How to take a can-do attitude to Passover foods

By Jim Romanoff

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 15 2012 8:30 a.m. MDT

For generations, enthusiastic Jewish cooks have turned these dietary restrictions into a rewarding culinary challenge. The idea shown in this image taken on March 5, 2012 in Concord, NH is to make a Shepherd's pie with leftover brisket, veal or chicken. The topping is made with matzo brei rather than the traditional mashed potatoes.

Matthew Mead, Associated Press

During Passover each year much of the culinary focus is on the seder, the celebratory meal that commemorates the Jewish liberation and exodus from ancient Egypt.

But the special dietary restrictions that go with the holiday last at least a week, which can challenge even the most creative of cooks to come up with interesting meals.

During the week of Passover, Jews are supposed to adhere to dietary restrictions intended to remind them that their ancestors were in such a hurry to get out of Egypt, they didn't even wait for their bread to rise, instead taking matzos, the unleavened flatbreads that still are eaten today.

This is why many Jews avoid foods made with wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats that have been mixed with water and allowed to stand in the open air for more than eighteen minutes — the amount of time it takes for natural leavening to begin. Many Jews, also avoid other small grain-like foods, such as rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and lentils.

Which is to say, there's a whole lot of matzo sold during Passover. And a whole lot of label reading.

But for generations, Jewish cooks have turned these restrictions into a culinary challenge of sorts. Some people actually find the week devoid of these foods a refreshing change.

Laura Frankel, author of cookbooks such as "Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes," points out that many people treat Passover as a kind of second New Year celebration because of the historical new beginning the holiday represents. And since Passover occurs at the start of spring, Frankel sees the holiday as a chance to transition from heavy winter cooking to lighter fare.

Frankel also prefers to focus on the many foods Jews can eat — fish, vegetables, fruit, meats and dairy — rather than on those they can't.

For breakfast, which can be a difficult meal because it traditionally relies so heavily on cereals and breads, Frankel makes her family matzo meal coated patties of ground turkey, dried cranberries and pistachios, which are pan fried and served topped with a sunny-side-up egg.

When it comes to dinner, Frankel likes to make a light bourride, a bouillabaisse-like fish soup she prepares with fish stock leftover from making gefilte fish for the seder. As a special dessert, she makes a light chocolate mousse prepared with eggs and a high-quality olive oil rather than cream.

Leah Koenig, author of "The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook," agrees with the philosophy of celebrating what you can eat rather than what you can't. And, apart from a few favorites she makes with matzo — such a granola made with matzo farfel (tiny pieces of matzo) — she tends to stay away from trying to recreate dishes one might normally make with any of the forbidden grains, such as cakes and other baked goods.

It's kind of like vegetarians trying to make meat dishes without the meat, she explains. Why bother when there are so many other great foods out there that you can eat?

Besides, Koenig points out, though some people truly miss breads and grains, Passover is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the many things we can live without, as well as appreciate the bounty we have for the rest of the year.

For easy meals during Passover, however, we've created two dishes that are sure to please family and friends who might be feeling a little deprived.

Our matzo brei (kind of a matzo French toast) topped shepherd's pie is meant to be prepared with leftovers from your seder. We've used brisket and beef broth to make the filling, but if you have leftover turkey or chicken you can simply use chicken broth with equally tasty results.

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