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Passover all over

Jewish tradition folds in flavors from Morocco, the Mediterranean and beyond

Ellen Sweets
A Moroccan Passover Seder has some elements Eastern European Jews would recognize: the ritual Seder plate in the center, charosets and matzo. It adds rice, a tomato salad, a fish dish and a lemony lamb, Recipes D5.

At sunset Monday , Jews around the world will ask the same question as they observe Passover: "How is this night different from any other?" Though the question will be the same, the food that commemorates the answer will reflect a range of culinary traditions influenced by trade and travel.

The Seder, a traditionally kosher meal served at Passover, is as diverse as the languages and experiences those traditions bring to their respective tables.

The Moroccan meal in a Sephardic home will differ from the one in a home that observes traditional Eastern European Ashkenazi Passover foods. Beef? Lamb? Chicken? Turkey? Potatoes? Rice? Charoset: Should it be made with apples or dates? Almonds, pecans or walnuts? Should it have raisins or apricots? Cinnamon or nutmeg?

In the 15th century, ship captains and seasoned navigators set out to find routes to quickly transport such coveted spices as cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin, caraway, sesame, dill and pepper from the East to ports in the West. As ships sailing the Spice Trade routes passed through India, North Africa and the Mediterranean, local populations incorporated these new flavors.

When the Spanish Inquisition drove Jews out of Spain, they settled across the Mediterranean, spreading Sephardic culinary traditions that featured liberal use of garlic, onion, cinnamon, cumin, peppers and a range of savory spices. Ashkenazi Jews adhered to Eastern European dietary laws that are, by comparison, simpler, sweeter and less prone to heavy does of incendiary spices.

Andy Algava is a soft-spoken Sephardic Jew from Salonika, a city in northern Greece that had that nation's largest Jewish population until the German occupation in 1941. After 600 days in hiding, his family escaped and came to the United States in 1947. He became a citizen 10 years later.

While in hiding, speaking his native Ladino, a centuries-old Judeo-Spanish language, was forbidden. His memories of Ladino are lost to time, but his Passover food memories remain, including a special kind of meatball called albondigas al buyor served in tomato sauce.

"My grandmother used to make them at Passover," he says. "She and my mother would be in the kitchen together in the old tradition. The men just sat around and talked and waited for the meal to be served. We had multiple courses, so the women cooked all day and the day before. I think one of my most vivid memories is deciding it wasn't right for the women to do everything. I struck a blow for equality because I served and helped clean up."

Although Ginette Suissa Jordan and Iris Rempe were both born in Casablanca, Morocco, their Passover tables were very different. Jordan, an author, teacher and ardent cook, is a French-accented force of nature. She's one of those people who seems to be moving even when she's standing still.

"I learned to speak English by watching episodes of 'Peyton Place,'" she says with a throaty laugh. "That's why I'm so dramatic."

Jordan comes from an Orthodox family and for years didn't know there were any differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. It was just all Judaism to her. Instead of matzo ball soup, her mother made a soup of vegetables using a big marrow bone. She finished it with thin slices of white truffle and crumbled matzo on top. That was followed by fish cakes instead of gefilte fish.

"My mother ground the whiting to make fish balls and mixed it with ground potato, onion, parsley and cilantro, and eggs mixed with matzo meal," she says. "The soup was made with a chicken broth and tomato base with garlic, paprika, chili powder, a small piece of pickled lemon, parsley, garlic and saffron. We simmer that slowly so flavors marry, then uncover and serve it as a second course."

Then came maybe five or six salads. Her favorite dish is still her mother's baked fish.

North African

For her Seder, Rempe, a kosher caterer, will open her home to about 20 guests. It will be her third year as a host. She came to Morocco through Israel to the United States.

"So I'm influenced by the foods of Israel and my parents' Moroccan traditions. We kind of mix and match - our Seder is in English and Hebrew with a bit of Arabic. At one point, we circle the tray over the head of each participant and sing this song in Arabic about how in our haste and hurry to get out of Egypt, we ate this dry bread because we didn't have time for it to rise. In the Sephardic tradition, we can eat a lot more foods than the Ashkenazim - including rice."

The Rempes will have fava-bean soup and fish. For those who want gefilte, they will make it the Moroccan way - with jalapeño, cilantro, tomatoes, carrots and a lot of garlic.

They won't dine on sweet brisket, either. "We use lots of bay leaves - you brown the meat on both sides, put lots of garlic and let it cook with salt, pepper and a little bit of turmeric, then finish in the oven for a long time. It's never just meat cooked alone; one pot is a complete meal, and we make salads galore.

"There is a joke we like to tell: They asked a Moroccan woman to look at a table with only three legs and tell them what is missing; she looks at it, smiles and says, 'Salads!'"

Eastern European

Eri Weinstein, co-owner of the Texas Healing Arts Institute, still travels to Israel to visit relatives, but he spends Passover in New Jersey with his sister. His father was Israeli and his mother came from Poland. They saw World War II coming and fled to what was then Palestine. Until his parents died, the family Passover was held in New York. Now he goes annually to be with his sister, Leora Isaacs, and her husband, Ron, who's a rabbi.

"They always have interesting guests, and you never know what to expect," Weinstein says. "One year it was clowns; another time it was acrobats. They've had musicians and a chess master. One year, before my grandmother died, we invited Russian Jews who didn't speak English, so they spoke Russian with my grandmother, who translated back and forth into English. It was hilarious."

Seder guests at the Isaacs' home will dine on brisket, a lemon chicken, roasted turkey with matzo stuffing, spinach with mushrooms, asparagus and his sister's feather-light chocolate torte.

"We re-enact the Exodus by singing songs like 'Avadim Hayinu ,' which says, 'We were slaves and now we are free people,'" he says. "We began incorporating a Sephardic tradition in our Seder. While we're singing 'Avadim Hayinu,' we start hitting one another with green onions to remind us of the bitterness of slavery. The idea is to hit everyone at the table. Well, one year my grandmother jumped the gun and started whacking this guy next to her before we started singing. He hadn't a clue. Boy, was he surprised."

Blend of cultures

It might also come as a surprise to some to know that here and there will be a vegetarian Seder, but not to Devora Brustin, an educator who moved to Austin from Tucson. She grew up in Boston where her father, a conservative rabbi, opened the family home to all faiths. She works with college students as part of Hillel, which brings Jewish experiences to campuses.

"Growing up, I loved Passover," she says. " For us, it was a real opportunity to be involved in the interfaith community. Whether it was a Catholic priest, a minister or someone like Camille Sadat (daughter of slain Egyptian president Anwar Sadat), there was always someone who could share a different perspective.

"Our Seder table has evolved to include both traditional and nontraditional options based on locally, organically grown produce, including my great-great-grandmother's potato kugel," Brustin says.

Last year, Brustin took a group of students to Maryland to learn about organic farming as well as planting and harvesting in accordance with the Torah's laws - including tithing, a practice of leaving a corner of the field available to those who can't afford food.

"People don't think of Jews as a big farming community, but that connection to the land also relates to other cultures. I tell students they're coming to a 'love' dinner: a local, organic, vegetarian, eco-friendly Seder."

Latin American

Ah yes, love. It moved Alejendra Gerstenhaber to abandon her Mexican Catholic upbringing and convert to Judaism to marry her husband, Gary. They lived in Mexico City and Cancún before moving to Austin.

"My husband's three children lived with us for our first Passover after we got married," she says. "Here I was preparing a meal I had never made. What did I know? I bought this package for making matzo ball soup and followed the directions. At least I thought I did. So when they tasted it, they said, 'Well, this is a perfect example of coming through the desert.' The soup was so salty and the matzo balls were so dry … you could have broken a window with them."

At least in Mexico City, they had a synagogue, where a first-night Seder prepared by a kosher caterer fed several hundred families. Cancún was another story.

"In Cancún, they didn't have a rabbi or a cantor," Gerstenhaber says. "No matter where we've been, it's been a place of great comfort to continue our Jewish identity. And now after so many years, I've gotten really good at making matzo ball soup. I'll never use that boxed stuff again."

Database analyst Karina Schumer represented the first generation of her family to be born in Brazil, but her Seder table in Rio de Janeiro had deep Ashkenazi roots because relatives scattered throughout Eastern Europe and South America during and after World War II. But it was almost impossible to find foods kosher for Passover in Rio.

"In Brazil we only had matzo," she says. "We were really stuck. So we ate matzo, cheese, fruit and vegetables to compensate for the lack of other things. Here (in the United States) you can get lost - you have matzo with eggs, without eggs, with a little salt, no salt. My goodness."

For dessert, Schumer's mother baked an orange cake, almost like a pound cake. It has remained a fond food memory.

"Here I have friends who are basically my family. We have a Brazilian Jewish community here - chavura - a group of friends who are family."

Lamb Shanks in Lemon Sauce

This recipe, adapted from Joan Nathan's "Jewish Holiday Cookbook," is a standard main dish for a Sephardic Seder. Serve surrounded by potatoes and carrots with lemon sauce ladled over the braised shanks. Serves 4.

4 lamb shanks (about 3 lb.)

1 large onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, minced

11/4 cups water, divided use

1 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. salt (or to taste)

1 bay leaf

1 Tbsp. potato starch

Brown lamb in a heavy casserole on the stove top. Push to one side of the casserole. Add onion and garlic and sauté until soft. Stir in 2 cups of water, lemon juice, salt and bay leaf. Cover. Simmer 3 hours or until very tender. Remove the meat and keep hot. Blend potato starch with the remaining 1/4 cup water. Stir into the liquid in the pan. Simmer, stirring continuously until the gravy thickens and boils for 1 minute. Remove bay leaf and serve.

Whole Fish à la Sultana

Ginette Suissa Jordan named this dish for her mother, who prepared it for Passover when Jordan was still living with her family in Casablanca, Morocco. Pickled lemon is a critical ingredient. This colorful family recipe makes an impressive presentation. Serve with Moroccan Confetti Salad (recipe below). Serves 8-10.

6 medium ripe tomatoes, sliced

6 medium baking potatoes, sliced

2 medium green bell peppers, sliced

5 large carrots, sliced lengthwise

6 garlic cloves, crushed

2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

4 Tbsp. fresh Italian parsley

6 bay leaves

1 pickled lemon (recipe follows)

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. black pepper

8- to 10-lb. whole snapper

1 dry pasilla chile, soaked in warm water until soft

1 cup water

2 Tbsp. chili powder

2 Tbsp. paprika

1 Tbsp. saffron (or 1 tsp. turmeric)

1 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400. In a large shallow baking dish that can also be used for serving, layer half of each of the following ingredients in the following order: tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, carrots, garlic, cilantro, parsley, bay leaves, lemon, salt and pepper. Place fish in the pot. Pour water around the fish. Layer the remaining half of the vegetables and spices. Drain pasilla and place on top to impart a rich, smoky flavor.

In a separate bowl, whisk together chili powder, paprika and saffron with vegetable oil. Pour mixture evenly over fish and vegetables.

Cover pan with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake 1 to 11/2 hours or until fish flakes easily with a fork. Baste fish frequently with pan juices. Uncover and cook for 5-10 minutes until slightly brown. Discard bay leaves before serving.

Pickled Lemons

These are a staple of Moroccan cooking and must be made two weeks in advance.

12 small lemons (preferably Meyer)

1 cup coarse kosher salt

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

With a sharp knife, cut 1/2-inch slits all around the center of each lemon. In a canning jar, alternate layers of lemons and salt until the jar is filled, making sure that the lemons are tightly packed. Cover with oil and close jar tightly. Leave jar in a cool, dark place at room temperature for two weeks and then refrigerate. The pickled lemons will last up to six months in the refrigerator.

Confetti Salad

Ginette Suissa Jordan grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Morocco. She continued her culinary traditions after she married and moved to the United States. In "Your Night in Morocco," the little cookbook she published two years ago, Jordan shares traditional Passover recipes, including this one, a Moroccan staple that was traditionally served with a roasted chicken or fish baked for Passover. Serves 6-8.

4 large tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped

1 large cucumber, seeded and finely chopped

2 stalks celery, finely chopped

1 small white onion, finely chopped

2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped

1/2 pickled lemon, finely chopped

1 Tbsp. finely chopped Italian parsley

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 Tbsp. water

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. sugar

2 pinches cayenne pepper

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients well and serve chilled.

Keftikes de Poyo (chicken croquettes)

This is a popular dish from Salonika, Greece. The recipe is adapted from "Cookbook of the Jews of Greece" by Nicholas Stavroulakis. Makes 15-20 croquettes.

4 large chicken breasts

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 lb. ground beef

1/2 cup matzo meal

3 eggs

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh dill

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Salt and pepper

Poach the chicken breasts in very little water until the meat is very tender and can be easily removed from bones. In a food processor, pulse a quarter of the chicken one at a time to a coarse consistency. In a large mixing bowl, use your hands to combine chicken, onion, beef, matzo meal, eggs, dill, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Break off egg-sized pieces of the mixture and shape into round, slightly flattened croquettes. Sauté gently in olive oil until well-browned on both sides. Serve hot or cold.

Traditional Charoset, Texas Style

This recipe is adapted from Tina Wasserman, a Dallas-based author and food writer who got the recipe from a friend. This basic Ashkenazi formula is augmented by native Texas pecans and sugar instead of the walnuts Wasserman ate when she lived in New York. It appears in her cookbook "Entree to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora." Makes 1 quart.

8-10 sweet apples: Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp or Jonagold

8-10 oz. pecans, toasted

1 Tbsp. cinnamon, or to taste

1/3 cup raw sugar, or to taste

1 cup Concord grape wine

Peel, core and cut the apples into 8 pieces. Place half of the apples in a food processor work bowl and pulse until pieces are about a quarter-inch. Remove to a large glass bowl and repeat with the remaining apples.

Using a nonstick frying pan, toast pecans for several minutes. Take care not to let them scorch. Cool slightly and add them to the work bowl. Pulse machine on and off until the pecans are finely chopped. Add pecans to the apples. Add cinnamon and sugar to the apple mixture and stir to combine. Add wine and mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight but preferably 1-2 days. If mixture is watery, drain off excess liquid and adjust cinnamon, sugar and wine as desired.

Gâteau de Mousse au Chocolat

This recipe comes from Eri Weinstein's sister, Leora Isaacs, who lives in New Jersey and is married to a rabbi. Weinstein lives in Austin and makes this Passover confection. It is modified from a recipe developed by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey. If you can find powdered sugar kosher for Passover, use a sprinkling of fine sugar and cover with fresh fruit. Serves 8-10.

1/2 lb. (eight squares) unsweetened chocolate

1/2 lb. kosher-for-Passover margarine, cut into cubes, plus margarine to grease pan

8 egg yolks

1 1/4 cups sugar

5 egg whites

1 Tbsp. powdered cocoa

Fresh raspberries for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put the chocolate squares and butter/margarine in a saucepan. Set the saucepan in a skillet of boiling water. Keep the water at simmer. Stir the chocolate and butter until the chocolate is melted.

Combine egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until the mixture is light and lemon-colored. Add the chocolate sauce to the egg mixture, stirring to blend thoroughly.

Beat the whites until stiff but not hard. Add half the egg whites to the chocolate mixture and beat. Fold in the remaining whites.

Grease the bottom and sides of an 8-inch Springform pan. Pour 3/4 of the mixture into the pan. Set the remaining chocolate mixture aside to be used as filling and frosting.

Place the pan in the oven and bake 75 minutes. Test for doneness with a toothpick. When the cake is cool, transfer it to a rack and let it stand about 10 minutes. Remove the rim from the springform pan and let the cake rest until thoroughly cool.

Use the reserved chocolate mixture like icing. Build it up slightly on top of the cake and smooth it over. Hold a small sieve over the cake and spoon the cocoa or fruit on top. Chill briefly.

The Passover Seder

The Passover meal, or Seder, that will be served next week in homes and synagogues throughout Austin will follow time-honored rituals. For those participating for the first time, here follows a primer, but it wouldn't hurt to brush up on the book of Exodus for background as well. It is the second book of the Torah, the second book of the Old Testament - and yes, there are Cliff's Notes.

The Seder opens with the Kiddush, a prayer that blesses the fruit of the vine and declares the holiness of the holiday. This prayer is said before drinking the four celebratory cups of red wine that will be consumed in the course of the meal.

The Seder table will feature a plate with designated spaces for symbolic ingredients. They are:

• Karpas, usually parsley (but also can be celery leaves) to dip in salted water, which recalls both the rebirth associated with spring and the killing of '60 myriads,' during an ancient Jewish rebellion.

• Zeroa, a roasted lamb shank bone that represents the lamb sacrificed on the eve of the exodus from Egypt.

• Betzah, a hard-boiled (or roasted) egg, symbolizes both spring's fertility and mourning for the destroyed Temple.

• Maror, usually horseradish, which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery in Egypt.

• Charoset, usually a combination of apples, nuts, sugar (or honey) and red wine, which signifies the bricks and mortar Jews used as Egyptian slaves.

• Matzo, the unleavened bread that will be broken and shared around the table. It recalls the flight of Jews from Egypt before their bread could rise.

Just after the first Kiddush, and before the meal is served, men (or the host) move around the table with bowls of water for a ritual washing of hands.

The youngest child will ask four questions, including, 'Why is this night different from all others?' At that point, the reading of the Haggadah begins, telling the story of the Exodus. The reading is usually shared around the table with guests taking turns.

Singing and visiting among guests follows the meal. The entire evening can take as much or as little time as hosts want, depending how many people participate and how thoroughly rituals are followed.

- Ellen Sweets

Updated: In an earlier version of this story, it was suggested that Andy Algava spoke a Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino while his family was in hiding during World War II. He was in fact forbidden by his parents to speak the language for fear of persecution.