Every spring, Jewish families around the world come together to tell each other a hallowed story of slavery and redemption, to remind themselves why “this night is different than all other nights,” and to partake in a holiday that’s existed, relatively unchanged, for thousands of years.
There’s much to love about Pesach, as it is called in Hebrew: the gathering of family and friends, the beauty of the prayers and songs, the crazed fervor with which children scour the house looking for the afikomen, the pillow you get to recline upon, as well as the four whole cups of wine one is commanded by the almighty to consume throughout the evening. But the best part – at least for the food obsessed, like us – is that the core of Passover is a huge meal, one of personal and religious significance. Every seder guest knows to expect the basics: a fruity, nutty charoset, parsley, horseradish, and the like. But that’s not to say that your seder has to be ordinary. If you’re looking to make your big Passover dinner a little different, while still maintaining the spiritual and traditional significance of the seder, here are a few ideas.
To us, no real Jewish meal would be complete without “Grandma’s chopped liver.” Especially a Passover dinner. That said, we know one way to take your chopped liver to the next level: instead of the traditional chicken livers, go for duck livers instead. Like all things duck, they have a distinctive, dark richness to them that is incomparable, and you don’t need to change your recipe at all. For added flavor, forego the standard vegetable oil when sautéing the onions and livers for – you guessed it – duck fat, and add a tablespoon of kosher wine (port, if you can find it) right at the end. Cool, and serve atop matzoh for a decadent Passover treat.
If you’re not up on your five books of Moses, you might have missed the fact that quails play an integral part in the Exodus saga. Many remember that, when the Israelites were wandering the desert, God fed them with food from the sky, particularly “manna.” He also literally showered them with quail. So, in effect, quail is something of a divine bird, and what better time to enjoy it than at Passover? Try stuffing some whole quail with charoset before you roast them, or topping the cooked birds with a reduction of wine and honeyed dates. Your guests will be happy you did! Also, to keep things interesting, feel free to place a quail egg on your seder plate instead of a traditional chicken’s egg for a bit more Exodus verisimilitude.
Should you be on the hunt for Passover poultry and quail is not your style, a capon makes a wonderful, festive roast. Not sure what a capon is? Back in the day when chicken was considered more of a dish for plebs and peasants, smart cooks realized that castrating a rooster would cause it to almost double in size, a dish fit for lords and ladies. Bigger than a hen but smaller than a turkey, and possessed of a deeper, more robust flavor than your standard chicken, capon is perfect for the seder table. And speaking of chickens, it would of course behoove you to roast a couple of those in the week or two before the big night, making sure to reserve the bones for stock. Would any seder be complete without a hot bowl of matzoh ball soup?
“Chad Gadya” (A little goat)
A favorite Passover song for many families is “Chad Gadya,” a story about “a little goat that my father bought with two zuzim.” The tale spirals almost out of control, ending with the Angel of Death smiting a poor butcher (obviously a song of Eastern European origin), but it also reminds us that goat was for centuries a traditional Jewish dish. For the seder, a goat roast makes an outstanding main course. Does someone in your family have an excellent brisket recipe? Well, that same recipe will undoubtedly work perfectly with a large roast of young goat, whether or not you purchased it for two zuzim.
An obvious choice for a celebratory meal, brisket is easy to braise and keep warm for serving. This is especially important for the cook to consider, as the seder can go on for hours before the dinner course begins. The tradition is to stretch the telling of the Passover story long into the night, but with brisket there is no need to worry about drying out or overcooking the meat.
How can we forget the paschal lamb, the symbol of springtime, renewal and freedom? If it’s on our plates, we certainly won’t. If you’re looking for a great main course for your seder (and you decided not to go with goat), lamb is the perfect choice. Whether rubbed with olive oil and herbs and baked, slow-roasted or smoked, and whether you choose roasts, racks, or a whole leg seasoned with plenty of rosemary, the smell of lamb cooking in your kitchen is undoubtedly the smell of Passover. We have some excellent ideas for lamb dishes here. And, naturally, don’t forget your roasted shank; some lucky seder guest (or perhaps the cook?) might get some excellent marrow out of that lamb bone!