Passover traditions become personal

Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)

If “Fiddler on the Roof” taught us anything, it is that the practice of Judaism depends heavily on tradition.

Never is that as evident as it will be during Passover, which begins Friday night. This year, as they have for thousands of years, Jews around the world will read the same stories of their ancestral flight from slavery in Egypt and eat the same symbolic foods before beginning their evening meal.

It’s tradition. It’s eternal. And no one is going to mess with tradition.

But the dinner itself is not preordained. Families and friends tend to eat the same dishes from one year to the next, but there is nothing in the religion itself that dictates what is served for dinner.

And so, it is the dinner after the Seder with which we will concern ourselves today. There is nothing wrong with making a new tradition.

For a lot of American Jews whose families came from Eastern Europe, brisket is the entree of choice for Passover — and pretty much every other holiday as well. Based on an idea that is not, strictly speaking, my own (thank you, Martha Stewart), I decided to try to combine two Passover dishes, brisket and charoset.

Charoset, it is almost universally agreed, is the best thing about Passover. It is a delicious combination of chopped apples, spices, walnuts and wine, and is the kind of tradition that gives tradition a good name.

But how can you mix it with brisket? Well, brisket is one of those tough meats that turns sublime when subjected to a long, slow simmer in a flavored liquid.

In this case, the liquid I used was red wine, which is what is used for charoset. And because cinnamon (and sometimes cloves) are often used to perfume the charoset, I added both to the simmering liquid. I knew I was going to top the meat with toasted walnuts, which would help bring out the earthier flavors of the beef, but I was a little concerned about the apples. How would the bright taste of apples go with the rest of the dish?

Very well, as it turns out, and even better than I’d hoped. They are a natural complement to the cinnamon, cloves and walnuts and became a welcome counterpoint to the heavy richness of the brisket. And preparing them could not have been simpler. I sauteed the apple slices in butter until they were just becoming tender and starting to turn brown.

The usual accompaniment to brisket is potatoes, and for this nontraditional Passover I added a couple of twists to another holiday’s tradition, latkes.

Latkes — potato pancakes — are usually brought out for Hanukkah. One impediment to serving them at Passover is that they are typically made with a little flour, and flour is forbidden during Passover.

But I am not giving away any secrets when I say they can also be made with matzo meal. Matzo meal is not, as some believe, a grain that is used to bake matzos; it is actually matzos that have been baked and then ground into a coarse powder. So it doesn’t have the same properties as flour and cannot be easily substituted for it, except in some cases.

One of those cases is potato pancakes, though I still prefer them made with flour. I made the latkes I usually make, but with the substitution of matzo meal, and then I took inspiration from a popular hors d’oeuvre of the 1990s and topped them with sour cream, smoked salmon and chives.

I can’t claim credit for the concept, but it was awfully good.

Finally, I made dessert. Dessert can be the hardest part of a Passover meal, because all of the good ones involve flour. So most Passover dinners end with macaroons, chewy bites of coconut that are perfectly adequate given the lack of other options.

But then I saw a recipe that takes macaroons into the stratosphere (thank you again, Martha Stewart). Raspberry Macaroons in Chocolate Shells are utterly delightful, yet are not hard to make. Who knew that homemade macaroons could be easy?

You simply use a food processor to mix sweetened, flaked coconut with sugar, salt, raspberries and an egg white, which holds it all together. Bake it at a moderate 350 degrees for up to a half hour, and then dip the macaroons in a mixture of chocolate and coconut oil (or corn syrup, if you aren’t observing Passover). Then put assorted toppings on top — I used toasted walnuts (I had some left over from the brisket), sanding sugar and fleur de sel, a crunchy, mild salt.

They were spectacular. They were worth eating even when it is not Passover. It’s time to start a new tradition.

Brisket, Charoset Style

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

1 well-trimmed brisket, about 31/2 pounds

2 tablespoons oil

2 cups dry red wine

1 onion, sliced

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

1/2 tablespoon butter

2 apples, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch slices

1 cup walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Season brisket liberally on both sides with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven slightly larger than the meat, heat the oil on medium-high heat until hot, but not smoking. Sear the meat until well browned on both sides. Remove the meat and pour out the fat.

With the pot back on the heat, add the wine and deglaze by scraping up the brown bits on the bottom with a wooden spoon or spatula. Allow the wine to reduce by about one-fourth. Add the onions, carrots and celery, and return the meat to the pot; the wine should come only partly up the side of the meat. Place the cloves and cinnamon stick in the liquid, cover and bring to a boil.

Place the pot in the oven and cook until the meat is very tender, about 3 hours. When the meat is almost done, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat and add the apple slices. Cook, turning occasionally, until the apples are somewhat tender and starting to brown. Meanwhile, scatter the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet.

Remove the meat from the oven when it is done but do not turn off the oven. Place the baking sheet in the oven and toast the walnuts, stirring occasionally, until brown and fragrant, about 7 to 12 minutes.

Slice the meat against the grain and top with juice, apple slices and walnuts. If making the day before, slice meat and refrigerate with the juice and vegetables; reheat at 300 degrees before serving.

Per serving (based on 8): 413 calories; 21 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 102 mg cholesterol; 37 g protein; 11 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 69 mg sodium; 49 mg calcium.

Recipe by Daniel Neman

Raspberry Macaroons in Chocolate Shells

Yield: 16 pieces

2 cups dried, sweetened, flaked coconut

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 large egg white

Pinch of coarse salt

1/2 cup fresh raspberries

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

2 tablespoons coconut oil (or corn syrup if not observing Passover)

Toasted walnuts, toasted coconut, sanding sugar, colored sugar, fleur de sel, etc., for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine coconut, granulated sugar, egg white and salt in a food processor and pulse until just combined, scraping down sides of bowl if necessary. Add raspberries and pulse until just incorporated (do not over-process).

Scoop mounds of coconut mixture 1 inch apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, using a 1/2-ounce (11/4-inch) ice cream scoop or a tablespoon to form small mounds.

Bake until macaroons are lightly golden, 28 to 30 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through cooking. Transfer macaroons to a wire rack and let cool.

Place chocolate in a bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until melted. Add coconut oil or corn syrup, stirring until combined, then remove from heat.

Dip bottoms of macaroons in chocolate or completely cover with chocolate (a flexible spatula will help with this), transferring as dipped to a wax-paper-lined baking sheet. Garnish as desired while still warm, then refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes and up to 1 day. Serve chilled.

Per serving: 126 calories; 8 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 12 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 45 mg sodium; 6 mg calcium.

Recipe by Martha Stewart

Passover Latkes With Lox

Yield: 6 servings

2 russet potatoes, unpeeled

2 tablespoons minced onion

1 large wedge lemon

2 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoon matzo meal

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Vegetable oil (not olive)

6 tablespoons sour cream

4 ounces smoked salmon, in 6 slices

6 chives, chopped, optional

Grate the potatoes, using the large holes of a grater. Place the gratings in several layers of paper towels and squeeze out as much liquid as you can (it is easiest to do this in two batches, and it makes cleaning easier if you do it over a sink). Unwrap the potato gratings and place them in a medium bowl.

Add the onion, squeeze the lemon over the top and mix thoroughly. Add the eggs, matzo meal and nutmeg, and stir to mix again.

Pour oil into a skillet to a depth of 1/8 to 1/4 inch. Heat the oil over

medium-high heat until it is very hot; the oil is ready when a little bit of the potato mixture

sizzles when you drop it in. Pour in enough of the potato mixture to make 1 or 2 (4-inch) pancakes; do not make more than 2 at a time.

Flatten the potatoes in the pan with a spatula and fry a few minutes until the bottom is golden brown. Flip pancakes and cook until the other sides are golden brown.

Remove, drain on paper towels and sprinkle with plenty of salt.

Top each latke with 1 tablespoon of sour cream and 1 slice of salmon, rolled up.

Garnish with chives, if desired.

Per serving: 190 calories; 13 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 73 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 157 mg sodium; 35 mg calcium.

Recipe by Daniel Neman