Jewish Journal

CAN PASSOVER FOOD LIBERATE US? Vegetable Dishes That Steal the Seder

Photo by Yamit Behar Wood.

Passover means freedom to the Jews. Freedom from Egypt, freedom from slavery and freedom to teach the new generation about our history and traditions. Passover marks the beginning of the “Aviv” — and spring in Israel signals a time of renewal and redemption, a second chance to right any wrongs since Rosh Hashanah. We also are called upon to show mercy and compassion as was shown to us. Because charity begins at home, the seder is a perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and to detoxify our environment in the hopes of gaining a better way forward in all aspects of our lives.

And what better way to start anew spiritually than to begin to rethink not only what comes in and out of our lives but what physically goes into our bodies. Jewish scholars have been talking about nutrition since the Middle Ages. The philosopher Maimonides, who was a physician, wrote many texts on the subject of “food as medicine” — particularly plants. The teachings of the Rambam (an acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon) in the 12th century included a quote that is apt for modern times. He wrote: “No disease that can be treated by diet should be treated with any other means.”

As a chef, I humbly concur. I think most chefs would agree that vegetables, the perfect artform nature has given us, provide an unrivaled opportunity to show off our skills. With only a sharp knife in hand, a bit of ingenuity and sometimes a lick of fire, if handled simply and correctly, vegetables provide infinite flavor combinations, textures and variety. Vegetables make us look good — in more ways than one.

My parents, who turn 80 this year but look 60, enjoy robust health and rarely have breakfast without a requisite plate of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado loaded up with olive oil. This very Mediterranean way of eating spilled over into my professional cooking life; I never tire of coming up with new salads and vegetable dishes that often steal the show and eclipse the protein on the plate. Even when catering a large event, some of my most popular one-bite wonders are pure vegetable eye candy.

It’s interesting to note that despite restrictions on chametz — which means different things to Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables are deemed acceptable by all Jews on Passover.

In Israel, a vegetable-obsessed country with more vegans per capita than anywhere in the world, fresh produce is a cultural mainstay. The Israeli diet is lauded as among the healthiest ways of eating in the modern world. You need look only as far as any restaurant menu in the country to see that the adage “health is wealth” is indeed a very Jewish view of the world.

I think most chefs would agree that vegetables, the perfect artform nature has given us, provide an unrivaled opportunity to show off our skills.   

There is no breakfast, lunch or dinner in Israel, at home or in a café, that doesn’t include an abundance of exciting vegetable dishes, prepared in a myriad of intriguing ways. If you’ve ever hosted Israelis or traveled with them outside of Israel, you likely will find them on the hunt for tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce to go along with their food. On a road trip, Israelis are more likely to bring along fruits and vegetables, much the way people from other cultures pack chips and candy.

Maybe it’s because Israelis wear little clothing for a long period of the year and vegetables are a big bang for the buck, calorie-wise. Maybe it’s because our vegetables taste so much better grown under the relentless Israeli sun. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days when the young country was established, and the most accessible and prolific sustenance in the kibbutzim was vegetables. Meat was scarce and expensive in Israel in those days, so the always practical Jews found a reliable, healthy way of eating, and the “Israeli salad” was born.

The nation was founded on its agricultural proficiency, and it’s no coincidence that a native-born Israeli is called a Sabra, the fruit of a desert flower, prickly and rough on the outside only to reveal a sweet and juicy center.

When my husband and I left Israel and moved to Uganda for his new job, my first excursions were to the farmers markets to check out the local produce. I was overjoyed when I realized that cooking with Ugandan produce would be a farm-to-table experience that mimicked my beloved Shuk HaCarmel, an incredible open-air market in Tel Aviv.  When I opened a restaurant that included a plot of land, I made sure to plant an herb garden, kitchen garden and chile garden on the premises. Hands down, my favorite part of the day was taking my little basket and clippers to the garden and collecting herbs and garnishes right before the dinner rush.

With preparations underway for this celebration of freedom and redemption, it might be time for vegetables to have their day in the sun. Because the theme of Passover is meant to liberate us from our old ways of doing things and to renew our commitment to things that matter most, such as our health, it could be time for vegetables to take center stage. It’s in our blood to cultivate the land, wherever that land may be, and to prosper from it. The process of taking a simple, natural ingredient from the ground and turning it into something delicious is our birthright and a life-affirming exercise.

To that end, I want to share a few extraordinary vegetable dishes that will enchant your guests and enhance whatever traditional favorites you may be cooking this year. They are all make-ahead and straightforward so you can spend time with your guests and enjoy yourself. After all, sharing and connecting with others is always the most crucial purpose of any holiday gathering. For the best flavor, remember to pick vegetables that are in season, and preferably ones that have been grown in your area and didn’t have to travel far to get to your plate.

And if you still aren’t convinced that vegetables deserve a more prominent spot on the table this holiday, and in your life in general, I have a challenge for you this Passover. After the last of your company has gone home, quietly sneak into your kitchen and grab a matzo. Top it with some of my leftover eggplant chopped “liver,” thin slices of avocado, salt and pepper. Then, just try to stop eating it before the rest of the bowl has vanished. Chef’s tip: Everything tastes better when eaten standing up over the sink with only the refrigerator light on for company. Chag sameach.

HERB-STUFFED MUSHROOMS WITH ARUGULA

This simple and elegant dish is beloved by everyone — even mushroom haters. The oven transforms the fungi to golden orbs bursting with savory umami flavor.

20 cremini or white button mushrooms wiped clean, stems removed but not discarded
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large white onion, diced small
to medium
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
3 cloves garlic, pressed into a paste
2 tablespoons white wine or
cooking sherry
1/4 cup mixed fresh parsley, sage,
rosemary and thyme, any or all of
these, leaves only, finely chopped
1/3 cup matzo meal
4 cups fresh arugula, cleaned and dried
for serving as a bed for the
mushrooms

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Remove stems from mushrooms and set aside. Toss mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and place stem-side up on the baking tray. Bake for 10 minutes while you make the filling.

To make the filling, finely dice the mushroom stems and onions and saute in olive oil. Add salt, pepper, paprika and garlic and fry until onions are opaque and there is no liquid in the pan — about 10 minutes frequently stirring, so the mixture doesn’t stick to the bottom.

Deglaze pan with wine or sherry and cook another minute until there is no more liquid in the bottom of the pan. Set aside to cool and remove mushrooms from oven.

Add fresh herbs and matzo meal and stir filling to combine. Stuff mushrooms with an equal amount of filling and sprinkle tops with a bit of paprika for color. Return tray to hot oven for additional 20-25 minutes or until mushrooms are golden brown on top.

Spread arugula on serving tray and top with warm mushrooms to wilt the greens a bit and make them extra delicious. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil and serve.  Serve warm or room temperature.

Makes 20 mushrooms.

Herb-Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula. Photo by Orly Levy.

GYUVETCH: BULGARIAN-STYLE RATATOUILLE

Gyuvetch is a stew similar to the French ratatouille common throughout the Balkans, sometimes cooked with lamb or beef in a clay pot. It’s a meal unto itself and an ode to fresh garden vegetables, so I usually skip the meat. I cook it on my biggest baking tray, so the vegetables have room to spread out and caramelize. It makes for a stunning centerpiece when served on a large platter and will please vegetarians and meat-eaters. It’s traditional to put quartered potatoes and a few cups of okra in Bulgarian gyuvetch. Use them if you wish. Even before cooking, a big tray of gyuvetch is a visual masterpiece.

2-3 zucchini, green, yellow or a mix,
chopped into 2-inch pieces
3 large red or yellow and green bell
peppers, or a mix, seeded and
chopped into 1-inch pieces
2-3 medium-size eggplants, unpeeled
chopped into 2-inch pieces
2-3 white onions, diced medium
3 ripe red tomatoes, chopped medium
1 pound green beans, ends trimmed but
left whole
4 cloves garlic, some chopped,
some minced
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes (optional)
1 tablespoon vegetable stock powder
or bouillon powder (optional)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
and their juice
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup olive oil or grapeseed oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

On a large baking sheet, combine chopped vegetables, spices, canned tomatoes and tomato paste. Pour oil over all and mix thoroughly with a large spoon or clean hands.

Bake for at least 2 hours, stirring gently so as not to break up the shapes of the vegetables, every 20 minutes or so. Cook until there is no liquid on the bottom of the baking tray and vegetables have caramelized. It’s OK, even preferable, that dark brown spots appear on some of the vegetables. Serve hot or room temperature.

Serves 4 as a main course, 12 as a side dish.

Gyuvetch. Photo by Yamit Behar Wood.

EGGPLANT CHOPPED “LIVER”

The meat was scarce and expensive in Israel when this recipe was developed. This mock chopped liver is the perfect stand-in. Spread it on matzo and be amazed by its complex texture and savory flavor profile.  It’s hard to believe it’s made of eggplant. Garnish with a splash of silan or balsamic reduction, avocado slices or roasted red peppers.

3 pounds eggplant, sliced into 1/2-inch
thick rounds
2 teaspoons salt, divided
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 cups white onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup water
3 hard-boiled eggs (optional; omit
for vegan option)
1 tablespoon parsley, finely chopped
for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Place eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle with one teaspoon salt. Leave slices to drain in the sink for 30 minutes.

Line a large baking tray with parchment paper.

Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan and saute the onions and garlic with one teaspoon of salt and one teaspoon of paprika. After the onions have become translucent, add 1/4 cup water to the pan, cover and lower the heat. Simmer covered, about 20 minutes, checking halfway through to make sure onions don’t burn.

Rinse the salt from eggplant slices and dry each slice between paper towels. Pour remaining three tablespoons olive oil onto the paper-lined tray and toss eggplant in oil to coat. Arrange coated slices on tray and bake for about 30 minutes, flipping once halfway through cooking with tongs or a spatula until both sides of eggplant are tender and golden. Take care not to overcook and dry out eggplant.

In the meantime, uncover onions — the water should have evaporated. Cook uncovered for about 10 minutes on low heat until the onion caramelizes and turns golden brown and there is no liquid in the pan. Set aside to cool.

After eggplant is cooked, mix it with the onions and chopped eggs (if using) and place in food processor. Pulse gently, stopping to stir the contents of the processor every 30 seconds. You want the chopped “liver” coarsely chopped, not a paste. If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a large chef’s knife and a wooden cutting board to chop the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with a flutter of parsley if desired. This spread tastes even better the next day.

Makes 12 servings.

RAW ZUCCHINI ROLL-UPS WITH SMOKY EGGPLANT, TAHINI AND PINE NUTS

Zucchini makes a perfect vessel for fillings when sliced thinly with a vegetable peeler and marinated. You can use the ribbons as they are for salads, but I love to fill this smoky eggplant and tahini dip with toasted pine nuts, for texture. It’s perfect finger food for Passover with real “Wow” factor.

For the roll-ups:
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 yellow or green zucchini, washed
but unpeeled

On a clean tray, drizzle olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Wash the zucchini and lay it on a cutting board. Steady the zucchini by holding it by the stem end with one hand and running a wide vegetable peeler down its length horizontally with your other hand. This should produce thin ribbons the width of the vegetable.

Lay them on the prepared tray side by side and turn them over once to cover in the marinade. Sprinkle more salt and pepper on top and marinate in fridge uncovered, a few hours or overnight.

EGGPLANT, TAHINI AND PINE NUT FILLING

2 large eggplants
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper,
or to taste
2 tablespoons raw tahini (sesame seed
paste)
Olive oil and balsamic reduction for
drizzling (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking tray with foil.

Wash and prick eggplants’ skin in a few places with the tines of a fork and place in oven for approximately 30 minutes, turning every few minutes. Roast the whole garlic cloves in their skins alongside the eggplant.

When done, eggplants should be blackened and charred and collapse as if hollow, and garlic should be golden brown and soft to the touch. Remove from oven and let sit on the tray until cool enough to handle.

Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan and prepare clean bowl to mix the filling.

Using a sharp knife, cut a slit at the top of each eggplant. Using a wooden spoon — metal makes eggplant turn black — gently transfer the cooked, silky eggplant from its skin to the bowl and chop until it forms a paste. Squeeze the roasted garlic from its skin and mash into the eggplant. Add remaining ingredients, except a half tablespoon or so of the olive oil and stir with a wooden utensil until it’s a homogenous mixture. Adjust seasonings, cover with plastic wrap directly on top of the filling and let cool in the fridge until ready to assemble.

To assemble, lay a marinated zucchini ribbon flat on a cutting board. Take a heaping teaspoon of the eggplant mixture and place it near the end of the strip nearest you and roll until you’ve reached the end of the strip. Repeat until all the zucchini ribbons and filling have been used.  Leftover filling makes a great snack for later.

To serve, transfer the rolls to a clean platter, drizzle with the remaining olive oil and a stream of balsamic reduction (if using) and serve chilled.

Makes about 20 rolls.