Homesick for Passover

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Six years ago I moved to the Northeast from Southern California, where I grew up and where my family still lives. There are only two times of year that make me homesick, and sometimes they overlap: the waning days of winter, when it seems like the sleet and snow and dreariness—and lack of good fresh produce—will never end, and Passover (which began at sundown yesterday).

Although my family was not observant, my paternal grandmother—and when she became elderly, my aunt—always hosted a big Passover seder. Each year we took turns reading from the same Maxwell House haggadahs, obtained by my uncle when he worked in their marketing department in the 1970s and still bearing the names my late grandfather had written in the margins to indicate our reading assignments. Year after year, we stumbled over the same Biblical names and unfamiliar words. My other uncle would crack the same jokes as the year before. My father, at the head of the table, would drink from the red wine tumbler brought to this country from Poland by my great-grandfather.

Then there was the food, as unchanging as the Passover story itself: chopped liver, gefilte fish and charoset, each served with matzo; matzo ball soup; fatty beef brisket; a carrot kugel; asparagus; and coconut macaroons for dessert. It wasn't gourmet, and by the time I was a teenager I had gone vegetarian and sworn off half of the menu (my grandmother dutifully put aside a few beloved matzo balls for me before putting them in the chicken soup, and it never occurred to me that she might be "forgetting" to tell me that they contained schmaltz, or chicken fat). But these traditions are what tie me to my Jewish heritage in the same way that Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and Fourth of July barbecues make me feel American.

This year I tried to quell my homesickness a bit by inviting a couple of friends over for a seder-lite. No haggadahs—just a brief summary of the Passover story highlights, and an explanation of the symbolism of the various foods—and none of the more polarizing parts of my family's traditional menu, namely chopped liver and gefilte fish. A couple of years ago my (gentile) fiancé experienced his first seder, and he still hasn't recovered from the liver's mineral-ish flavor and odd, almost chalky texture—or his embarrassment over being unable to hide his displeasure. In any case, I don't like it either.

However, in my opinion gefilte fish gets a bad rap, mostly because it looks so disgusting packed in those Manischewitz jars full of fishy slime, and because its name doesn't sound very appealing. I think someone at the Jewish Food Promotion Board (if such a thing existed) should embark on a rebranding campaign for gefilte fish, similar to how prunes are now marketed as "dried plums." How about poisson à la juive, or "fish in the Jewish style," as it's called in French?

Still, this being an introduction to Jewish cuisine for at least one of my guests (two if you count the 2-year-old), I didn't want to scare them off with the first course. I stuck with charoset, the chopped fruit and nut mixture soaked in wine that is usually a hit even among the uninitiated. Although I now eat chicken, in deference to the diet of one of my guests I made vegetarian matzo balls from a recipe I found on Epicurious that uses butter instead of schmaltz. They were a little eggier and fluffier than the ever-so-slightly chewy ones my grandma used to make, but still good. (The proper density of matzo balls is a subject of great debate among Jewish cooks; I'm in the "substantial but not leaden" camp.) The two-year-old, in particular, seemed to enjoy them.

For the main course, instead of brisket I substituted salmon and horseradish sauce—satisfying the "bitter herb" portion of the meal—and made a vegetable kugel and salad on the side. For dessert, I made some chewy amaretti cookies I found on the Smitten Kitchen blog, minus about half the sugar—they were still plenty sweet.

It wasn't quite like going home for Passover, but it was fun to share a meal with friends and introduce them to some new foods. Maybe it will even become a tradition.

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