Most cultures have traditions and rituals that herald spring. Who isn't grateful for signs leading toward a season of abundance and growth after the scarcity of winter?
Many of these traditions feature eggs, from traditional Easter egg hunts, to the Cimburijada festival of scrambled eggs in Zenica, Bosnia - where 1,500 eggs will be cooked for the town to share the official moment spring begins - to Egypt's Sham El-Nissim holiday, celebrated back to the time of the pharaohs with spring onions and colored eggs.
The arrival of spring has been marked by Jews for close to 3,000 years with the holiday of Passover, celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Family and friends gather for tableside services called seders to read, sing and eat traditional and symbolic foods to recount the exodus from Egypt, the move from slavery to freedom.
While this holiday's most recognized food is the unleavened bread, matzo, eaten as a reminder of rushing to freedom with no time for dough to rise, seder tables traditionally include an egg and some fresh spring greens, and lamb - to symbolize, among other things, the return of spring.
Vegetarians may eschew the ritual lamb bone for a blood red beet. Meals from families with Northern and Eastern European (Ashkenazic) heritage may include goose and potatoes or veal for their seder feasts, while Jews whose ancestors hailed from North Africa, Spain and the Middle East (Sephardic) may include rice, spiced lamb and chickpeas. All avoid certain grains including wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye.
Making recipes handed down from great-grandmothers long departed and sharing tales once recited by great-grandfathers helps to create tangible and emotional connections between the past and the future. One may never have met Great-Great Aunt Minnie, but her recipe for almond orange cake helps her memory live on.
Welcoming spring at the table in early April poses a bit of a challenge. While the air may be warming, and we have shed layers of clothing, the ground has barely defrosted, and there is little to harvest from nearby farms or gardens.
Earliest local crops will include greens such as spinach, kale and lettuces, asparagus, and radishes. Artichokes, and young green beans (for Sephardic Jews), are also delicious choices to evoke spring - a holiday splurge from farms far south or west. Young chicken, veal or lamb can all be prepared with fresh herbs and a light touch to contrast with the simmering stews we are leaving behind.
Since many seder cooks find themselves hosting a crowd, consider dishes that are easy to both cook and portion. Lamb or chicken skewers cook quickly, and are simple to serve. Festooned with colorful peppers and onions, kebabs also are surely festive. Make a few skewers with no meat for extra color and the nonmeat eaters in your crowd.
A hearty baked mushroom-stuffed eggplant is a nice side dish for lamb or chicken and offers a flavorful and filling vegetarian option to the menu.
While potatoes are often the side dish of choice in a holiday that proscribes grains, an easy and interesting alternative is to cook cauliflower in the style of rice. Grated, sautéed, and seasoned, cauliflower makes a great alternative to rice or noodles. This faux rice can be served simply, dressed up with chopped herbs, or transformed into a pilaf with toasted nuts, dried fruits and a bit of saffron. If you are watching your carbs, this is a great dish for every season.
This spring menu serves well to celebrate a myriad of spring events or holidays. Perhaps you will be inspired to gather a group around a table to share stories about oppression and hopes for freedom for all people - or you can also just share a meal with others to welcome spring.
Makes 6-10 servingsEndTextStartText
4 clementines or 2 medium oranges (blood oranges are a nice touch for Passover)
1¼ cup sugar
1⅔ cup finely ground almond meal or almond flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Wash the oranges well and soak for one hour in clean water, drain. Add the whole unpeeled fruit to a saucepan with enough water to cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for up to 2 hours or until soft (clementines will take closer to 1½ hours). Use a plate or lid to keep the fruit mostly submerged. Add more water if necessary while simmering to keep fruit just covered.
2. Prepare a 10-inch spring form pan or 11-inch bundt cake pan, by oiling and dusting with fine matzo meal or lining with oiled parchment. Preheat oven to 350.
3. Drain and cool the oranges slightly. Cut into halves or quarters and remove any seeds. Add the fruit- peel and flesh - to the bowl of a food-processor. Add the sugar and eggs to the processor and pulse till well incorporated and smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once. Add the almond meal and pulse till almost incorporated, add the baking soda and lemon juice. Pulse a few more times.
4. Remove the blade from the processor bowl and use a rubber scraper to make sure all is well-mixed. Put batter into prepared pan and bake in the middle of the oven for about 1 hour, or until a thin knife poked into the center comes out clean. Cover the top with foil if it begins to brown.
5. Serve dusted with confectioners sugar (sifted through a doily for a fancier look). Serve with berries or fruit salad or whipped cream.
Per Serving (based on 10): 241 calories; 7 grams protein; 33 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams sugar; 11 grams fat; 98 milligrams cholesterol; 163 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servings
¼ cup red wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, mint or rosemary or a combination (if using dried use 1 teaspoon total)
Sea salt, pepper
1 to 1½ pounds lean trimmed leg of lamb, cut into cubes
1 large red pepper, trimmed and seeded, cut into cubes
1 purple onion, cut into chunks
Other vegetables as desired could include small zucchini, thick asparagus, par cooked sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes
About 3 tablespoons of olive oil
Fresh herbs or green for garnish - mint or thyme or pea leaves
1. Mix the red wine, herbs and 1 tablespoon of salt and lots of fresh ground pepper in a non- reactive bowl or baking dish. Add the lamb cubes and stir to coat. Let marinate for 4-5 hours or overnight.
2. If using wooden skewers, soak in water for at least 20 minutes. Skewer the lamb and vegetables - I like to make sure an onion is next to each piece of lamb, but the pattern is up to you.
3. When ready to cook, preheat the broiler for 8-12 minutes. Brush the skewers with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt and fresh pepper. Cook several inches away from the flames, turning once. Depending on the size of pieces of meat and vegetables this will take from 5 to 12 minutes total cooking time. If serving immediately, cook until medium rare (check using a meat thermometer for 145 degrees, or by slicing one piece of meat open). If cooking ahead, cook only until rare and remove from oven and cover with foil. Hold until serving in a warm area. Garnish with fresh herbs, or mint jelly.
Per Serving (based on 6): 301 calories; 28 grams protein; 13 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 14 grams fat; 85 milligrams cholesterol; 134 milligrams sodium; 3 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 4-6 servingsEndTextStartText
1 head of cauliflower, outer leaves removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Optional garnish ideas: chopped parsley, minced chives or scallions, sautéed onions, toasted nuts, For Saffron Cauliflower "Rice" Pilaf:
1 recipe Cauliflower Rice
A few strands of saffron
2-3 tablespoons orange juice (juice of ½ an orange)
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
2 tablespoons golden raisins, or dried cherries
2 scallions, minced fine (including some of the green part)
3 tablespoons toasted almonds or pistachios (optional)
1 tablespoon candied orange peel (optional)
1. Cut the cauliflower into florets, discard any tough stems. Grate the cauliflower using a food processor or hand grater. Alternately for smaller "grains" process in batches with a metal blade in the food processor.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan until just shimmering. Add the cauliflower and cook, stirring regularly, until softened. You can cook on higher heat to get some brown color, if desired. Season well with salt and pepper. Garnish as desired.
3. To make pilaf: Prepare Cauliflower Rice. Add the saffron to the orange juice along with the zest and let sit for a few minutes for the saffron strands to moisten. Add the saffron juice along with the raisins and scallions to the cauliflower and stir. Garnish with toasted nuts and/or candied orange peel if desired.
Per Serving (based on 6): 80 calories; 2 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 6 grams fat; no cholesterol; 14 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.