Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passover 101: A Gentile's Guide To Setting A Seder, Lesson 1

For someone who was raised Catholic, I'm a pretty good cultural Jew. In fact I've got the Tsimmes to prove it. But, eleven and a half years ago? Oy. I didn't know my dibbuk from my pupik. And I certainly didn't know my Sephardi from my Ashkenazi... 

It was Spring, 1998, and I was participating in my first seder since Lon and I had become a couple. Eager to contribute to the table I made what I thought was a perfect side dish - a bowl of beautiful peas tossed in olive oil with leeks. To me it said "spring" and "fresh" and "garden." But to everyone else? It said "goy." 

"What's that?" someone asked as the dish was passed down the table after the Haggadot were put away and the festive meal had begun. 

"Peas and leeks," I said, proudly. 

A few people looked at me, then at each other. Dishes were paused, mid-pass. There was silence. And then....

"Peas and leeks?" someone asked. "That's not a Passover dish. [Pause... pause... wait for it... wait for it...] That's a punch line waiting for a joke!" 

Laughter all around. I think I heard someone say "I don't get it...?" The meal resumed. 

I laugh when I remember that night now, but at the time I was crushed. People laughed warmly, and excused my oversight, but I felt I'd let Lon down by not first asking if legumes were kosher for Passover before I made the dish. It didn't help that my attempts at assimilation continued to fail when, while clearing dishes at the seder's end, I blew out the candles. A few gasps met my blunder. 

"Is this your first seder," a guest asked, seeing my reaction. I could only answer glumly: "Isn't it obvious?" 

"You did fine," she said as she helped me clear the table. "Didn't I hear you say you were Catholic?" 


"Well. You'll pick all of this up soon enough," she smiled, before offering, "You know, Catholics make the best Jews." 

I appreciated the sentiment and her kindness. I don't know if I agreed with her then, but over ten years on, I understand what she meant now. And I do pride myself on being a good cultural Jew. I've taken to calling myself a Cashew - a term a friend of mine who is also a Catholic married to a Jew coined for people like ourselves in dual-faith relationships. 

If anything I take comfort in knowing the frustration of feeling like you've failed your spouse when you don't immediately grasp the nuances of their holidays goes both ways: One year my brother-in-law Seth told us that his wife, Julie, was disappointed with the Christmas tree he'd brought home to decorate. His response? "Well this is what happens when you send a Jew do a Gentile's job." 

And that's what I've learned. When all else fails, laugh. And then eat. Just make sure you let the candles burn out on their own. 

Tsimmes Recipe 
1 lb carrots, peeled, sliced diagonally
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into cubes
1 lb dates, pitted (be careful to remove any stem that might still be attached)
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 TBS olive oil
4 cups of water
Juice of 2 oranges
Juice of 1 lemon, seeds strained out
1/4 tsp saffron strands
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp coriander
2 sticks of cinnamon
4 tsp kosher salt 
2 TBS honey 

1. Heat oil over medium flame in pan large enough to hold about 12 cups. When oil is hot, add onion. Saute until soft, then add garlic. Cook for about a minute. Add carrots and cook with the onions, stirring frequently until coated. Add potatoes and cook about five minutes, stirring often. 
2. Pour in the water and add saffron. Bring just to a boil. Add cinnamon sticks. Turn heat down to a simmer. Add the ginger, cardamom, coriander and salt. Stir well. Continue simmering to help reduce water. Cook until carrots and sweet potatoes are just easily pierced with a fork, but not completely soft the whole way through. 
3. Stir in orange juice, lemon juice and honey. Mix well. Add dates, turn off heat, and cover. Allow to sit for ten minutes. Serve. 
TIP: I find that when adding honey to a recipe that it's best to first break it down a little. I usually heat it over a flame with the other liquids that I'm putting in the dish. For instance for the tsimmes, I poured the fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juice into a metal mixing bowl and sat it directly on my stove top. Over a very low flame, I stirred in the honey until it blended well with the juices. 
NOTES: This is a mash-up of a traditional carrot tsimmes with a traditional tagine. From the tagine I plucked the saffron, dates and lemon. To the traditional carrot tsimmes I added sweet potato, and left out the prunes and raisins. I like prunes, or dried plums or whatever you want to call them, but I find that they can leave a very specific fermented, earthy flavor that I don't always want in my dishes. But substitute as your preferences dictate. 


jessica said...

man, if you could only add chickpeas!

Steven said...

You know how I love all-things-chickpea! I know, I know.... I was thinking of adding almonds, but didn't.

Ozge said...

I'm not familiar to ritual you mentioned, but I was still engaged with what you shared. Especially those last lines... "When all else fails, laugh. And then eat. Just make sure you let the candles burn out on their own. " Exactly.

Ann said...

I couldn't understand or relate to the few words you have mentioned. But I think, I quite liked the recipe :)

Steven said...

Thanks, I'm happy you were able to get through! I'm trying to switch the blog to its own domain and people have had trouble getting through. It should redirect on its own but that hasn't been the case for everyone.

Enjoy the dish, it's quite good - if I do say so my self!