in 1999, even Jews who had previously turned up their noses now excitedly made room at their Seder tables for the exotic newcomer, a lightly nutty-tasting immigrant from the Andes.
For centuries, the only starches Ashkenazi Jews had been permitted during Passover were potatoes and other root vegetables and, of course, matzoh and its derivatives. When corn and beans from the New World—obviously unknown during Talmudic times—became available, they were declared kitniyot (another area of foods, including rice, that is off-limits to Ashkenazi Jews, besides true grain products and leavening). Even potatoes, also a New World import, once came dangerously close to being proscribed during the holiday.
And suddenly, here was this grain that could be made into a pilaf, served like rice on the side, or featured in hearty salads. It was like discovering a pig that wasn’t trayf or a yeast bread kosher for Passover: forbidden fruit minus the guilt.
But while quinoa acts like a grain, it is not; botanically speaking, it is related to spinach and beets. (Although buckwheat is related to rhubarb, it is Passover-prohibited, but here we enter the Alice in Wonderland world of kashrut.) And though its edible seeds are what we consume, many Orthodox rabbis do not consider quinoa to be kitniyot, though they label other seeds, including poppy, sunflower and sesame, as such (and on we go Through the Looking Glass).
Ah, but remember that section of the Haggadah where the learned sages argue about just how many plagues there were? For Jews, there is never just one simple answer. And among some authorities, the quinoa question is still open to debate. So if you are observant, check to see if your community allows quinoa on Passover menus and, if so, whether it also requires kosher-for-Passover certification on the quinoa box to ensure that it was grown and processed properly.
Cooking With Quinoa
Quinoa sides can do double duty as main dishes for vegetarian and vegan guests. Tender and fluffy, quinoa is easy to prepare and quite versatile. In addition to your own ideas, try it as a stuffing for vegetables; as a replacement for bulgur in tabbouleh; or as a stand-in for kasha, mixed with fried mushrooms and perhaps some cubes of sautéed eggplant to lend buttery richness without the butter. Like matzoh meal, quinoa benefits from a gentle toasting in a heavy pan (don’t use oil for this; it makes the quinoa bitter) before adding any liquid. Most quinoa is sold prewashed to remove its saponin coating; if yours isn’t, rinse it thoroughly in a fine-mesh strainer until the water runs clear.
Meat and poultry may still get star billing, but with these ideas, your Seder sides just might take center stage.
Jayne Cohen writes and lectures extensively on Jewish cuisine and culture. Her cookbook, Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations (John Wiley), is available in print and e-book editions. Jayne blogs at jwi.org/BeyondBrisket.
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