Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Free form Passover minestrone with Italian Thinkbread

The minestrone is adapted from Lidia Bastianich's Lidia's Italian Kitchen.

The charoset is a chopped apple (anything but Red Delicious, please) mixed with a package of chopped pecans, a handful of chopped dates, a sprinkle of cinnamon and sugar, and a splash of Sandeman's 10-year tawny port. My, but the family gobbled it up.

The horseradish is the prepared creamy kind, tipped out from a pretty little round jar; parsley and salt water are easily at hand; never having understood how one roasts an egg, I content myself with a boiled one.

As for the shankbone -- well. Once, years ago, I bought one and roasted it properly. Then one year (probably the very next) whilst running about the Pesach-tide kitchen with first-graders and a toddler underfoot bless them, I realized I had forgotten the shankbone. I asked my older daughter to "draw me a sheep" to represent what was missing, and she obliged. We put it on the seder plate, and then I tucked it into our one haggadah as a bookmark. The next year, there it was, and so we used it again. Now it has become our somewhat bedraggled shankbone.

And as for the Italian Thinkbread, you may suspect I am joking. Not at all. I found it next to the matza in the grocery store's kosher aisle. It has sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil in it. The family gobbled that up, too.

Raymond Sokolov described Passover succinctly in The Jewish-American Kitchen. He said that, apart from the obvious, the major point of the seder is to keep children curious and involved in the prayers, questions, blessings, and readings by letting them participate in the rituals, as well as eat the succession of "symbolic anti-foods. Then, they are fed a very filling meal." He has gorgeous photographs of the perfect fantasy seder, the matzah ball soup, the brisket, the gefilte fish, the tzimmes, and all complete with brocade tablecloths, lovely china and flowers, and heavy silver candlesticks in the background. ("The table should be set as festively as possible.") It all ends in "a splendor of non-flour desserts," photographs of those, too, included -- scrumptious, cloud-light honey cakes and plates of walnut brittle poised beside little crystal tea cups sitting in lacy gold holders. Perfect.

Ideally the seder, if conducted only among deeply interested and patient adults who want faithfully to worship through the entire Haggadah before and after eating, could go on for hours and could serve as a satisfying spiritual channel to antiquity -- the story comes from ancient Egypt, the meal from Rome -- to one's ancestors, and I suppose to God. In reality it can be a tortuous affair for many, or at any rate a uniquely strained yet workaday dinner, filled with much surreptitious glancing at watches and shushing of children, much hurry and worry over the rapidly cooling foods, and inevitable thoughts of the mess in the kitchen afterwards. A meal that comes with its own built in emotional pressure -- you should feel glorious about this, startinnngg now -- can be hard to look forward to and a relief to get over. What is the satisfaction of it? -- and not just Passover but, who knows, for some people perhaps Thanksgiving or Christmas too? Are these meals nearly as pleasurable as pizza on the couch in front of the Super Bowl, or is pleasure in sacred meals trivial? I wonder if there will be a time when centuries of ritual will have made the Super Bowl party a huge and anxious task, which people will thankfully dismiss when it's over, as in the words of the Haggadah: "And so we end the Passover Seder. We have conducted it according to custom, according to law...."

And we haven't even mentioned the fantastic preparatory work that will have gone on, in observant families, for weeks before the holiday, to clean the house of any and all chametz (foods containing any leavening), to bring out a separate set of dishes, to kasher the silverware, and so on. When Passover falls on a Saturday night, very observant families face the problem of having to run a seder when no cooking or other preparation has been permitted since the sabbath began the previous evening. I did once, only once, prepare and have ready a cold Passover dinner for a Saturday night. It was early on in my conversionary fervor. (Hell, speaking of fervor, I once knew a woman who tried wearing a wig for a while.) Of that cold meal, the less said the better.

I salute those who make it their business to do it all fully and with joy. This year, my solution was minestrone with Italian Thinkbread, a seder plate with our traditional paper shankbone on the table, and a nod to the good Lord for conveniently arranging this Passover for one of my Mondays off. Next year ... we'll think about it next year.

Lidia's minestrone

2 pounds of inexpensive beef -- big, flat "steaks" are easy to use
3-4 carrots, scraped and chopped
3-4 stalks of celery, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, diced
2 big onions, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
1 small head of Savoy cabbage, cored and sliced thin
2 tomatoes, halved and seeds removed
1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary; other fresh or dried herbs -- basil, oregano, thyme, etc. -- to your taste
vegetable or beef broth or water
1/3 cup red wine
1 can of black beans (you may add these, rinsed, toward the end of the cooking time)

Sear the beef in olive oil in a heavy pan until it is nicely browned on both sides. Put it into a big stockpot (mine has a capacity of 16 quarts). Add a little more olive oil or butter as needed to the pan, and briefly saute the vegetables in batches, so that they soften and perhaps brown a little, instead of just steaming. As each batch finishes, add it to the meat in the stockpot. Add the herbs. (I put the rosemary into a paper coffee filter and staple it shut, so that the rosemary leaves will not disperse throughout the soup.) Finally, deglaze the pan with about 1/3 cup or so of red wine of your choice. Boil the wine briefly so you are not putting it into the stockpot "raw."

When everything you want in your soup is in the stockpot, add water to cover the solids, or use a beef or vegetable broth if you have one handy. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 4 or 5 hours, tasting and adding salt and pepper as necessary. You may also boil some rice or noodles separately, to spoon into each guest's bowl if they wish it. Pass grated Parmesan or other hard cheese separately.

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