Years ago, when I was the Director of the LA Museum of the Holocaust, I caught my secretary, a Holocaust survivor, sitting in a locked, unused office, eating a double hamburger during Passover. We were in the midst of sending out a mailing, and there were at least a dozen volunteers, many of them survivors, stuffing envelopes a few feet away from where she sat, quietly enjoying her lunch.
"Masha!" I said. "What are you doing?"
"Listen", she replied, "I'm a Jew, and a good Jew. I survived three concentration camps and a death march, not to mention Typhus twice after liberation. So why should I be constipated for a week because our forefathers wandered in the desert for 40 years? Now get the hell out of this office, and if you tell anyone you saw me eating this, I'll kill you."
I backed out of the office slowly, shutting the door behind me.
She had a fair point. In spring, as the saying goes, a man's fancy turns to baseball. Likewise, in spring, the Jew's fancy turns to the eternal question our ancestors have been asking for a millennia: What do I serve and eat for Passover? And how can I make it through the next eight days without "mugging" that guy that just passed me on the street for his slice.
In service to my brethren, city and country, as the Director of the American Jewish Historical Society (www.ajhs.org ), I would like to offer support during this difficult time. If you can follow these few simple tips, you, your taste buds and your digestive tract can enjoy the early spring just like everyone else.
1. Variety is the Spice of Life, Except on Passover.
Find something you can digest that doesn't taste like sandpaper, and stick with it for the week. It took me years to find these few perfect foods, that are portable if I want to eat lunch at my desk, and available in most lunchtime restaurant spots. Here's my favorite Passover lunch: A can of tuna in oil, a diced tomato, a diced red onion, an avocado, a tablespoon of olive oil, the juice from one lemon, and salt and pepper to taste. Basically, mix all of the above ingredients together, and spread it on a piece of matzah. I hate traditional tuna fish, but I only eat this once a year and I actually look forward to it.
My other favorite is a matzah grilled cheese sandwich. I know, it sounds crazy, but actually, it is so perfectly decadent that I only allow myself to eat it once or twice every Passover. Soak two pieces of matzah in sweet (Passover) red wine until they are wet, but not soaked through or mushy. Put two slices of cheese between (your choice of cheese, my favorite is Swiss or Muenster) being careful not to overload the slices. Brown some butter, and fry this baby like you would any normal grilled cheese sandwich. You're welcome!
2. Desserts are Very Important, Especially on Passover.
Gone are the days when your only hope for satisfying that pesky sweet tooth were the coconut and chocolate macaroons from a Manischewitz can. Now don't get me wrong, I eat one or the other every year for the nostalgia factor, but frankly, on daily basis, these will not do. Have you tried Danny Macaroons yet? Well, if you haven't, you must. Salted caramel? Chocolate almond? Rice pudding? There are so many flavors it's worth investigating.
In NYC, you are blessed with options, and I highly recommend Breads Bakery Passover cakes. They make two that are exceptional: a coconut chocolate chip cake and a flourless brownie chocolate cake. I could eat either whole cake in one sitting, not that I have. Really, I haven't. Why don't you believe me? I haven't.
While I'm on the subject of binge eating sweets, not that I do that, no really, I don't, have you tried Roni-Sue's Charoset Matzah Toffee Crunch? Order it and bring it as gifts when you do your eating visits throughout the holiday. It is delicious and disappears very quickly, satiating even the most discerning of sweet teeth, which for the purposes of this article, are all mine.
Regarding sweets, did you know that Crumbs Bakeshop makes Kosher for Passover cupcakes? Now, they are just shy of legitimately glatt, but if you are good without the double heckscher, you win. Elijah's Delight is my particular favorite.
3. Fruit is your Friend, Throughout the Eight Days of Passover.
Charoset, the chopped apple, nut, wine and honey mess, I mean, spread is meant to represent the mortar that the Hebrew slaves used to put the bricks together in the land of Egypt. It is a staple of any Passover table and part of the Seder ritual. Please, take my advice: DON'T MAKE IT YOURSELF! Unless Joan Nathan is coming over to judge you, there is absolutely no reason to spend hours on this mess, I mean, dish, especially when the 2nd Avenue Deli does such a spectacular job. Order it by the quart, and eat it plain after meals. It's sweet enough to satisfy when you're calorie saving to binge eat the desserts I mentioned, and it will definitely help with digestion. The wine also helps. You can also get a kosher version of charoset at Whole Foods which will work in a pinch.
While we are on the subject of pre-prepared Passover fare, do yourself a favor if you love chopped liver, and head over to Russ and Daughters. They have several locations in Manhattan, and just opened a new café at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side. They make a vegetarian chopped liver that is spectacular. I could eat a whole jar spread on matzah, which I did recently over lunch with a good friend who didn't judge me when I licked the spreading knife clean. I didn't judge her when she wolfed down two bowls of their soup along with her own side of the veggie liver either. We didn't split a dessert or anything. Really, we didn't share that apple strudel-y thing made with three pounds of butter.
Gefilte fish, a long staple of all American Passover tables, cannot be overlooked much to the chagrin of every Jewish child faced with the greyish lump on their plates when they arrive at the Seder table. Instead of the jar (with the wobbly jelly) plated on the standard wilted lettuce leaf with the (sorry) carrot stump on top, try Gefilteria. Reimagine that sorry fish hunk into something GMO and gluten free, fully prepped and flashed frozen, delivered right to your door just in time to thaw and serve. I also love their slogan: "Reimagining Old World Jewish Foods". Reimagine away, my friends.
4. A Word on Wine, Which is a Necessity Even on Passover.
Four cups of wine are required for each Seder night. I don't know about all of you, but a glass at night is often the only thing keeping this working mother from committing a felony after work and the bedtime routine with my kids (stop asking for glasses of water and another story, I'm pouring here). Kosher for Passover wine needs to be palatable. And by palatable, I mean you need to be able to swallow it, as opposed to using it for cleaning the interior of your car. Thankfully, today we have options! Union Square Wine and Spirits has a really nice selection of kosher for Passover wines. Last year, I had a great merlot from Segal's Single Vineyard Dovev. I would actually drink this wine after Passover, and as I recall, last year, I did finish the stash afterward. It was smooth and as a red wine person, it really worked for me. The Upper West Side has a ton of options, but I really like Amsterdam Wine Co, and 67 Wine and Spirits.
If you are not a wine person, and my husband Ian is not, but a beer guy (he suffers, the poor man, on Passover at our house), Distillery 209 makes a kosher for Passover gin that is smooth and silky and perfect for unwinding after a long evening of singing and eating with relatives, which you will need after a long evening of singing and eating with relatives. Because, you know, four hours of singing and eating with relatives.
5. Cookbooks... Your Best Friend on Passover.
Man cannot live by take-out and catering alone. There are some really remarkable American cookbooks out there that will save you from preparing the brisket the same way your family has been eating it for 50 years, not that there's anything wrong with that. However, sometimes, we need to change it up. Spring is all about renewal, and if you think about it, so is Passover. My new favorite cookbook this year is The New Passover Menu by Paula Shoyer. I can't wait to try the Lamb Stew with Apricot, Pears and Mint (page 42). Of course, bringing in the new doesn't mean throwing out the old completely. A staple go-to in my house is The Hadassah Jewish Holiday Cookbook. Published in 2002, I make the Romanian Eggplant Casserole every year (Page 156). It is the simplest dish, but trust me, it is fantastic. It also tastes better the older it gets, and is delicious hot and cold. As an added bonus, Hadassah's archives, which are an incredible lesson in American history, public health, cooking, remarkable women, and so much more, are housed at the AJHS (www.ajhs.org ).
If your travels for business or pleasure take you outside of the Big Apple to Los Angeles, fear not. We can help you there too! LA is a sprawl. If you're Jewish and Passover observant in LA, there is essentially only one neighborhood for your Passover culinary needs: Pico/Robertson. Pico Blvd, or as we refer to it, little Tel Aviv, is a few mile stretch of road on Pico Blvd, the main thoroughfare on the Westside of LA. It's full of kosher markets, restaurants, and specialty food shops ranging from Kosher Chinese to Pico Kosher Deli, to bakeries and a steak house. Sadly, you can't get the greatest corned beef sandwich west of the Mississippi river on the eight days of Passover, as the deli closes down. However, since you will be in the west anyway, I must suggest you try Mexikosher (8832 W Pico Blvd), which IS in fact open for Passover. Sometimes you just need some carne asada and nachos, and Mexikosher happens to be a great Mexican restaurant that's also kosher... for PASSOVER! They make a mean burrito bowl, and their salsa is outstanding. They also cater, so if you're looking to spice up your table, their salsa on some matzah may be just the thing to get you over the hump for the last few days.
Since the cupcake craze started with Sprinkles in LA, they are kind enough to make a Passover cupcake for the tribe. They are only making it from April 22-30, and it's a flourless chocolate cake with vanilla bean glaze on the top. You can even get it at their take-away window in Beverly Hills on your drive to Aunt Estelle's Seder. You know her, we all have one. She lives in the house time forgot and has been serving you the same dinner since you were born?
I hope these few tips can help you navigate the season. May you eat well, and may your matzos remain crispy for the week after you open the box.