Bubbe’s Passover, Circa 2019: Feeding the Soul While Staying Healthy
JNS.org – Sweet gefilte fish with a dollop of eye-watering horseradish. Fluffy matzah balls floating in golden chicken soup. Raisin-dotted matzah kugel, tangy stuffed cabbage, crunchy charoset, and mile-high sponge cake.
During Passover, you may come upon recipes — faded over the years — in the handwriting of beloved mothers or grandmothers, tucked into old cookbooks, or recorded on yellowed index cards. These, along with the fragrance of the Passover kitchen itself — and the first taste of matzah smeared with horseradish and charoset — can transport you back to the sights, sounds, and tastes of seder nights a half-century ago.
But when the nostalgia lifts, if you’re not careful, eight days (make that seven in Israel) of these wonderful, time-honored Passover foods can also widen your waistline, dull your brain in a perpetual carb-fog, and slow your kishkas to a near standstill.
Fortunately, there’s an art to preparing traditional foods that retain the power to pass on to the next generation this beloved family holiday, while eating smart — thus creating a Passover that’s healthful without losing its soul.
Joan Nathan, the Julia Child of Jewish cooking, has updated many of her family’s Passover dishes, including Passover recipes, for her latest book, King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.
“Seder night is a big deal in our family,” says Nathan, who each year hosts as many as 40 guests for the big event, and the week before holds a “gefilte-in” for friends to come and cook together.
Beginning with the salad, Nathan adds the key ingredient of creativity to every course, with a special focus on using vegetables to keep the “HQ” (health quotient) high. And she loads her mother’s traditional brisket recipe with plenty of carrots.
Paula Shoyer, author of The Healthy Jewish Kitchen and The New Passover Menu, suggests an easy formula for “lightening up” traditional recipes: Take down the sugar a notch; replace some matzah meal with other kosher-for-Passover options like a mixture of almond and coconut flour; and use coconut oil (look for extra-virgin with a reliable hechshers, kosher symbols) instead of the ever-present margarine.
“And people will find that if they cook from scratch, they’ll avoid all the unhealthy chemicals in the packaged Passover foods — and save money too,” notes Shoyer. “It only takes a few more minutes to make brownies yourself.” Creating salad dressings of olive oil and vinegar with spices can help you dodge some of the arguably less healthful oils (peanut and cottonseed among them) long associated with Passover cooking.
Israelis love cauliflower and zucchini, and both of these are spotlighted in Steven Rothfeld’s love letter to Israeli cuisine Israel Eats. Note: On Passover, Israelis are split between Sephardic tradition, which allows the eating of kitnyot (most notably legumes and rice), and Ashkenazi custom, which considers these things to be chametz — not kosher for Passover. (Though in the spirit of what Rothfeld calls “Israeli fusion,” in recent years many Ashkenazim in Israel and elsewhere have opted to spend Passover eating like Sephardim.) Tip to shoppers: You’ll notice that many “Kosher for Passover” products add the word “Kitniyot” somewhere on the package as a warning to consumers whose tradition is to avoid it. (Not sure what’s kitniyot? Arlene Mathes-Scharf of kashrut.com put together this list with the late Rabbi Zuche Blech.)
“The best advice I can give for keeping healthy on Passover is to listen to your body,” adds Rothfeld. “Just because it’s a holiday, don’t overeat, and even though it looks amazing, don’t eat it if you’re not hungry.” (Kind of the flip side to the Haggadah notation: “All who are hungry, come and eat.”)
Then there are the folks with food sensitivities — to gluten, nuts, or dairy for instance. When Marcy Goldman’s nut-allergic son longed to eat her charoset, a delicious part of the seder that calls for nuts, she quickly went to work concocting a version he could safely enjoy. The result? “Paradise Charoset” in her Newish Jewish Cookbook.
Goldman also makes a point of slipping healthful, colorful veggies and fruits into other traditional dishes, creating such treats as her “Three-Level Kugel.”
“You can eat smart over Passover,” she insists. “You don’t have to recycle potatoes, kugels, and roasts all week. And remember, it only takes one or two Passovers to make your adaptations into your family Passover traditions.”
There is also oat matzah on the market that solves the gluten-free problem (you may need to order them if they’re not available near you). And those sensitive to nightshades such as white potatoes will have to be vigilant about scouring the labels due to the literally tons of potato starch used in prepared kosher-for-Passover foods.
As for the most common health complaint from Passover — the infamous constipating powers of matzah and its by-products — Nathan says her ancestors were wise enough to build relief right into their traditional holiday recipes. “Our family always serves our krimsel (matzah fritters) with plenty of stewed prunes … even way back then, they understood.”