Chefs Interpret Passover


The meal at the Seder table usually leads to matzo-ball soup and sponge cake without much culinary creativity. As most of us have learned the hard way, there’s only so much you can do to liven up crushed matzos. Professional chefs are taking innovative approaches to food typically associated with the Seder table. Their culinary training leads them to new and exciting approaches that few others might see.

Chef Michael Leviton, owner of Lumière restaurant in his hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, and chef at Persephone in Boston, approaches the question of what to serve for Passover by first thinking about what he can eat.

“I always want to cook what’s in season. Passover is primarily a spring holiday, so I want to have lamb, asparagus, and artichokes—anything that’s of the moment,” says Leviton, who this year was nominated for a James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Northeast, and in 2000 was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine magazine. Many of his favorite spring recipes use seasonal produce and celebrate the Passover tradition of springtime. (Some Ashkenazic Jews do not eat lamb during the Passover holiday due to a rabbinic prohibition, for secular Jews this is rarely a concern.)

Rather than some of the more known Passover desserts like macaroons, Leviton points to flourless chocolate cake as an example of one dish that migrated from the regular dessert menu to the Passover table.

Evan Kleiman, a cookbook author and host of the Good Food radio show on KCRW in Los Angeles, puts an Italian accent on Passover at the Angeli Caffe in L.A., where she is executive chef. She serves Pollo Arrosto (garlic, rosemary, and lemon chicken); and Cianfotta (a stew of leeks, peas, asparagus, artichokes, tender lettuce, and mint) along with pot roast and flourless chocolate cake.

Also using Italy for inspiration is chef Neal Swidler of Chef Neal Feed Me in New Orleans, who one year made zucchini gnocchi for Passover. Yet the chef, who used work with Emeril Lagasse and now creates a prepared foods menu each week for ordering and delivery, looks around the world for inspiration. “For Passover, fruit relishes or chutneys go really well with roasted meats and fowl,” he says. He recently made Moroccan-spiced apricots that could easily be part of a holiday menu, and celebrate the diversity of Passover culinary traditions from around the world.

Leviton says he tends to go towards the Sephardic food traditions for Passover because the flavors tend to be “more interesting” and the ingredients more inclusive (Some Ashkenazim eliminate rice, lentils, corn, and peas during Passover week; Sephardim do not). One year, he made a Spanish-inspired side dish with roasted carrots, capers, pine nuts, and golden raisins—his answer to the Ashkenazi version of tsimmes.

For an inspiration for charoset, he looked all the way back to the ancient world. If Passover celebrates the first spring planting thousands of years ago in the Middle East, “people were not making charoset from apples and walnuts.” His recipe, a mixture of dried apricots, pistachios, dates, and cinnamon, is designed to “evoke that time and place.”

In the hands of a chef like Leviton, or Adrian Hoffman, vice president and culinary director of the Lark Creek Restaurant Group, standard ingredients from Passover tables can be presented in new guises. Hoffman once soaked crushed matzo in a batter of eggs and milk, and then made crepes. “They turned out beautifully,” he says.

Leviton took the flavors of gefilte fish with beet horseradish to create a smoked sable dish with roasted beets and horseradish vinaigrette. “It’s the same flavors, but you don’t have to make the gefilte fish,” he says.

Though some chefs get wildly inventive, adding lemon grass to matzo-ball soup or stuffing chicken with charoset, Leviton says he likes to keep things simple for the holiday.

“Sometimes, you give people a little culinary knowledge and they run to far with it. They put six different cultures onto one menu…. The older I get, the more I like simple, seasonal food. I don’t want it to be gussied up.”

Sometimes, plain matzo is just fine, too.

Michael Leviton’s Persian Charoset

12 medjool dates, diced as finely as possible
1/2 cup toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup sliced, natural (skin on) almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins, plumped in hot water for about 10 minutes
Zest and juice from 1 orange
1 tablespoon port or Concord grape wine (such as Manischewitz)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Generous pinches of salt, freshly ground black pepper, and cayenne pepper.

Combine all of the above in a mixing bowl. Season to taste. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Michael Leviton’s Maple-Mustard Glazed Smoked Sable with Beets and Horseradish Vinaigrette

4 small red beets, greens removed
4 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar (preferably Marukan brand)
4 tablespoons water

1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated (or prepared) horseradish, to taste
1 tablespoon minced chives

1/4 cup maple syrup
7 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
4 (two ounces each) pieces of smoked sable (the more cube-like, the better)
1 tablespoon canola oil

To make the beets:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Wash the beets and place on a 12-by-12 inch square of aluminum foil. Fold up the sides and pour in the vinegar and water. Seal the top by folding over the edges of the foil. Place the foil package in a baking pan and bake for about 1 hour or until each beet is easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Remove the beets from the foil package and, when cool enough to handle, peel.

Coarsely chop the beets and puree in a food processor. The puree will not get very smooth, but this is no problem. Remove the puree from the processor and reserve.

To make the vinaigrette:

In a mixing bowl, combine the vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil and whisk well. Add the horseradish to taste. Right before serving, add the chives and mix well.

To make the smoked sable:

In a bowl, combine the maple syrup, mustard, and sherry vinegar and whisk well. Place the smoked sable in the glaze and let marinate for about 10 minutes.

Heat a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the canola oil. Using tongs, lift the smoked sable portions out of the marinade, letting the excess drip off, and add to the pan. Cook for about one minute or until the glaze caramelizes. Flip the fish over and cook for another minute or so, until the sable is warmed through.

Meanwhile, heat the beet puree in a small sauté or saucepan. Add the chives to the vinaigrette.

Place a spoonful of the beet puree in the center of each of four plates. Top with the sable and drizzle the vinaigrette around. Serves 4.

Adrian Hoffman’s Artichoke and Sherry Soup with King Salmon Carpaccio

1 pound king salmon fillet
4 pounds spring artichokes
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
3 sprigs thyme
1/4 cup sliced shallots
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup sherry, plus additional to finish
3 quarts chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup crème fraiche or sour cream (optional)
Black pepper, to taste

Cut the salmon fillet into 5-inch squares or blocks. Wrap well and place in the freezer. When frozen, cut each piece into 1/16-inch-thick slices. Place parchment paper in between the slices to keep them separated.

Trim the artichokes by quartering each one and removing the choke and the very tips. Do not trim off all of the green parts.

In a thick-bottomed pot over low heat, melt the butter and thyme. Add the shallots and artichokes. Increase the heat and mix well, stirring for a few minutes as the vegetables begin to soften. Add the white wine and sherry. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by 2/3. Pour in the chicken stock, covering the artichokes, and add the bay leaf. Simmer until the artichokes are “falling-apart” soft. Puree the soup in the pot with an immersion blender, or work in batches in a regular blender. Pass through the fine die of a food mill, or strain in a fine strainer, pushing the liquid through with the back of a spoon.

When ready to serve, heat the soup and finish with a splash of sherry. Lay the salmon carpaccio on top and finish with a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream mixed with black pepper.

Serves 6.

For recipes for Charoset from the around the world click here.