Season to Taste: By Your Seder Table Shall They Know You
Passover is a time for questions, and one that comes to mind for many of my friends is how and where to observe the Seders, and with whom. For a whole variety of reasons—marital status, geography and emotional topography paramount among them—Passover has become a time to reflect on the relationships we’ve formed in our own lives, taking the traditional handed-down recipe and spicing it up with a twist all our own. Sometimes, when we celebrate in the company of the families we have created or in novel ways with our own families, we introduce rituals that bridge the gap between what’s old and what’s new.
For hilary jacobs, 33, who lives in San Francisco, the first night of Passover is spent with her parents. But last year, Seder No. 2 was a chance to put her experience as a former Hebrew school teacher to good use. “In the Bay area, practically everyone is from somewhere else,” says Jacobs. “We all wanted to be together, but couldn’t figure out how to fit into my place in the traditional sit-down way.” Her solution? An interactive paper-bag puppet show bringing the Exodus story and Seder plate to life. “We covered most of the important material in an unconventional way,” she says. The meal? A wine-paired barbecue in her back yard, capped with an afikoman search that had the 30 guests scrambling to find it. “I couldn’t see a lot of ‘grown-ups’ attending that Seder,” says Jacobs, “which was part of the fun.”
A woman I know began hosting Seders when her level of observance surpassed that of her parents. “The year I discovered there was a part of the Haggada to read after dinner was a revelation,” she jokes. Now, she uses her New York apartment as the staging ground, easily finding a cast of wandering city Jews to fill seats. Spirited discussions trail long into the night, and there’s not a Maxwell House Haggada to be found. Instead, everyone brings their own favorite to ratchet the dialectic up a notch. But in a nod to her mother’s Seders, where the religious content may have been soft-pedaled but good hosting was non-negotiable, she lays the table with finery befitting her upbringing. “One of the upsides is I now have Passover dishes for 15,” she says.
For a close friend living in Israel, moving beyond 20 years of tense family Seders, where the tear-inducing quotient was greater than the most pungent haroset, was an eye-opener. For her and her Seder-mates, the food—a mix of Middle Eastern takeout and matza ball soup—was an appetizing symbol of their newfound independence. Still, they found a happy way to weave family customs into the proceedings: At the end of the night, each guest broke into their own family tune for “Had Gadya,” making for a cacophony that may have just scared Elijah away but delighted the participants.
I still spend the first two nights of Passover with my family, but I’ve come to understand the inclination to make the Seder my own. It’s no Yom Kippur, but Passover is a time to check my life compass—after all, according to the Torah, it’s another new year equal in importance to Rosh Hashana. Perhaps it’s because I don’t yet have a family of my own that at moments of the festive meal I feel like a case of arrested development. The changes my sister has undergone as a wife and mother may be more visible, but no less profound than the tectonic shifts in my life.
One way I recline toward my individual identity is by introducing new foods into the evening. This smoky Spanish Romesco sauce is great with chicken or fish and it keeps for a week in the fridge. It’s perfect for spreading on matza—as are the leftover garlic cloves. Most important, it’s an up-to-the-minute taste of me, right there on the Passover table.
(Makes about 2 cups)
-1 whole head garlic
-1/2 cup plus 2 TB extra virgin olive oil, preferably Spanish
-1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste Freshly ground pepper to taste
-1 large red bell pepper, or 10 oz jar roasted red peppers, drained
-1 beefsteak or Holland tomato, halved horizontally
-1/2 board matza, crumbled
-1 tsp pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika), or regular paprika
-1/2 cup almonds or hazelnuts, blanched and lightly toasted
-2 TB red wine vinegar
1. Preheat oven to 375°. Trim outer papery skin from garlic. Place garlic on aluminum foil and drizzle with 1 TB olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Close foil loosely over garlic and place in oven.
2. Place bell pepper and tomato on baking sheet and drizzle tomato halves with 1 TB olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and place in oven.
3. Roast tomato 20-25 minutes, garlic an additional 20 minutes. Add 10 minutes more for bell pepper, turning occasionally. Remove pepper to a brown paper bag and fold over to seal. When pepper is cool enough to handle, seed and remove skin. Skin roasted tomato.
4. Place crumbled matza in bowl of food processor and process until fine, about 30 seconds. Add roasted pepper and tomato. Peel 5 cloves garlic and add with salt, paprika and nuts and process just until some texture remains, about 20 seconds. With processor running, add 1/2 cup olive oil in a slow stream to emulsify sauce. Add red wine vinegar and pulse several times. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.