Danny Corsun (right) leads a pre-Passover cooking class for the Cool Shul community on a recent weekend morning in Marina del Rey. Photo by Josh Marks

Danny Corsun cooks up holiday food for thought


The aromas of flour, olive oil, apples, basil, pomegranates and sun-dried tomatoes filled the kitchen as modern-day Jews, young and old, made matzo just as their ancient Israelite ancestors did in their haste out of Egypt on their journey to the Promised Land.

Members of Cool Shul, a Westside synagogue associated with the Jewish Universalism movement, participated in a recent pre-Passover cooking class in a private home in Marina del Rey, led by chef Danny Corsun from Culinary Kids Academy. In addition to matzo, the group of about 25 helped Corsun put together charoset and pesto.

“Somehow, some way, we can look at what we are being given in the Torah and use it as a guide on how to live our own lives,” Corsun explained before inviting the class to chop apples and knead dough. “So, what we do at Culinary Kids is, we take things that happened 3,500 years ago and show you that, actually, you can use this stuff today in 2017.”

Experiencing the biblical Exodus by making matzo is an example of how Culinary Kids and Cool Shul are creating a hands-on form of Judaism, what Corsun calls an attempt at making it personal.

“It’s a way for them to be involved in their Judaism where they’re not just sitting in front of a book or sitting in the sanctuary,” said Helen Nightengale, board president at Cool Shul.

Cool Shul has worked with Corsun before other holidays to use food as a teaching tool. Rabbi and Cantor Diane Rose, spiritual leader at Cool Shul, worked with Corsun during her previous stint at Beth Shir Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica.

“We take things that happened 3,500 years ago and show you that, actually, you can do this stuff today in 2017.” — Danny Corsun, Culinary Kids Academy

“He’s the perfect way to do experiential education,” Rose said of Corsun’s cooking class. “Historically, he’s always done it with us with the kids, but there’s no reason why all the adults don’t need experiential Jewish education, as well, so it’s a really good partnership. All those adults signed up to come learn how to make matzo — it’s a Cool Shul family educational event.”

As the class began, children and adults gathered around Corsun as he demonstrated how to make matzo — take the flour; make a hole in the middle and add salt, olive oil and water; put the dough together; flatten the dough with a rolling pin; put it in a pan; stretch it, making it as flat as possible so it comes out thin and crispy; blast in a 500-degree oven for 18 minutes.

“We’re going to talk about a story today while the matzo is baking, but it’s about actually taking ownership,” Corsun said. “What we’re trying to do is make Judaism personal. I’m no longer doing it because my mother told me to. I’m no longer doing it because the rabbi tells me to. I’m doing it because I’m getting something out of it. This is actually informing my decisions on how I’m forming my life.” n

Michael Twitty eats olives in Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. Photo by Jacob W. Dillow

A taste of Black history and a side of Jewish culture


As an African-American Jew by choice, the esteemed author and culinary historian Michael Twitty considers Passover his favorite Jewish holiday. 

“Nothing pulls more at my heart than the songs and traditions and recipes … of the world’s oldest Emancipation ritual,” Twitty wrote on his blog, Afroculinaria. “There is also no other holiday where I feel more whole as an African-American who happens to be Jewish, thanks to the shared history of slavery leading to redemption and freedom.”

In two separate events at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, Twitty will share his life’s journey as well as Passover recipes that draw on his penchant for what he calls “kosher/soul.”

“It’s taking the foods of African and Jewish diasporic people and blending them together,” Twitty, 40, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., said during a recent telephone interview.

At the Skirball, he’ll whip up his West African brisket, seasoned with spices including ground ginger, paprika, cinnamon, chili powder and cayenne, then seared in olive oil before being baked atop sautéed onions.

For the seder, his hard boiled eggs are cooked in water steeped in hibiscus, accompanied by a salt water brine spiked with a touch of lavender and preserved lemon.

During seders past, Twitty has served sweet potato kugel, matzo-meal fried chicken, and an apple-rhubarb charoset.

He follows the Sephardic custom of eating legumes and rice during Passover, the latter a Carolina Gold version originally brought to the United States by enslaved Africans.

His Pesach table is graced with two distinct seder plates: one a traditional Ashkenazi version, the other influenced by African and African-American cuisine.  There is a collard green for the bitter herb maror, for example, as well as a molasses and pecan charoset.

Twitty noted that Passover often comes in April, which is the same month in 1865 that his enslaved forebears were freed after the Civil War. 

In Alabama, a great-great-grandmother was “liberated on that day from her particular labor camp called a plantation,” Twitty said.  A great-great-great-grandfather, Edward, born in 1839, had toiled on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. “One day my ancestor was hot, so he knelt by a creek and splashed some water on himself.  That’s when my Daddy saw the whip marks on his back,” Twitty said.

“For me, being Black was a great preparation for becoming Jewish,” Twitty added.  “When you are African-American, your antennae [for sensing trouble] are planted deep inside your skull.  It’s learning how to recognize and process prejudice.”

Twitty grew up in a nominally Christian home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his grandparents had fled Southern racism during the Great Migration north almost a century ago.  “I didn’t like soul food, and I didn’t like being Black,” Twitty said in a 2016 TED talk of his early years.

But he slowly learned to appreciate his heritage, even as he was drawn to Judaism, first after watching the film adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” when he was 7. He promptly told his mother that he wanted to be Jewish, yet he was taken aback when she informed him that conversion would require him to have a second circumcision.

Even so, his interest in Judaism persisted, and Twitty continued to fall in love with the culture, especially through food, while hanging out with his Jewish friends’ grandmothers in the kitchen.

Years later, Twitty’s uncle, an avid genealogist, found that their family tree included distant relatives who were Jewish. A recent medical test revealed that Twitty’s own DNA features some Ukrainian Ashkenazi ancestry.

While researching Jewish cuisine for a festival in 2000 sponsored by the Smithsonian, Twitty learned to make challah from the prominent Jewish chef Joan Nathan. When he dropped by a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue in Maryland, in part to obtain recipes from the rebbitzen, a caterer, Twitty discovered a spiritual home. He converted to Judaism in an Orthodox ceremony in 2002 while he was in his early 20s.

Of why he was drawn to Judaism, Twitty said, “It’s a very realistic [spiritual] path. The Hebrew word for worship is ‘avodah,’ which is the same word for work. And prayer is actually ‘tefillah,’ which comes from the word ‘L’Hitpalel’ – to turn inside and examine yourself. It’s also a very humorous religion, where laughing at yourself is almost a 614th mitzvah,” he said, a reference to the 613 in the Torah. “Black culture,” he added, “also relies a lot on humor as a means of survival.”

As Twitty began teaching Jewish studies around Washington, however, not everyone in the community was welcoming. One fellow educator accused him of teaching his students to steal. Others told him he might be religiously Jewish, but could never be culturally Jewish.

“People often want to put me in a box,” he added of his diverse identities, which include his being gay. “But I try to be as unboxable as possible.”

Twitty’s work as a culinary historian includes research on how slaves helped to create Southern cuisine, as well as extensive interviews with Southern Jews about how their traditional recipes changed after their families settled down South (think gumbo and matzo ball soup).

A turning point for Twitty came in 2011, when he read a book, “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin,” filled with family recipes that had been written down by prisoners of the concentration camp. In doing so, the women were performing an act of defiance, preserving their heritage even while suffering.

“It dawned on me that the same thing could and should be done with the African-American connection to slavery: how we should connect to our food roots and use that as a means of preservation of our heritage and resistance against the narrative that says we should forget,” he said.

Twitty thereafter embarked upon what he tartly describes as his “Southern Discomfort Tour” to research his upcoming book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” due in stores in August. The book describes his odyssey retracing his African ancestors’ cuisine, including how he prepared food as slaves once did, on historic plantations and dressed in period garb; how he shared meals with both African-Americans and descendants of his family’s former slave masters; and how he taught kosher soul cooking classes at an Alabama synagogue.

Preparing historically accurate dishes on the very plantations where his ancestors had labored is another act of defiance, Twitty said.

“I wanted to reclaim those spaces for the people who were victimized and hurt there,” he said. That’s also why he believes that Auschwitz might be a good place to celebrate a bar mitzvah. “I want to look into the faces of those who would destroy, oppress, minimize and erase us and go, ‘You didn’t vaporize us — sorry,’ ” he said.

Twitty’s goal is to seek what he calls “culinary justice” for African-Americans, whose food was appropriated by white Southerners who refused to acknowledge its origin. “It’s [in part] about honoring the source,” he said. “Some [white] people who are on top may feel they have a certain amount of privilege and power, so they can freely access [African-American] culture. It’s not borrowing, it’s not quoting; it’s taking without giving credit. It’s theft and exploitation.”

Part of Twitty’s inspiration comes from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal rabbis he’s known who are dedicated to social causes. “Culinary justice is a very Jewish concept to me,” he said.

MICHAEL TWITTY’S MATZO MEAL FRIED CHICKEN

This is a blend of old school, antebellum recipes with my own special kosher/soul touch.

– 1 teaspoon kosher salt
– 2 teaspoons Bell’s Poultry Seasoning
– 2 teaspoons coarse ground black pepper
– 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
– 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1 teaspoon (sweet) paprika
– 1/4 teaspoon allspice
– 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
– 2 kosher chickens, preferably fryers, cut into breast, wing, leg and thigh portions
– 4 eggs
– 3 cups matzo meal
– 3 cups per whole chicken kosher-for-Passover cooking oil or, if you are Sephardic like me, vegetable oil mixed with Crisco

Combine the salt and seasonings together in a bowl.

Wash chicken and pat dry. Season the chicken with the spice mixture and set aside for a few hours in the refrigerator.

Prepare the egg wash by beating eggs with a fork and mixing with a little water. Then prepare your station: The egg wash should be in a shallow dish and the matzo meal should be in a separate shallow dish.

Brush the chicken with the egg wash, then cover in matzo meal. Place the coated chicken pieces on a rack over a cookie sheet in the refrigerator to set. This will help keep the coating on. The chicken can sit for up to 30 minutes.

Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan until hot but not smoking, about 325 degrees or so. Follow the rules of frying chicken: Ease the pieces into the frying pan or Dutch oven. Do not crowd the pan. Remember dark pieces take a bit longer to achieve doneness. Seasoning the coating is a no-no because some herbs and spices will burn in the coating. Adding more chicken will cool the oil, so adjust accordingly.

Fry around 8 minutes each side and turn to brown all around another 4 minutes per piece. Use your best judgment — crispy and golden brown on the outside doesn’t mean done on the inside. To test, you should aim for 160 degrees or above for white meat and 175 degrees or above for dark meat. The appearance of the chicken and the doneness of the meat inside are the two factors you have to balance when frying chicken. There is no exact formula, so have oil and meat thermometers handy, and use your eyes, ears and nose to do the rest of the work. Use tongs, not a fork, to deal with the chicken.

When the pieces are done, transfer them to a clean rack over paper towels on a cookie sheet. Want to get rid of more oil? After 5 minutes, transfer to a plate or basket or bowl with paper towels, just don’t do this when they come out of the pan fresh it will affect the crust.

Makes 8 servings.

Source: afroculinaria.com

For more information about Michael Twitty’s appearances at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 13, visit skirball.org.

Recipes: Around the world on a magic charoset ride


The holiday of Passover, which celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery, is a time when families all over the world gather to retell the story of freedom. Customs vary, but during the Passover seder, certain ceremonial foods always are served.

One of the mainstays of the seder plate is charoset, usually a mixture of fruit, nuts, wine and spices. This mixture is chopped and ground together to resemble the mortar that was used by the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. 

Depending on the ingredients available, it is prepared differently in Jewish communities all over the world. Many people are familiar with the central European version, which consists of apples, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and wine. Israeli charoset, on the other hand, may include peanuts, bananas, apples, dates, wine and a little matzo meal.

During a recent trip to Cuba, we discovered that because the country is so poor, fruit and nuts are not easily available, but the Cuban Jews have adapted by using a simple mixture of matzo and wine for their charoset. Yemenite charoset is made with dates and dried figs and is spiced with coriander and chilies.

Many years ago, we decided to prepare a variety of charoset for our evening seder, and it has since become a tradition. In order for our guests to know what they are tasting, we serve each kind on a plate with the flag of its country of origin. As part of the fun, we also invented a California charoset, an original family recipe that combines oranges, raisins, avocado and prunes.

At the end of the meal, we serve several types of charoset for dessert. I always make extra Yemenite charoset balls and dip them in melted chocolate as a special treat. They can be made ahead, arranged on plates, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until ready to serve. Just make sure to have a few extra for Elijah!

YEMENITE CHAROSET

– 1 cup pitted dates, chopped
– 1/2 cup dried figs, chopped
– 1/3 cup sweet Passover wine
– 1 teaspoon ground ginger
– Pinch of coriander
– 1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced, or pinch of cayenne
– 2 tablespoons matzo meal
– 3 tablespoons sesame seeds

In a large bowl, combine the dates, figs and wine. Add the ginger, coriander, minced red chili pepper and matzo meal and blend thoroughly. Add sesame seeds and roll into 1-inch balls.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups or 20 balls.

GREEK CHAROSET

– 2 cups pitted dates
– 1/2 cup raisins
– 1/2 cup sweet Passover wine
– 1 cup walnuts, ground
– 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Place the dates and raisins in a bowl and blend with the wine. Add the walnuts and ginger and blend well. Shape into a pyramid.
Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups.

TURKISH CHAROSET

– 1/2 cup dried apricots
– 2 cups apples, peeled, cored and sliced
– 1/2 cup pitted dates
– Juice of 1 lemon
– 1 cup walnuts, chopped

In a small saucepan, combine the apricots, apples, dates, lemon juice and enough water to cover the mixture. Cook until tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and mash with a fork, blending thoroughly. Mix in the walnuts. Spoon into a serving bowl or roll into balls.

Makes about 2 cups or 24 balls.

CENTRAL EUROPEAN CHAROSET

– 2 apples, unpeeled, cored and finely chopped
– 1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
– 2 tablespoons honey
– 1 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1/4 cup sweet Passover wine

Combine the apples, walnuts, honey and cinnamon in a bowl and mix well. Add enough wine to bind the mixture. Serve in a bowl or roll into 1-inch balls and arrange on a serving plate.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups or about 20 balls.

ISRAELI CHAROSET

– 2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped
– 2 bananas, chopped
– Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
– Juice and zest of 1/2 orange
– 15 dates, pitted and chopped
– 1/2 cup peanuts or pistachio nuts, ground
– 1 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1/4 cup sweet Passover wine
– 5 tablespoons matzo meal

In a large bowl, combine the apples, bananas, lemon and orange juice and zests, dates and peanuts and mix well. Add the cinnamon, wine and matzo meal and blend thoroughly.

Makes 3 1/2 cups.

CALIFORNIA CHAROSET

– 1 large avocado, peeled, pit removed and diced
– Juice of 1/2 lemon
– 1/2 cup sliced almonds
– 1/3 cup raisins
– 4 seedless dates
– 2 figs or prunes
– 1 whole orange, zest and sections
– 2 tablespoons apple juice
– 2 tablespoons matzo meal

Toss the avocado and lemon juice in a bowl; set aside.

In a processor or blender, place the almonds, raisins, dates and figs. Process until coarsely chopped. Add the orange zest and orange sections and process briefly to combine. Add the avocado and process 1 or 2 seconds more. Transfer the mixture to a glass bowl and gently fold in the apple juice and matzo meal. Cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator.

Makes about 3 cups.

SEPHARDIC CHAROSET
(Island of Rhodes)

– 1/2 cup dates, pitted
– 2 cups apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
– 1/2 cup dried apricots
– 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

In medium saucepan, combine the dates, apples and dried apricots. Add enough water to cover. Over high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the mixture is tender enough to mash with a fork. Place the mixture in a processor and process, turning on and off the processor until the mixture is blended. Do not puree. Just before serving, fold in the walnuts.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

ITALIAN CHAROSET

– 2 apples, unpeeled, cored and coarsely chopped
– 6 dates, finely chopped
– 1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped
– 1/2 cup almonds, finely chopped
– 1/4 cup walnuts, finely chopped
– 1/4 cup raisins, finely chopped
– Juice of 1 lemon
– 1 to 2 tablespoons matzo meal

In a large bowl, combine the apples, dates, egg, almonds, walnuts and raisins and blend thoroughly. Add the lemon juice and enough matzo meal to bind the mixture. Mound the charoset in a bowl or roll it into 1-inch balls and arrange on a plate.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups or 20 balls.

PERSIAN CHAROSET

– 1 pear, unpeeled, cored and finely chopped
– 1 apple, unpeeled, cored and finely chopped
– 1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
– 1 cup almonds, finely chopped
– 1 cup hazelnuts, finely chopped
– 1 cup pistachio nuts, finely chopped
– 1 cup dates, chopped
– 1 cup raisins, chopped
– 2 teaspoons ground ginger
– 2 teaspoons cinnamon
– 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
– 1 to 2 tablespoons sweet Passover wine

In a large bowl, combine the pear, apple, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pistachio nuts, dates and raisins. Mix well. Add the ginger, cinnamon, vinegar and enough wine to bind the mixture. Transfer to a platter, shape into a pyramid, cover with plastic wrap and chill well.

Makes 5 cups


JUDY ZEIDLER is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of 10 cookbooks, including “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com.

5 quick, tasty and kosher ways to use leftover matzo


If you celebrate Passover, you're familiar with this scene: The closing prayers are sung, the last bite of seder brisket is a distant memory, and here you are facing the holiday's inevitable final ritual: [aside] piles of leftover matzo. This unleavened Passover staple never fails to divide the closest of kin — some claim it's the best thing before sliced bread, while others dismiss it as gastronomically inferior to sawdust.

But whether you detest the stuff or eat it straight out of the box, by the time Passover ends, you're probably less than thrilled at the idea of force-feeding yourself bland iterations of the same matzo sandwiches you've eaten for a week. Don't let the “bread of affliction” bring you down! With a little creativity, matzo can be as refreshingly versatile in the kitchen as it is divisive at the dinner table. Here are five easy and delicious ways you can enjoy (or dispense with) your matzo leftovers.

1. Matzo is technically already a “cracker,” but let's be honest, it could get much more adventurous with the term. Coat small matzo pieces in olive oil and sprinkle with any spice combination you prefer: za'atar and cumin; coriander, turmeric and paprika; dried parsley and garlic powder; or rosemary and salt are all good options. Bake in the oven until browned, then serve the newly transformed (read: yummy) chips with your favorite spreads, dips and toppings for an easy snack or hors d'oeuvre. Alternatively, skip the herbs and just add cheese for Passover-friendly “matchos” (I had to).

2. Sneak leftover matzo into your dinner and get the added bonus of releasing stress by crushing the crackers with a food processor, mortar and pestle, or your bare hands. With that you have a ready-made bread crumbs substitute. Or take it one step further and combine the crumbs with flour and egg to provide a crispy matzo crust for proteins and veggies. That cardboard-esque matzo crunchiness really comes in handy here.

3. You know what they say … when not in Rome but wishing you could be, make matzo pizza! Place matzo on a foil-lined baking sheet, using full crackers for a “pie” or small bite-sized portions for snacking. Spread a thin layer of sauce, sprinkle with your choice of cheese and toppings, and bake at 400 F until the cheese melts and the toppings are cooked. If you're willing to go the extra mile to avoid “crust” sogginess — remember, matzo is more permeable to sauce than normal pizza dough – melt a thin layer of cheese onto the matzo before adding the other ingredients on top.

4. Want to avoid being the empty-handed seder guest or need a quick treat to serve last-minute visitors? Chocolate toffee matzo bark is a quick and scrumptious solution. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and matzo, mix butter or margarine with brown sugar until boiling, spread the toffee over the matzo and bake at 350 F until the coating bubbles. Take it out, dump chocolate chips on top, spread the melting chocolate evenly and sprinkle with your favorite toppings (mine are sea salt and chopped pecans). Refrigerate, and voila! Your extra matzo is now the perfectly flaky, crunchy base for an addictive bite-sized dessert.

5. Brunch is a beloved meal all year round, so why neglect it at Passover just because you can't eat the leavened stuff? Matzo brei is a simple, crowd-pleasing comfort food that's perfect for any brunch table. Break the matzo into small pieces and run under hot water until it begins to soften (avoid mushiness). Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir the matzo into the eggs. Heat oil or butter in a skillet, pour in the mixture and fry over high heat until golden. Serve with jam, cinnamon-sugar or whatever other sides you fancy and prepare yourself for that warm fuzzy feeling.

“Rhapsody in Schmaltz”: Matzah and Michael Wex


'There are those who say that God gave us cardboard so that we could describe the taste of matzoh, but taste is what matzoh is not about,” Michael Wex writes in his new book, “Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It.” 

“Rhapsody” is Wex’s provocative meditation on the crucial role food plays in keeping Jews Jewish. At the heart of his argument lies Passover, a holiday whose central ritual revolves around a meal that is festive and reflective, concrete and symbolic.

For Wex, the matzo is the ultimate Jewish food, in its originality, its longevity and its symbolism. “An aftertaste of oppression at a feast of deliverance,” is how he describes it.

In focusing our attention not on taste or — heaven knows, flavor — the matzo is the ultimate “brain food” — it forces you to think. In the excerpt below, Wex describes the starring role matzos play at the seder table, and how a dry cracker proved crucial to shaping and maintaining a people.'


While few contemporary seders are as momentous as the first, those that follow the traditional ritual are largely devoted to reinforcing the attitudes and beliefs that that seder was there to encourage. A sacrifice designed to distinguish Israelites from Egyptians has developed into an annual all-you-can-eat, semi-open bar symposium on the Exodus and its meaning. Like any proper symposium — the word means “drinking together” in Greek — it starts off with a glass of wine, after which the chief symposiast, generally known as Dad or Zeyde — Yiddish for grandpa — points to the three matzohs stacked before him and declares, in an Aramaic that he might not understand, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” For the next few hours, you’re his. 

Michael Wex. Photo by Zöe Gemelli

The length of the seder depends on the leader’s frame of mind, the size of the group, and the number of timeouts needed to threaten or cajole increasingly restive children, whose levels of boredom-stoked hunger rise in proportion to the adults’ interest in reciting and discussing the text of the Hagaddah, the ritual GPS — “Raise glass here”; “Dip finger in wineglass now” — that is part program, part menu, part interpretive overview of the Exodus. Hagaddah means narrative, and the ritual that it both embodies and describes is devoted to explaining why you’re going to eat that matzoh, even as you start to despair of when. You look at it, you hold it up, you point to it and discuss its history — but it’s a long time before you get to eat it. And even then, you don’t just cram it into your mouth; if you don’t follow the proper procedure — an olive’s worth from each of the top two matzohs in the stack, eaten as you lean to your left after Dad has made the blessing — you might as well watch the hockey game. The matzoh is the climax; the endless waiting and arguing and rehearsal of minority opinions the casuistic Kama Sutra that gets you there.

The matzoh is followed by an equally obligatory appetizer of bitter herbs, anything from Romaine lettuce or arugula to the traditional, if halachically suspect, horseradish, strong enough to call forth tears, but not so potent as to raise any gorges. The chosen herb is dipped into charoses, a paste of walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine meant to remind us of the bricks and mortar with which the Egyptians embittered our ancestors’ lives. One final appetizer follows, a party sandwich that fulfills the commandment in Exodus 12:8 about eating matzoh and bitter herbs together. Finally — at ten, ten-thirty, or even later — the menu blossoms into a lavish, less over-determined supper that my family always started with hard-boiled eggs in salt water — a little treat for the kids — after which the second half of the Hagaddah is recited.

This primal Jewish meal has more to do with discussion than digestion; you’re meant to feed your head, not stuff your face. The real treat isn’t dinner, which is only standing in for the Paschal sacrifice that can’t be offered before the Messiah arrives; the gustatory high point is the matzoh. Tension is supposed to build, the participants are supposed to get more and more anxious, more and more involved in the story, attaining release only when the leader distributes the matzoh, recites the usual blessing over the bread and follows it up with a special, seder-only benediction, “On the eating of matzoh.” Then, and only then, does mouth meet matzoh, and longing — fulfillment.

It doesn’t matter what it tastes like, we’ve been jonesing for it, especially since matzoh is otherwise banned on the day of the seder, and bread — if you can find any — has been off-limits since midmorning. It isn’t really nourishment that we crave — we invented Yom Kippur, we know from not eating — but a Jew loves matzoh like it was sweet jelly roll:

Matzoh is forbidden all day on the eve of Passover, as our sages have told us: “He who eats matzoh on Passover eve is like a man who has sex with his fiancée in her father’s house” [Yerushalmi Pesokhim, 10:1]. Our sages have decreed that anyone who has sex with his fiancée while she is still a ward of her father is to be flogged for his willful disregard of proper standards of behavior: in displaying his lust, he shows himself lecherous and lewd, unable to restrain himself long enough to hear the Seven Blessings with her beneath the wedding canopy. So does he who eats matzoh on Passover eve display his lust and his gluttony, his inability to restrain himself and wait until nighttime and the seven blessings that must be pronounced before eating matzoh … and he is likewise to be flogged for his willfulness.

It is hard to imagine how something so lacking in the usual attributes of good eating — things like taste, texture, and aroma — could arouse such passion, but matzoh is more than mere food; it’s the essence of Judaism — what Yiddish calls dos pintele yid, the irreducible nub of Jewishness — wrapped up in a biscuit. Mordechai Yoffe, the late sixteenth/early seventeenth-century author of the passage just quoted, is expressing the standard idea that even the coarsest, most uncouth Jew can see through the fripperies of moistness and flavor to the real essence of this Diana Prince of the bake pan. Lust he might, but for the freedom of yidishkayt, of Jewishness, in all its crunchy, nutlike splendor. The matzoh-hound looks past the matzoh’s workaday exterior to the divine spark that makes it what it is; instead of the crudest imaginable cracker, he sees an edible image of his soul, a crispy, immediately tangible version of his spiritual genome, and nothing’s going to keep him from it. Without matzoh there would be no Jews, the Torah would have stayed in heaven, and no one would ever have heard of kosher. 

Michael Wex is the author of fiction and nonfiction books and a speaker on Yiddish language and culture. He lives in Toronto.

Passover is perfect for hitting the road to culinary adventure


You’ve just touched down in Chicago. Or New Orleans. Or New York. You’re in town to visit your aunt, the one with lipstick-stained teeth and the husband no one wants to talk politics with. The saving grace: You have a week to indulge in deep-dish pizza. Or beignets. Or bagels. 

But wait. You can’t. It’s Passover. 

Here’s a crazy notion. What if the parameters of Pesach — which begins the evening of April 22 and leads many to visit out-of-town relatives — didn’t have to be a deterrent to taking full advantage of an exciting restaurant scene? After all, some live to eat. Some eat to live. Everyone travels to eat. 

On those nights when there is no seder, there are still plenty of opportunities to eat out and actually enjoy yourself without having to sit facing blank walls to avoid seeing all the dishes you can’t consume.

Amy Kritzer, the Austin-based creator of the food blog What Jew Wanna Eat and author of the upcoming kosher dessert book “Sweet Noshings,” views Passover as a time to relish creativity in the kitchen. Her blog features recipes for matzah nachos (machos!) and Thai matzah pizza, and she contends that many restaurants use Passover to try new things. For her, that’s something to look forward to. 

“Most restaurants are used to accommodating gluten-free people, allergies and such. Passover is just one more challenge they take on, and many of them are ready for it,” Kritzer said. “One year in New York, I remember eating matzah breadsticks at an Italian place. They were incredible.”

In cities with a varied, dynamic restaurant scene — think New York — many top eateries even prepare special menus for the holiday. Think of it as an opportunity to see the chef operating at peak creative levels. Each spring, for example, chef Hillary Sterling at NoHo’s Vic’s whips up a Passover-themed menu inspired by the Seder Hamishi, a secret meal that Jews prepared inside the homes of Christian neighbors during the Spanish Inquisition. It features carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke), bottarga (cured fish roe) and guinea hen. 

Of course, not everyone travels to New York for Passover. But no matter where you find yourself, you can always try a good deli — even if traditional sandwiches are out of the question.

 “It’s actually one of the busiest times of the year,” said Harold Ginsburg, owner of Art’s Deli in Studio City.  

Suzee Markowitz, owner of Factor’s Famous Deli in West L.A., echoed Ginsburg, noting that she sees many unfamiliar faces come Passover time. “We have a lot of families visiting us from out of town around the holiday,” she said. 

Both restaurateurs noted that, in addition to enjoying seasonal items such as matzah brei and flourless desserts, people tend to simply order deli favorites such as pastrami or corned beef — minus rye bread. 

Now, to purists, that may sound just plain wrong. But Lara Rabinovitch, a specialist in food culture and history who served as consulting producer on “City of Gold,” the award-winning documentary on Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, said there’s reason to keep an open mind. Rabinovitch currently is working on a book about pastrami, which includes delving into a history that doesn’t include its now-familiar companion, rye.   

“First of all, pastrami was originally not served on bread,” she said. “It’s from Romania and it was eaten on its own there originally. Bread is a sideshow to the main event, which is pastrami. In most delis, bread is an oversight, anyway. You don’t lose much by losing bread.” 

So, think of Passover as the one time of year when you’re forced to eat pastrami the way it was intended.

Orly Olivier’s Sephardic roots inform the way she engages with the holiday, emphasizing family and food above all. The Los Angeles-based artist’s exhibition “Petit Takett: Love, Legacy and Recipes from the Maghreb,” a celebration of her Tunisian family heritage, just completed its run at the Skirball Cultural Center. 

Olivier recommends outings during Passover week that in some ways mirror the spirit of the holiday. For her, that means family-style dining and sampling small plates. 

“If I were doing Passover dinner in a restaurant, I’d do Elf in Echo Park. It’s 100 percent vegetarian. They have an amazing approach to food,” she said. “It’s small plates, so you share everything. You’ll never wish you had a piece of bread — or meat, for that matter.” 

Olivier also advises calling a restaurant before you go to let the staff know you’re coming in with dietary restrictions. If you let them know you’re coming in for Passover, she said, they’ll probably “pimp it out for you.” 

When Tannaz Sassooni is not busy with work as a technical director at Dreamworks Animation, she runs the Persian food blog All Kinds of Yum. Sassooni believes Persian restaurants are another viable option during the holiday, as bread isn’t a major part of the meal. Sassooni said the menu and atmosphere should be major selling points. 

 “A lot of it is yogurt-based. You can do small plates and everyone is reaching over each other and talking over each other,” she said. “It’s amazing.” 

The Cask serves up kosher wines for connoisseurs


In the past, trying to put together a kosher wine tasting was a challenge because it seemed the major stores offered so few choices. A quick look at the inventory of some of the more sympathetic non-kosher wine shops around Los Angeles reveals a mere page of choices, but if you look a little further, there are only a couple each of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, or whatever varietal you choose. It’s like they looked at the broad spectrum of wine and decided it was better if they had one kosher selection of each varietal and left it at that. Look further still, and you’ll see only a couple of options that cost more than $30. On the one hand, the frugal oenophile may see this as a plus, but I see it as a kind of dismissal that implies kosher wines probably aren’t that good, so why go to the trouble of putting any of the more expensive juice on the shelf?

This lack of choice and of higher-end titles is self-perpetuating — you don’t get very good selections, or much of a selection at all, and it reinforces the sense that kosher wine overall — and Israeli wines in particular — aren’t very good. Well, there’s a case to be made that they weren’t very good for a very long time, but that the tide has turned, and a new crop of more artisanal winemakers has come into their own over the past several years. 

Winemaking has been part of Jewish history from the very beginning (Noah gets drunk and passes out naked in Genesis 9:21) and from the very earliest references to Israel. However, for generations in modern times, the landscape was completely dominated by Manischewitz, about which I will not write another word in the name of common decency.

Of course, making better wine is one thing, but selling it is another. Enter Michael Bernstein and The Cask on Pico. With a selection of nearly 500 wine titles, it is the largest and best all-kosher wine and spirits shop on the West Coast. 

Bernstein, 34, was looking for a “recession-proof” business and saw a void in the market for selling kosher wine to an evolving, increasingly sophisticated market. Four years later, and he’s loving it. “This is one of the best times I’ve ever had in terms of business. You meet very interesting people, whether it’s the winemakers or the customers. There’s a great camaraderie in the business. I can’t think of another industry that’s more fun.” 

Admittedly more of a “Scotch guy,” Bernstein (and his staff) has tasted every title in the store, and he’s developed his palate in the process. Although he prides himself on service and selection (he sells almost every bottle himself), Bernstein sees himself as equal parts educator and salesman. “People like to compare one bottle or vintage to another,” he said. His approach is to broaden the consumer’s horizons: “I love to get people to try more exciting things. If you liked that, you should really try this.”

The Cask’s refrigerated wine cellar behind the main sales floor holds some of the rarest and most expensive selections, including older vintages of Domaine du Castel (Judean Hills, Israel), Pontet Canet (Pauillac, Bordeaux) and Covenant (Napa Valley). Most bottles in this chilly little sanctuary sell for more than $65. The most expensive bottle it has sold? A 2003 Valandraud from St. Emilion in Bordeaux for $550. 

Best-selling title? Bartenura Moscato at $13.95, a title that has caught fire, in part, because its distinctive blue bottle was prominently featured in a video of the song “Do It Now” by half-Jewish rapper Drake. Evidently, Moscato rhymes with bravo, model and bottle. 

As for Manischewitz: Bernstein doesn’t carry it. “I’m a fan of tradition, but this,” he said, waving his hand at the handsome display of dozens of hand-picked bottles that adorn the walls in dark wood cabinetry that runs from floor to ceiling, “isn’t about that.”

What wine to pair with gefilte fish? “Who eats gefilte fish?” If you absolutely had to? “I hope I don’t have to.”

There is a full selection of every kind of spirit imaginable, including a wall of Scotch whiskeys — some of which do not carry a kosher designation on the label and the reason his store does not carry a kosher hechsher. “I’ve done my own research,” he says about the “disputed” titles, mostly having to do with a bit of arcana surrounding the kind of casks used for aging.

Bernstein is perhaps the greatest champion of kosher wine and spirits in Los Angeles. A back room is host to tastings with visiting winemakers and privately catered parties. Last month, he hosted a Scotch tasting at the SLS Hotel attended by more than 150 enthusiasts nibbling on kosher hors d’oeuvres and smoking presumably kosher cigars, part of an ongoing series of off-site events. “You get people’s honest opinions,” he says of comparative tastings. What’s the Yiddish expression for “In vino veritas”?

Here are some of Michael Bernstein’s Passover picks: 

Rose du Castel 2013 (Israel), $39.95

Capcanes Peraj Petita Rosat, $29.95

Barkan Pinotage 2011 (Israel), $70

Adir “Plato” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $70

Psagot Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Napa Valley), $40

Hajdu Syrah 2012, $40

Malartic La Graviere Bordeaux 2005, $100

The Cask, 8616 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 205-9008.


Jeff Smith is the founder of Van Nuys-based Carte du Vin Wine Cellar Management and the author of “The Best Cellar.” He was formerly known as J.D. Smith. 

Chaos and Charoset: A story of Pesach


The Persian seder begins the same way every year: A plate of matzah, veiled with an ornamented white cloth, gets passed around the table until everybody has sung the schedule of the seder. While whoever holds the tray sings, the remaining audience claps or slaps the table in unison to the Hebrew syllables. Inevitably, the vocally ungifted or self-conscious refuse their turn, which then elicits immediate protest. But eventually, however unenthusiastically, even the reluctant ones cave. 

From that point forward, chaos ensues. Children shout and climb chairs, adults crack jokes out of turn, others protest for quiet, and some say it’s too hot or it’s too cold. At my table, my mother and grandmother trade passive-aggressive lines, my cousins whine to their parents, and my stomach groans in hunger, dissatisfied from munching on cilantro dipped in vinegar.

“It’s too hot!” somebody claims.

I turn on the fan so a breeze can settle in to the living room. The 15 of us are crammed around a table that’s meant to fit 10.

Then there’s wine.

“Wind!” shrieks my aunt, who’s always cold. “Wind! We’re going to get sick!”

“Where’s it coming from?”

“I turned on the fan, because people said it’s hot. We can all relax.”

“Wind!” others repeat in fear, as if this wind is on the prowl to harm.

My uncle reads through the haggadah at one end of the table, while the rest of the table engages in an unrelated conversation.

“I want to take a selfie!” a little cousin yells.

“You’re an idiot!” his older brother responds.

I just sit there, doing my best to suppress my frustrations, knowing that in about one hour — dinner time — it will all be worth it. I don’t say it around my mom, but my grandma probably makes the best Persian food in Los Angeles. And on Passover, she takes it to the next level. 

“Jeremy, you’re ugly!” my youngest cousin yells. They all laugh.

“Easy now,” I say. 

My uncle suddenly grabs ahold of my leg.

“How the girls, man?”

“Pretty good, Amu,” Farsi for paternal uncle.

“Do any of them have a sister?” He’s married with children, but makes this same joke almost every time I see him. He laughs every time he says it, too, as if to say that even after years of recycling it, it hasn’t lost any originality or brilliance.

One more blessing, one more cup of wine.

My other uncle has a thick black mustache and fluffy, receding hair. He’s the seder leader. But he treats it more seriously than ceremoniously, quickly reading through the haggadah in mumbled, unmelodic Hebrew and Aramaic. If you let him, he’ll read through the entire seder on his own. Each year, for example, he gets caught reading the Four Questions, not stopping to wait for the kids to answer. “Hey,” my grandma interjects. “The kids are supposed to read this part.”

He keeps reading. The protests get louder. He stops, tosses the Ralphs haggadah onto the table, which produces a thump, then stares at the corner of the room where nothing is happening. I have a total of five younger cousins, and together, after the first five or six words of the Four Questions, they get stuck. They keep repeating those words that everybody knows, the chorus, but can’t pull through the nuanced verses. All this time, I’ve been silent. Although it’s tradition, if not the rule, for the young’uns to have the spotlight at this part, I know I’m the only grandchild who can pull through.

“Jeremy, you read!”

“No, no. It’s their turn.”

“They need you! Come on.”

“Some other time.”

They go on without me.

“OK, OK. I’ll read it!”

We eat some matzah, which I detest, and have one more cup of wine, which I don’t detest. My serious uncle has regained the throne and rips through the Hebrew verses, pausing for nothing. We’re at the four sons section.

I once tried to teach the table the essence of the four sons, because I found it interesting. So I stood up and pontificated about the inclusion and meaning of the four sons text. Unfortunately I was booed off stage before I could finish, so I’ve given that up — but anyway, I read the English translation and get intrigued every year. The four sons section, I think, teaches you “how to win friends and influence people” in four Hebrew paragraphs written thousands of years ago.

The seder’s been going on for an hour now, and people are hungry. There’s still a ways to go, and it’s past 10 p.m. — “10:30,” my mom says to my dad with a condescending smirk. “Does she plan on having us eat tonight? We are starved.” My grandma doesn’t speak English, so my mom takes advantage of this and complains as outwardly as she likes. 

“We’re getting hungry, Ma,” my dad tells her timidly, in Farsi.

“OK, OK. Have some tea, have some fruit,” she responds. My grandma has the tendency to keep dinner until the end, I think, that way she can have the seder drag on as long as possible so as to extend playing host. 

Then we get to Dayenu, which probably sums up the entire experience. Basically, you grab your weapon — long, green onions, however many you can get your hands on — and whack the heck out of whoever you feel like in an effort to recapture the Hebrews being assaulted by their Egyptian masters. 

One seder, I made the mistake of showing up with a freshly dry-cleaned white shirt. I was skeptical but thought I’d try: “Hey, everyone. Just got this shirt cleaned. Would you guys mind not screwing with it?”

An awkward, ominous silence lingered in the air.

“Jeremy, the showoff.”

My uncle cussed me brutally in Farsi under his breath.

“Everyone, hit his shirt. Hit him harder than you would anyway,” my aunt demanded.

“What’d I ever do to you?” I asked.

Before getting an answer, my 10-year-old cousin sneaked around my seat, giggled uncontrollably and slashed me across the chest. Someone started singing “Dayenu,” and within seconds, three or four cousins were smacking me with onions, too. When they’d finished, my white shirt was green.

The madness happens every year: abundant energy, misdirected anger, taken up physically in the form of whipping each other with onions. The kids duck and jump, yell and scream, whack each other. When the onion’s upper parts break off, some resort to throwing the remaining butts at their targets across the house like snipers. I hold up the paper haggadah and use it as a shield. “Cease fire!” I yell. 

“Enough!” my grandma shouts. “Start cleaning up!” Unfortunately, this only launches the play fighting into real fighting. Now, the little guys are bear hugging, kicking. I watch for a little bit — I went through this, too — but eventually pull them apart. Some of them are red in the face.

If people keep fighting, my uncle sports a more effective means: he undoes his belt, brings it out of the loops. He wraps the belt into itself and holds it in the air. “All right! Who wants it? Who still wants to fight?” The kids start running. He slashes the thin leather together, producing several slick, sharp slaps. He advances, starts hitting inanimate objects, like the table, the chairs, to show he means business. “Who wants it? Who wants it?” That’s when it ends.

Probably one more glass of wine. Some charoset, which shocks me every year. Never has something looked so awful but tasted so great. I’ll never forget offering to share my charoset with a college friend, ChiChi, who was a 6-foot-6 Nigerian. We were in my dorm room playing video games, he munching on his third or fourth piece of matzah. “Have some of this with it, man, you’ll love it” I said, indicating the charoset. His eyes were wide open. “Nah, I’m good,” he said. 

I usually treat myself to another glass of wine, this time without a blessing, just for fun. We clean up the table, trade in all the Passover food for real food: rice, stews, chicken and salad. I stuff a plate with two or three chicken legs, a lot of rice, red khoresht with chunks of red meat and some salad. This is only the first round: Every Passover, and basically any time I see her, my grandma accuses me of looking thin, at which point she almost doubles my already huge serving. I fall into a food coma from being force-fed to a point of seemingly no return. 

I’m eager to get back home and read, or look at pretty girls on Facebook — get back to where things make sense. No more green onions slapping my face. It’s permissible for me to leave; the night’s basically over, but a feeling of nostalgia settles in when I realize I’ve been coming to this specific house consistently for 24 years. I try to take a moment to appreciate it. There’s a gratefulness to be had in being able to celebrate the holiday in Los Angeles without any disturbance — other than, of course, your uncle threatening to lash you with his leather belt.

Moreover, it’s hard to stay close with people, and when you take a step back to realize that Passover — so often torn apart because of our collective disdain for matzah — unites not only your immediate family but also your grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and has probably done so for hundreds of years, it’s a beautiful thing. For two years, there’s been a little table stand in the dining room with a close-up portrait of my late grandfather, a little round white candle flickering before it. The seder would probably be more structured if he were still the one leading the table through the haggadah, but for the most part, I imagine he’d be proud. 

Jeremy Ely is a 25-year-old short-story writer in Los Angeles. You can read some of his ramblings on Twitter @jelypoppa.

Raspberry swirl chocolate torte with pecan crust


Passover desserts can really be the worst. Canned macaroons. Dry cake. And while I know many people who love it, super rich flourless chocolate cake is just not my thing. I don’t enjoy how dense it is, even if i love chocolate. And I do love chocolate.

Instead of the traditional, flourless chocolate cake, I wanted to create a chocolate dessert that was a bit lighter, while still remaining rich and chocolaty. The raspberry jam adds a slight tang to the torte, and pecan crust lends a nice crunch. I literally could not stop eating this, and so I gave it to my neighbors to eat instead. Suckers.

Note: After you bake the pecan crust it might look a little funny, like it didn’t work – almost a little too bubbly. I was also worried when I made it, but it is totally fine. I would also recommend topping your torte with fresh raspberries and even a few sprigs of mint for an extra beautiful presentation.

Raspberry swirl chocolate torte with pecan crust

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • ¼ cup margarine or butter
  • ½ cup pecans
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • For the filling:
  • 8 oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • ½ cup margarine or butter (1 stick)
  • 1 tsp instant espresso
  • ¼ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ cup strawberry or raspberry jam
  • Powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

 

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

To make the crust: melt the ¼ cup margarine or butter in the microwave at 20 second intervals.

Place the pecans, salt and sugar in a food processor fitted with blade attachment and pulse until you have course looking crumbs. Add melted margarine/butter and pulse 1-2 more times.

Press mixture into an 8 or 9 inch springform pan. Bake 7-8 minutes. The crust may look a little funny, bubbly or like it is ruined. But this is totally fine. Set aside.

To make the filling: Place the chocolate chips and margarine in medium saucepan over low heat until smooth. Whisk in cocoa and espresso. Cool 10 minutes.

Using electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar in large bowl on high speed until thick, about 6 minutes. Fold in chocolate mixture slowly. Then fold in raspberry jam, but don’t mix too much. Pour batter into prepared crust.

Bake torte until dry and cracked on top and tester inserted into center comes out with some moist batter attached, about 35-40 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 1 hour (center will fall).

Using an offset spatula or butter knife, carefully separate torte from sides of pan. Remove outer ring of springform pan.

Dust with powdered sugar if desired or serve with fresh raspberries and mint on top.

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A reminder: Don’t pass over the post-seder meals


Planning Passover meals is always a wonderful challenge. For the seders, most of us focus on traditional family recipes because they are tried and proven, and because everyone likes them (and often asks for these favorites dishes).

But what about the remaining six days of meals? They must be considered.

Once the big seder meals are done, it’s nice to be able to eat healthy, simple and flavorful meals for the rest of the week. An abundance of vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat, fish and fresh herbs can be incorporated into cooking on Passover.

Here are some recipes that I make on Passover because they are easy to prepare and provide flexibility as to when they can be served — not to mention they are quite delicious.


CARROT-GINGER SOUP
Makes 8 servings

The apple and the ginger give this creamy soup, which is made without any cream, a bit of a bite. The ingredients are always available, so you can serve it in any season at any temperature — hot, cold or room. I must confess, though, that I love it best when the weather is warm.

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, quartered
1 3/4 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced, plus 1 extra carrot for garnish
1 small Granny Smith apple, peeled and sliced
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced
5 1/2 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, apple and ginger, and saute for 3 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, about 30 minutes, until the carrots are tender.

Cool a little. Puree the soup in a blender, in batches, until smooth. Return it to the saucepan.

Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper.

To prepare the garnish: Steam the remaining carrot until just tender and grate. Before serving, sprinkle each bowl with the grated carrot.


HALIBUT CEVICHE
Makes 4 servings

Ceviche is a refreshing appetizer that I make with fresh fish marinated in lime juice. The juice “cooks” the fish in a very short time, allowing it to turn opaque and firm. It can be served on a bed of butter lettuce with slices of avocado. It’s a wonderful alternative to gefilte fish for an appetizer or makes a nice, light lunch.

Ingredients:
1 pound skinless halibut cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup lime juice, plus 2 tablespoons
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, finely chopped
2 scallions, including the green part, thinly sliced
1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
Butter lettuce
Slices of avocado

Preparation:
Place fish in a nonreactive bowl and season with salt. Pour juice over fish and press down so the fish is submerged in the juice. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour or until fish is opaque and firm.

Drain off and discard the lime juice. Add peppers, scallions and cilantro to the fish. Just before serving add the remaining 2 tablespoons lime juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.


CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES
Makes 4 servings

I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself, one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites. I bake it in an attractive casserole so it can go directly from the oven to the table.

Ingredients:
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
Kosher salt
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup pitted black olives, quartered

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.

Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.

Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.

Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves and the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.

Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute.


ROASTED CAULIFLOWER
Makes 4 servings

Roasting is an easy and delicious way to transform this reliable standby into a wonderful dish.

Ingredients:
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 pounds)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 400. Line a baking pan with foil.

Cut the stalk and leaves off the cauliflower and discard. Cut the head into small florets. Place the garlic in the baking pan. Arrange the florets on top; drizzle with the oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bake for 20 minutes, or until tender.


CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES
Makes 3 1/2 dozen squares

These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. They can be presented as cookies or cut into individual squares and served with either sorbet or fresh fruit on the side.

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon unsalted margarine, for greasing the pan
1/2 pound blanched almonds
6 ounces good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see note below)
1 cup sugar

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 350. Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.

Chop the almonds in a food processor, in 2 batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine and combine with the almonds.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.

With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure eight with the spatula. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out almost dry.

Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch squares.

Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.

To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with wax paper between the layers.

EXCLUSIVE: Surveillance video of Doheny Meat scandal


More video to follow.

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How not to feel like a matzah ball on Passover


It’s April and steel shopping carts clang and collide like bumper cars in the kosher-for-Passover aisle of my local supermarket. Even in this mob I find soul mates, shoppers who share my angst about eating many of the hechshered-for-the-holiday packaged foods. Foods made with what blogger Lisa Rose calls the “four food groups of Passover: cottonseed oil, MSG, white sugar and potato starch.”

Take Elaine Hoffman from Berkeley Heights, N.J., who will buy spelt matzah but little else packaged. Or Robin Polson of Maplewood, N.J., who purchases whole wheat farfel for her granola recipe, but as for much of the rest, she “can live without for eight days.”

There’s a movement here, with no formal name or membership directory. It’s a movement of Jews—from those scrupulous about Passover kashrut to others who celebrate “kosher style”—who eschew what Rabbi Ethan Tucker, rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar in New York, calls the “modern affliction” of the Passover diet, eating a “disproportionate amount of food out of boxes and cans.”

That affliction extends to ditching—during Passover only—dietary principles followed year-round.

“I used to buy 20 bags of potato chips at Passover for my kids,” says Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin of Am Yisrael Congregation in Northfield, Ill. “During the rest of the school year I would never buy chips. Ever.”

She attributes our reliance on processed food during Passover to our terror “of being deprived.” Having grown accustomed to a 23-aisle-supermarket lifestyle, today’s Jews find it difficult to relinquish any daily comestible. Rose followed a recent Facebook exchange among Los Angeles Jews “desperate to find Diet Coke” and searching for “which kosher market in town still had some left because it sold out so fast.”

“Do we really need kosher-for-Passover chicken flavoring? Did people forget how to make chicken soup?” Rose asks. Or as Marilyn Labendz of West Caldwell, N.J., puts it, “You have tomatoes. You can make tomato sauce. What’s so limiting?”

Jews in this de facto circle question whether eating a less healthy diet on these eight days is truly halachic (according to Jewish law). Rabbi Noach Valley, former president of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America, points to Deuteronomy 4:9, which entreats us to guard our life and health diligently, and to the Rambam, who writes that matters of health take precedence over all-important ritual.

Valley himself rails against cottonseed oil, “ubiquitous during Passover,” and the byproduct of a cotton crop “inundated with pesticides.” He says that in the past he has contacted heads of kashrut agencies objecting to “injuring Jews in the process of observing Passover.”

Labendz chafes at the thought that anything unhealthy should carry a Passover hechsher. “It’s like smoking,” she says. “It should have a treif symbol.”

Rose, who is kashrut observant, struggles with whether she should lower her standards for certification so that “I can feed my kids what is healthy.”

In my own house we’ve opted to include kitniyot (rice and beans), even though we’re Ashkenazi. Last year I reluctantly started buying non-hechshered organic pasta sauce over Passover varieties containing sugar or cottonseed oil.

For someone like Los Angeles filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom, Passover is about values other than strict kashrut observance.

“The holiday should be a time when you think consciously of what you should or should not be eating,” she says. “I think of spring, of rebirth, regeneration, of bounty, of lots of fruits and vegetables.”

Karen Shiffman Lateiner of Phoenix, Ariz., makes dishes from scratch. Sometimes she’ll “buy a can of macaroons just because it’s tradition. The rest of the stuff—nah.” For her, the most important aspect of Passover is spending time with family and friends.

Eating low on the Passover food chain—fruits and vegetables—doesn’t mean facing eight days and nights of steamed broccoli.

“I am not an ascetic person,” says Roberta Kalechofsky, who has written two Haggadahs and three cookbooks for Jewish vegetarians. She recommended her recipe for Vegetable Nut Loaf from “The Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook.”

“We like good food and I like to serve it,” she says. More important than incorporating foods that don’t violate kashrut are nixing those that “violate the chemistry of the human being.”

Scratch cooking, as these health-conscious Jews advocate, can take time. There are ways to make it easier, though, says cookbook author and New York Times columnist Martha Rose Shulman.

“It’s not so much a question of finding fast foods but getting organized and getting ahead,” she says.

Some things can be made in advance, like vegetable or chicken stock, many salad dressings, or blanched or roasted vegetables.

The Passover recipes Shulman tested for this year’s New York Times holiday food column “aren’t that time-consuming.” A recipe for a Greek lemon soup, for example, calls for breaking up matzah into the broth rather than preparing more effort-intensive knaidlach.

Nava Atlas, author of “Vegan Holiday Kitchen” (2011, Sterling Publishing), suggests making holiday meals that involve entertaining cooperative affairs. “Divide and conquer,” she says. “It’s the only way to do it. And everyone feels they have participated.”

Atlas also praises—as did almost everyone I interviewed—quinoa, which has achieved manna-like status among Passover health foodies in the past decade-plus. When I asked Rabbi Newman Kamin what she does to make the holiday healthier, she answered, “I’ll tell you in one word. quinoa.”

This week, I did a dry run of Atlas’ Quinoa Pilaf from “Vegan Holiday Kitchen”; my dinner guests that night gave it a thumbs-up. So to start you on a healthy-eating chag, here goes:

QUINOA PILAF

8 to 10 servings

Gluten free, soy free and nut free

Adapted by Nava Atlas from a contribution from her longtime reader, Barbara Pollak, this pilaf is attractive when made with a combination of red and white quinoa, but either color can be used on its own. It’s a veggie-filled way to celebrate quinoa’s becoming standard Passover fare. Quinoa is high in top-quality protein, making this a good choice for an entree for vegetarians and vegans at the seder table, and a delicious side dish for everyone else. Don’t be daunted by the length of the ingredient list; this dish is as easy as can be to make.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups quinoa, rinsed
  • 3 cups prepared vegetable broth
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow or red onions, or 1 of each, quartered and thinly sliced
  • 4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bag (16 ounces) shredded cole slaw cabbage
  • 2 medium carrots, sliced
  • 2 cups finely chopped broccoli florets
  • 1 cup sliced cremini or baby bella mushrooms
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh or jarred ginger, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh dill, more or less to taste

Preparation:

Combine the quinoa with the broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a rapid simmer, then lower the heat, cover and simmer gently until the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Test to see if the quinoa is done to your liking; if needed, add another 1/2 cup water and simmer until absorbed.Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet or stir-fry pan. Add the onions and saute over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic and continue to saute until the onion is golden.Add the cabbage, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, ginger, basil, thyme, and lemon juice. Turn up the heat to medium-high and stir-fry until the cabbage is tender-crisp, about 5 minutes.Stir in the cooked quinoa, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley and dill, remove from the heat, and serve.

Elisa Spungen Bildner is co-chair of JTA.

Looking for chametz in car, coat and computer


Who are the chametz seekers, those dutiful service technicians who in preparation for Passover, and for a fee, help us search and destroy the hidden, unexpected unleaven in our lives?

Yes, for some, it’s not nearly enough to change over the dishes, scrub the kitchen, vacuum the floors and rugs in preparation for eight days without bread, beer and bagels. This observant and vigilant group, in order to begin the holiday with a clean plate, so to speak, must seek out the jammed-between-the-car-seats O’s, the jacket-pocketed pita, even the keyboard crumbs.

Fortunately, for these often-unanticipated tasks, especially for those that are auto-oriented, help is just a fill-up away.

For a city that lives, sleeps and eats in our cars, chametz in the month of Passover becomes an unwanted passenger that may need an expert to help you remove.

“You can’t believe what kids shove between the car seats,” said Eytan Rosenberg, who along with his sister, Ronit Karben, co-owns Josh’s Valero service station in the Hancock Park area.

At his gas station, which has a car wash, Rosenberg offers a $65 “Passover Car Detail,” which, according to the signs displayed on every gas pump, includes “interior detail and carpet vac and shampoo,” plus a carwash.

“It’s chametz removal,” said Rosenberg, a traditional Jew, of the pre-Passover service the station has been offering for four years. “Some people wait for this time of year to clean their cars. We get a lot of families from the area,” he added.

During the pre-Passover season of about two weeks, he estimates the station gets about 10 customers a day. “We take on extra workers so we handle those who come in last-minute,” he said.

“The stuff we find can be like from a petri dish. We found shrunken apples, old diapers, Cheerios, also a lot of pacifiers,” he added.

According to Rosenberg, who inherited the service station business from his father, Josh, who was both an Orthodox rabbi and an auto mechanic, “The Passover service takes three hours per car.”

As Rosenberg demonstrated one of the tools of the Passover car-cleaning trade, a high-power, rotating air gun, he explained that it was good for the job of removing all the chametz, including gum, from the car’s mats and carpets.

But what about bigger carpets with chametz issues? To get those, as well as your clothing, ready for Passover,  one chametz seeker to call is Jacob Jahan, owner of Pico Cleaners.

“Thank God, I have been waiting for Passover;  we could use the business,” said Jahan, whose shop is located in the Pico-Robertson area. “For Passover we get very busy. Some people bring in clothes for the whole eight days,”  added the cleaner, who also provides a no-charge tallit cleaning service for synagogues.

“We use absolutely no starch, and we always search the pockets,” Jahan said, adding that, for customers who ask for it, “We shake the clothes.”

For rugs, Jahan has “a special person who vacuums, beats and shampoos. It takes 10 days to do the job,” he said.

For pre-Passover dry cleaning, Jahan noted, he even takes care with the solvent.

“We have filters to grab the shmutz,” he said.

It’s too bad you can’t take your computer to the cleaners as well. For as those who are truly committed to eradicating all chametz know, you may find it anywhere; not just in your car or parka, but in your Dell as well.

Ever look down between the keys of your keyboard?

On the Chabad Passover Web site, which has an alphabetical checklist of more than 80 potentially overlooked places, from attic to yard, “computer and keyboard” seemingly blink back at you from the list.

“I have heard of people putting their keyboard on the top rack of their dishwasher,” said Eli Jaffe, who runs a business called L.A. Computer Doc, but he said he doesn’t recommend it.

“You can turn your keyboard over and shake the chametz out,” Jaffe suggested. “Or for 15 to 20 bucks, you could go out and buy a new keyboard for Passover.

“Just make sure it says ‘pareve’ on the box,” he said with a smile.

Position yourself for Passover’s traditions


After many years of reciting the Passover story around our dining room table, we made a major change. My family decided to re-create the seders held long ago. According to the haggadah, when people live in freedom, they can eat in a reclining or relaxed manner.

We asked our guests to bring pillows or cushions to lean against as we celebrated Passover with a seder on our living room floor, which began with the symbolic foods of the holiday displayed on the seder plate.

During the first part of the evening, we eat the required foods of Passover that families have eaten for generations. Charoset is one of the few dishes that may require a recipe. A mixture of fruits, wine, nuts and spices, it represents the mortar our ancestors made while laboring as slaves in Egypt. It is prepared differently in Jewish communities all over the world depending on the ingredients available. We prepare several kinds for our seder, and one that we serve is made from a Yemenite recipe, a combination of dates, dried figs, sesame seeds, ginger, wine and a little matzah meal. Included is fresh grated horseradish, a bitter herb that is eaten with charoset and matzah.

A roasted egg, which many families dip in coarse salt, is usually served, but our family’s custom is to prepare a cold, salted, chopped egg soup instead. We eat spring onions or parsley that are dipped in saltwater, as well as boiled small new potatoes that symbolize the coming of spring. Also on the seder plate is the roasted lamb shank, representing the Pascal lamb, but vegetarians may substitute a roasted beet. 

Reclining on cushions and pillows while reading from the haggadah was a wonderful experience, but serving food on the living room floor – especially matzah ball soup – would be difficult. After we finished recounting the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt, we would move to the dining room table for a traditional Passover dinner.

We begin seder dinner with homemade gefilte fish, followed by chicken soup with matzah balls. The soup is prepared with whole chickens that are tied and put in the pot with a variety of vegetables. When the soup is done, the chickens are taken out and roasted in a tomato sauce to be served for the seder dinner. When cold, it can be made into a delicious chicken salad eaten for lunch or dinner during the remaining days of Passover.

The main course is served buffet style; everyone helps themselves to platters of roasted lamb shanks, sliced turkey with vegetable stuffing and candied sweet potatoes.

After dinner, Passover desserts include sponge cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered fruit. For a special treat this year, I am adding a Chocolate Marble Cake With Chocolate Glaze. The rich flavors of cocoa, strong coffee and chocolate make this cake extra-special. Grape Truffles are an easy addition — seedless grapes dipped in chocolate and then coated with cocoa powder are a surprise when they burst with flavor in your mouth.

Wine is an important part of the seder, and sweet concord grape wine has always been synonymous with Passover. But today, dry Passover wines are gaining in popularity, and the availability and varietals are remarkable. They are available from California, New York, France, Italy, Chile and Israel. At our seder, we provide both sweet and dry wine — as well as grape juice — to satisfy everyone’s taste. 

In recent years, our seders have moved back to the dining room. But as friends and family gather around our table for Passover, they recall with fondness how we reclined on the floor to read the haggadah. I’ve considered moving the seder back to the living room, but on one condition: We keep dinner in the dining room.


YEMENITE CHAROSET

1 cup pitted, chopped dates
1/2 cup chopped dried figs
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch coriander
1 small red chili pepper, seeded and minced, or pinch of cayenne 
2 tablespoons matzah meal
1/3 cup sweet Passover wine
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
 
Blend the dates, figs, ginger, coriander, chili pepper, matzah meal and wine in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the knife blade. Mix in sesame seeds and transfer to a glass bowl. Roll into 1-inch balls or serve in a bowl.

Dessert variation: Dip charoset balls into melted chocolate and place on wax paper-lined baking sheet.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups or 12 balls.


GRANDMA GENE’S GEFILTE FISH

Buy whole whitefish. Have it boned, and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately for the Fish Broth. If you’re lucky, you might find roe inside the fish, which you can poach with the fish balls.

Fish Broth (recipe follows)
3 1/2 pounds filleted whitefish
2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 small celery stalks, sliced
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 cup matzah meal
1/4 to 1/3 cup cold water
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Lettuce leaves, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce

Prepare the Fish Broth and keep warm.

Grind the whitefish with the onions, carrots and celery in a food grinder. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal. Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt and 1 teaspoon pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with additional cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls. Bring the Fish Broth to a boil over high heat, and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for 1 hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook. Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate.

To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with sliced cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. 

Makes 24 small fish balls.


FISH BROTH

1 1/2 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve peels)
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup sliced celery tops
1 1/2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish (wrap in cheese cloth)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups cold water

Place the onions, onion peels, carrot, celery tops, wrapped fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper in a large pot. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for 1 hour, adding water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm.

Makes about 4 cups.

This matzah is kept under lock and key. So are the people who will eat it.


A few weeks before Passover, there was a moment when Shirley Friedman looked worried that there might not be enough food for everybody.

Friedman, who calls herself “a full-time grandmother,” is expecting to feed three dozen people over the first two nights of Passover at her table at home — but on that Thursday morning, she wasn’t worrying about a problem that could be solved by another trip to the supermarket.

That’s not the way things work in the Los Angeles County Jail system.

“Why do I only have two pallets?” Friedman, asked, eyeing two dense stacks of shrink-wrapped cardboard boxes that had just come out of an industrial-size freezer. The boxes contained Passover food from a large kosher food processing company in New York and cost the county nearly $8,000; the contents were supposed to feed the county jail’s 35 kosher-observant inmates for the eight days of Passover. And Friedman, an Orthodox woman who has been volunteering as a chaplain in the jail for the last 10 years, was on hand to make sure that everything was, well, kosher.

Taking care of the spirits and souls of Southern California’s jailed Jews is a demanding job throughout the year. Passover’s additional requirements take the religious observance to another level of complexity.

“I think it’s the most intensive Jewish holy day inside the prison system, just because it is so logistically complicated,” said Rabbi Lon Moskowitz, who has served as the Jewish chaplain at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo for the past 15 years.

From finding officers to supervise the pre-Passover cleaning of the prison’s two separate Jewish chapels where the communal seders will be held, to training the “supervisor volunteers” to lead them, the effort has kept Moskowitz very busy. “It takes six weeks of eight-hour-day preparation,” Moskowitz said.

Even with all that work in advance, the California state budget situation could still throw a wrench into the works.

“The whole prison system is on what they call a ‘rolling lockdown,’ which means that at any given time, one of the yards that the men live on is locked down,” Moskowitz explained. “Some of the men will actually not be free to walk the 200 to 300 yards from their cell over to the chapel area to participate in a halachic community seder.”

Jewish law — halachah — specifies the date (April 18) and time (after sundown) when a Passover seder is to take place. But in correctional facilities, despite the protections for religious practice provided by the First Amendment, the California administrative code and an 11-year-old federal law that specifically protects prisoners’ religious rights, other laws, rules and regulations can present obstacles to observance.

Rabbi Yossi Carron, senior rabbi in the L.A. County jails for the past eight years, has become adept at balancing these competing requirements.

Carron calls the people he serves “the forgotten Jews,” and he quickly makes clear that not all Jewish prisoners are behind bars for white-collar crimes. “There are rapists and murderers and drug addicts — mostly drug addicts — and armed robbers,” Carron said, “just like the rest of the world. But nobody wants to acknowledge it.”

Dividing his weeks between L.A. County’s cash-strapped jails and one state prison in Corcoran, Carron has learned to stretch his limited time and his limited funds as far as possible — far beyond what would be expected of most rabbis.

There’s no Protestant chaplain, no Catholic chaplain, no imam” at the state prison in Corcoran, Carron explained, so whenever he leads Jewish services, he’s also nominally supervising the other inmate-led religious services. “Otherwise they couldn’t have services at all,” Carron said.

“Rabbi Carron has taken that chaplaincy to an entirely new level of commitment, of involvement, of caring about the inmates and the staff,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Inmates who meet with Carron know his rules. They are not to lie to him, and they must not show up intoxicated at any meeting. But aside from those two strict guidelines, Carron is probably one of the more flexible people in the county jail.

Take Carron’s seder, which he leads using a photocopied haggadah of his own devising. “It’s always about recovery, and how Judaism and recovery fit together, and how we’re expected to be holy,” Carron said.

Carron will lead this year’s seder on April 22, the fourth day of Passover, but he’s not sure how many people will be able to come, nor could he say for certain what they’ll be eating.

Until last year, Carron was able to find caterers to donate food for the seder, but last year, in accordance with a change in jail policy prohibiting any outside food being brought inside, he had to end that practice. Not being able to bring in food from the outside, Carron had to depend on the jail kitchen, which led to a less-than-ideal situation for the Jewish inmates who were not among those keeping kosher.

Some ended up eating meals that were kosher but not kosher for Passover. And they were the lucky ones.

“Some guys, if they weren’t on kosher, they weren’t allowed to come. And that’s wrong,” Carron said. It isn’t clear how that policy has changed this year, if at all.

Which isn’t to say that administrators in charge of running the L.A. County jails aren’t working very hard to accommodate the Jewish inmates interested in celebrating the holy day.

Benson Li, the sheriff’s department manager for food service units in the jail, explained that the Meal Mart-branded kosher for Passover food costs $24.30 per inmate per day. “That’s almost nine times more than the regular meals,” Li said, referring to nonkosher food that most of the 15,000 other inmates eat daily. “We always take care of our religious inmates — whatever it takes.”

On the first night of Passover, this includes a meal of roast chicken, potato kugel and carrot tzimmes. Included in each prisoner’s box are four boxes of grape juice, an Artscroll paperback haggadah and a plastic seder plate with all the fixings, all of them freezer-safe. (The green vegetable on the plate is celery, which freezes better than the alternatives.)

Los Angeles County Bureau of Offender Programs and Services director Karen S. Dalton said her staff attempts to allow inmates to eat communally, “to the extent possible that we can.”

“We have several different housing areas where the inmates who are Jewish live,” Dalton said. “In many of them, there’s only one Jewish inmate. If they’re housed in the same area, same pod, same everything, they can sit at the same table and eat together.”

Even Friedman, the Orthodox volunteer chaplain, admitted that a degree of flexibility is required on certain matters — like having non-Jews heat up food on Shabbat for Jewish inmates, which is halachically prohibited.

But Friedman was not willing to compromise as she oversaw 13 people — one officer, one jail dietitian and her intern, five cooks from the different jail facilities and five prisoners in yellow jumpsuits — sort through the Passover food.

Aside from one loading dock guard who called the Passover preparations “mumbo jumbo,” the staff and inmates were efficient and cooperative as they sorted packets of French dressing, individually boxed beef goulash and boxes of matzah into a week’s worth of meals.

When the job was done, there was enough food for the 35 inmates on Friedman’s list — more than enough, actually. The county had ordered food for 40 people, and every prisoner would get about 2,700 calories per prisoner per day, a bit more than the mandated 2,500 calories.

And even though nearly everything was shrink-wrapped, reducing the risk of something contaminating the kosher for Passover food, Friedman kept her eye on everything — including this reporter.

At one point, I approached an inmate named Miguel while he was sorting cream cheese and jam into individual plastic bags. He said he’d never before celebrated Passover.

Then I asked if the Passover food he was packing up looked better than the food he was used to in the jails. His eyes went wide.

“Don’t answer that,” Friedman told Miguel.

He didn’t.

Taking a modern approach to Passover desserts


At Passover, because tradition rules, I’m willing to bet that, at most seder tables, undistinguished sponge and honey cake, coconut macaroons and probably some dried fruits cooked into a compote are trotted out at meal’s end, met with no discernable oohs and aahs of rapture from those at the table.

Why not bend tradition a bit in the name of making the last course as delectable as the dishes that precede it? Adhering to the albeit fluid rules that proscribe chemical leavening, and flour- and corn-based products, there’s still a whole world of modern and delicious desserts that can grace the Passover table.

Arid though the desert was that our ancestors had to endure during their captivity, dry cakes were not part of the deprivations and don’t need to be today. Pastry chef that I am, I am not content to end the meal on a blah note.

Three factors are key: First, whip the eggs and sugar for the cake bases until they are light in color and fall in wide ribbons from the whisk attachment of the mixer. Second, fold the dry ingredients into the base with a light hand (and I do mean hand — splay the fingers of your hand, and lightly comb through the beaten base as you add the dry ingredients, folding only until the dries disappear into the mix). Third, keep an eye on the cakes as they bake to avoid drying them out by over-baking. Ethereal and moist cakes are the goal.

Here’s a recipe for a pistachio cake with a creamy citrus curd that will leave your Passover guests asking for more.

PISTACHIO CAKE FILLED WITH CITRUS CURD GARNISHED WITH CITRUS FILETS AND SALTED PISTACHIO CRUNCH

This is a moist pistachio-flecked sponge cake (made with matzah cake flour), which is drenched in a syrup flavored with the juice and zest of seasonal citrus (tangerine, low-acid Oro Blanco grapefruit, pink-fleshed pomelo and lime) and filled with a creamy starch-free citrus curd. Filets of the citrus fruits adorn the top of the cake, which is then crowned by a shard of pistachio crunch flecked with bits of sea salt. Complex in taste, simple to execute, this cake is a fitting ending to any seder but is truly a dessert for all seasons. Just choose fruits in season to create the syrup and the garnishes.


FOR CAKE:

1/3 cup pistachios, finely ground (if possible, use commercially made pistachio flour, which is more finely ground and uniform in texture)
Scant 1/2 cup matzah cake flour
Scant 1 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs, separated
Zest of 1 medium lime
Grease an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray or flavorless oil. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper. Spray the paper lightly and set the pan aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Sift together the ground pistachio flour and matzah cake meal; discard any larger pieces that remain in the sieve.

In the bowl of an electric mixer outfitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and half of the sugar until the mixture is light and lemon-colored and falls from the whisk in a thick ribbon. Fold in lime zest.

In a clean, dry bowl with a clean whisk, beat the egg whites until frothy. With the mixer running, add the remaining sugar and beat until stiff but shiny peaks form. Lightly but thoroughly, fold the pistachio flour-

matzah cake meal mixture gently but thoroughly into the beaten egg yolk base. Then fold the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture. Immediately scrape the mixture into the prepared pan.

Bake the cake for approximately 25 minutes, or until the cake feels firm to the touch and is slightly browned. Do not overbake. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a cooling rack.

When cool, remove the cake from the pan and place it on a cake cardboard set on a turntable. Using a long serrated knife, cut the cake into two even layers and set aside.


FOR CITRUS FILETS:

1 medium pink grapefruit
1 medium white grapefruit
1 medium blood orange or navel orange
1 large tangerine

Using a small serrated knife, cut a thin slice from the top and bottom of each citrus fruit. Then, following the contours of the fruit, remove the white pith surrounding the fruit. Over a bowl to collect the juices, which will be used in the citrus syrup, release each filet from the fruits by working the knife just adjacent to the connective membranes, making the first cut toward the center of the fruit and then next cut away from the center. The filets should then neatly release from the connective membranes of the fruit. Remove and discard any seeds. Continue until all filets have been removed, keeping each variety separate. Store, covered, in the refrigerator until ready to assemble the dessert.


FOR CITRUS CURD:

1/2 cup fresh squeezed citrus juice (a combination of tangerine, grapefruit and lime works well here)
4 large eggs
Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into 1-ounce pieces, softened

Place the juice, eggs and sugar into a stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan half-filled with simmering water. The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water. Cook the mixture over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it becomes as thick as a thin mayonnaise. Remove from the heat. Press through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean heatproof bowl. Whisk in the butter, piece by piece, keeping the mixture emulsified. When cool, place the curd, covered, into the refrigerator until ready to assemble the cake. (Note: You will have leftover curd to use for another dessert if you use it as a single layer between the two layers of cake, rather than spreading it on the top layer of the cake as well, as noted below.)


FOR CITRUS SYRUP:

1 cup mixed citrus juice, sieved (made from the juice that has collected when preparing the citrus filet garnish)
Simple syrup (1/3 cup each of granulated sugar and water, boiled until the sugar dissolves completely), as needed, to lightly sweeten the citrus juices

Combine the mixed citrus juice and enough simple syrup to lightly sweeten. Brush the layers of cake liberally with the citrus syrup and set aside at room temperature, covered, to prevent drying out. Reserve the remaining syrup in the refrigerator for use when plating and serving the dessert.

Note: Depending on the size of the fruits and how juicy they are, it may be necessary to supplement the juice by extracting the juice from additional fruits.


FOR PISTACHIO CRUNCH:

Generous 1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon water
Scant 1/2 cup pistachios, toasted in a preheated 350 F oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until lightly brown and fragrant, and kept warm until combined with the syrup below
Fleur de sel or other sea salt, to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Ten minutes before you begin making the pistachio crunch, place a Silpat-lined baking pan into the oven to heat.

In a heavy saucepan, cook the sugar and water, without stirring, until the syrup reaches 320 F on a cooking thermometer. Combine the syrup with the warm nuts and quickly pour the mixture onto the heated baking pan. Return the pan to the oven and bake until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, immediately sprinkle the salt lightly and evenly over the crunch and store in a cool, dry place. Break the crunch into irregular-shaped shards just before plating the desserts.


TO ASSEMBLE THE DESSERT:

Assemble the cake by spreading half of the citrus curd on one cake layer. Top with the other cake layer and press lightly to compact. If desired, spread remaining citrus curd on top of the top layer of cake. Otherwise, reserve leftover curd to serve over berries or lightened with whipped cream for a nice secondary dessert. Chill the cake until just before serving.

To serve, cut the cake into 8 equal portions. Top each portion with a filet of each type of citrus fruit and garnish with a shard of pistachio crunch. Place the portions onto serving plates and pour an equal amount of citrus syrup onto each plate. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 cake, 8 servings.


Illuminated Reflections: On view through May 8, 2011, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.,  Los Angeles, CA 90049; (310) 440-4500.

Robert Wemischner is the author of four books, including his latest, “The Dessert Architect” (Cengage Learning Inc., 2010). He teaches professional baking at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. To learn more, visit his Web site, RobertWemischner.com.

For more Passover recipes visit jewishjournal.com/passover_food.