BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In addition to Holy Week for Christians, for Jews the eight-day celebration of Passover begins with the Seder Monday night (April 5). We talked about the food of the Seder with cookbook author Joan Nathan.
JOAN NATHAN (Author): Passover is my favorite holiday. It is not only the narration of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but it’s also a celebration of spring.
Not only does it link us to Egypt, to Israel, to the land of Israel, but it also links us to our own generations. For example, at my own Seder we have many recipes that my late mother-in-law made from Poland.
In the Book of Exodus, it tells us that during Passover, during eight days, you should not use any leavened items and leavened bread. Today it would mean pizza, pasta, corn, beans, rice, even mustard seed — things that are leavened or fermented.
But, Judaism is very complicated. Many Sephardic Jews will eat all kinds of beans, but Ashkenazic Jews won’t. Rice — Sephardic Jews might eat rice; Ashkenazic Jews won’t. Any kinds of grains — forget grains. Any kinds of rice, pasta, pizza — anything like that cannot be used at Passover.
Every single food — that’s the other thing — on the Passover Seder plate has a dual symbolism and probably a tri-symbolism that makes it even richer, because it’s something you can talk about.
On the Seder plate, there’s the harosset, which is one of my favorite parts of the Passover meal, which is a paste made out of fruit and nuts. It symbolizes the mortar that the Jews used when they were slaves in Egypt.
I know of maybe a dozen different harosset recipes from all over the world, and at my Seder I have at least five because I think it’s a way of teaching the diaspora, how Jews wandered.
And there’s the parsley which you dip in salt water — again parsley, a symbol of spring; salt water, symbol of the tears people shed even for your enemies that you had to kill to get to freedom.
“Marorra,” which means bitter — and it was greens like Romaine lettuce or arugula — that’s what grows in the desert, not horseradish. Horseradish is Eastern European, and they all mean — again, they are symbols of the bitterness of slavery.
There’s a roasted egg, and the roasted egg symbolizes not only the sacrifices in the temple but also the circle of life.
Matzoh is made from water and flour — sometimes salt, but that’s it. The Jews were in Egypt; they didn’t have time, they were given a short time to leave, they didn’t have enough time for the bread to rise, and so symbolically you eat the unleavened bread, which is the bread of slavery, but it’s also the bread of freedom.
What always amazes me is that Jews all over the world are celebrating at the same time the same holiday in different ways.
One custom that the Moroccan Jews do is they take the Seder plate and they put it over people’s heads, and they put it over each person’s head so each person personally feels that he has gone from slavery to freedom.
At every Passover Seder, when everything is done and we are about to start, I feel better than at any time of the year. Even if I’m more tired. I feel as if, not only I made a good meal, but that I incorporated history and culture. And my family is there, my entire family. No matter where they are, we make sure that they come home. And it really means a lot.
Joan Nathan’s Favorite Brisket Recipe
From JEWISH COOKING IN AMERICA by Joan Nathan (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)
My Favorite Brisket
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 5-pound brisket of beef, shoulder roast of beef, chuck roast, or end of steak
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 onions, peeled and diced
1 10-ounce can tomatoes
2 cups red wine
2 stalks celery with the leaves, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped parsley
6 to 8 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal
- Sprinkle the salt and pepper over the brisket and rub with the garlic. Sear the brisket in the oil and then place, fat side up, on top of the onions in a large casserole. Cover with the tomatoes, red wine, celery, bay leaf, thyme, and rosemary.
- Cover and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for about 3 hours, basting often with pan juices.
- Add the parsley and carrots and bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes more or until the carrots are cooked. To test for doneness, stick a fork in the flat (thinner or leaner end of the brisket). When there is a light pull on the fork as it is removed from the meat, it is “fork tender.”
- This dish is best prepared in advance and refrigerated so that the fat can be easily skimmed from the surface of the gravy. Trim off all the visible fat from the cold brisket. Then place the brisket, on what was the fat side down, on a cutting board. Look for the grain – that is, the muscle lines of the brisket – and with a sharp knife, cut across the grain.
- When ready to serve, reheat the gravy.
- Put the sliced brisket in a roasting pan. Pour the hot gravy on the meat, cover, and reheat in a preheated 350-degree oven for 45 minutes. Some people like to strain the gravy, but I prefer to keep the onions because they are so delicious.
Serve with farfel (boiled egg barley noodles), noodle kugel, or potato pancakes. A colorful winter salad goes well with this.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
Tip: Try adding a jar of sun-dried tomatoes to the canned tomatoes. They add a more intense flavor to the brisket.