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Of Bitter Herbs and Vegetables

April 7th, 2012 - By Lari Robling

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Jews around the world are celebrating the spring time ritual of Passover and the story of Exodus, when the Jews were freed from slavery in ancient Egypt. Joan Nathan, who has written ten cookbooks including the much-acclaimed Jewish Cooking in America and most recently,Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, says you can keep the traditions and still lighten up the meal. She looks to Tunisia for vegetable salads and North Africa for Eggs Baked in Sand.



Vegetarian Matzo Ball

Baked Eggs in Sand

Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Lemon and Garlic


Jews around the world are celebrating the spring time ritual of Passover and the story of Exodus when the Jews were freed from slavery in ancient Egypt.

“It’s really one of the longest established theatrical evenings as a meal in the Western World and it is very exciting to celebrate the Seder every year” says Joan Nathan. She’s written many cookbooks on the history of Jewish cuisine including Quiches, Kugels and Couscous.

Nathan notes, “The vast majority of American Jews are from Central and Eastern Europe and their menu is pretty meat oriented and pretty heavy.”

“There is a way to lighten up the meal, though.” says Nathan. She turns to Sephardic Jews who come from the Mediterranean.

“Let’s say Moroccan Jews, for example, start their Seder with fava beans and roasted pepper and shad.” Nathan continues, “So it’s already a lighter meal. Tunisian Jews have a wonderful vegetable soup with artichoke hearts, again fresh fava beans, asparagus and a little bit of meat, but not predominately meat.”

And a Passover meal is about ritual and symbolism. A new tradition Nathan has incorporated into her dinner is to replace the boiled egg with a roasted egg cooked in sand…. it’s a technique that comes from North Africa. And, no, you don’t go get the sand from the backyard– but a bag of clean box from your garden center is perfect.

“The eggs are transformed,” she says. “They are hard-boiled, of course, but they the texture is creamy and they are delicious.”

Here’s how she says to do it

Preheat an oven to 200 degrees. Take a Dutch oven and put in some sand to stand a dozen eggs whole—barely touching. Cover them with sand and then the top of the Dutch oven. Cook them for about eight hours or overnight. After cooking, put them directly into ice water as you would boiled eggs. Once cooled, peel and refrigerate in salt water until dinner.

Other traditional dishes can go on the table with a tweak.

For her Seder, Nathan says, “I always make a brisket but I make a brisket with preserved lemons tomatoes lots of vegetables.”

And since we are trying to incorporate more vegetables in all our meals, Nathan recommends highlighting them during Passover week.

“You know, I might do a layered Italian dish of matzos and spinach and peppers and you just serve it with no meat or I’ll make a gnocchi out of spinach and potatoes that was known as a Passover dish,” she says.

For Nathan, there’s even a way for vegetarians to have matzo ball soup.

She says, “I’ll make a vegetarian broth and make matzo balls maybe with coconut oil instead of schmalz, chicken fat.”

Also take into consideration a Passover dinner is a long meal a heavy dessert can be a bit much.

“To lighten it up I very often will have fruit especially strawberries because its spring time if I can get those wonderful little fraises des bois, but its really hard.” She adds,’ I like to have unusual fruits at that time of year.”

While the Passover Seder meal is often a table laden with many dishes, Joan Nathan believes there’s more.

“As much as the food is delicious, I don’t think that is what really nourishes people,” she says. “It’s being together, and having a chance to connect. I think that people desperately need this.”

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Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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