Tonight at sundown is the beginning of Pesach (Passover), the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery. During the eight days of Passover, there are gatherings of friends and family and lavish dinners, called Seders, where the story of Passover is retold.
One thing that I love about Jewish holidays is the symbolism of the food, and few are more symbolic than the Seder dinner. I’ve been to many different Seders over the years, and they can range from very traditional to alternative and casual. I’ve been to huge gatherings where the dinner table runs the length of the house and smaller celebrations that are more intimate. The last few years we have attended a women’s vegetarian Seder (which we will be participating in tomorrow night!).
Regardless of the number of guests or the type of Seder, there are often similar symbolic foods that grace nearly every table, such as the Seder plate, which contains the following items:
• Charoset, a mixture of nuts, apples, cinnamon and wine that represents the mortar and bricks that the Jewish slaves made for the Pharaoh in Egypt
• Parsley that is dipped in salt water to represent tears that were shed as a result of Jewish slavery
• A roasted or boiled egg, which is a symbol of Spring
• A shank bone, representing the sacrificial lamb (or at the vegetarian feast, something else is used such as a yam or other vegetable or fruit)
• Bitter herbs, often freshly-grated horseradish and Romaine lettuce, representing the bitterness of slavery
Matzah, which is an unleavened cracker-like bread, is an important part of the Seder. It represents the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, as they did not have time to wait for the yeast to rise and had to bake the dough into flat bread in the desert sun. No leavened foods or grains are allowed to be eaten during the eight days of Passover. Matzah is broken at the table and shared between guests. Most people purchase it, but you can make your own if you are adventurous.
Wine is also a significant component of the Seder. Four glasses of wine are poured to represent the four stages of the Exodus. Finally, a place is set and a fifth cup of wine is poured for the prophet Elijah.
Matzah ball soup, spring vegetables such as asparagus and artichokes, braised brisket, roast leg of lamb, and flourless chocolate cake are some of my favorite dishes that you often see on the Seder table. Here is my favorite recipe for Braised Brisket “Tzimmes” — melt in your mouth brisket with yams and prunes which we often eat for Passover. Yum!
Braised Brisket Tzimmes
1 brisket, about 4 lbs, trimmed of fat
1 teaspoon paprika
Freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 large yellow onions, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 large yams, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 cup pitted prunes, cut into quarters
Rub the brisket all over with the paprika, salt, and pepper. In a large Dutch oven or stockpot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Brown the brisket on all sides until deep brown, about 10 minutes total. Remove the brisket and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 325F. In the Dutch oven, over medium heat, saute the onions until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the allspice, wine, tomatoes, bay leaf, and thyme and stir together. Bring to a low boil then add the brisket, cover, and place in the oven. Cook until the meat is fork-tender, about 3 hours, basting the meat occasionally. Add the yams and prunes. Cover and cook for another hour, or until the yams are tender.
Remove from the oven. If you plan to serve the brisket right away, remove the meat to a serving tray and slice it across the grain into thick slices. Skim the fat off the sauce and pour the sauce and vegetables over the meat. To serve the next day, let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight. The next day, preheat the oven to 350F. Skim the fat from the sauce. Remove the brisket, slice it across the grain into thick slices, add it back to the sauce and reheat for about 30 minutes or until warmed through. Enjoy!