flavors, failures & feasts…

…celebrating Spring Holidays with a teensy bit of creative license

Let’s start with the premise that there is a big difference between honoring a holiday and observing one. That said, over the long weekend I set out to cook two feasts for two holidays for two religions. Somehow I ended up with three – ridiculous overthinking on my part per usual. It turns out that about every 33 years Passover, Easter and Ramadan are all observed in the same month. How could I simply ignore that opportunity? But first I’ll tackle the original two-part plan, because it always starts with a plan.

Passover and Easter

The celebration of either Easter or Passover can be described as paschal, but I choose to think either infers both, ideally in tandem, and they almost always fall close together on the calendar. Despite the many differences between these two holidays, I’m intrigued by the historical intersections documented in the Old & New Testaments. But after some poking around, I realized I’m not equipped for a theological, messianic conversation about the timing of the Last Supper as a Passover Seder, fascinating as that might be. Really I just found it cool that 2022/5782 is one of those special overlap years with Ramadan so I researched a little. I’ve always said that I find great value and comfort in connecting with the past, and a unique opportunity presented itself this weekend.

On April 9, 3.49 million viewers watched Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic film, The Ten Commandments. I’m not the only person to seeking common ground.

Sometimes holiday food is tradition, like a treasured recipe passed from generation to generation. But sometimes that food plays an integral role in the religious experience and is not to be taken lightly. Easter dinner may be habit for me, but it’s a tradition I can upgrade every year with fresh recipes. In that regard Passover is much more of a challenge. Plus there’s my not exactly being Jewish and all.

pre-Passover-last-supper-ish dinner: roasted zucchini, brisket, brown butter kugel with fried shallots, charoset and challah (served just under the wire) with kumquat rosemary preserves

The Passover Seder is rich with specific rituals, prayers and food which narrate the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. So before anyone points out all the errors on my dinner plate, you need to understand that I KNOW. It was never meant to be a Seder, only a respectful and appropriate nod to some of my ancestors. In fact, since it was Thursday, it was really more of a last supper before Passover and the Festival of Matzot even began. The reconciliation of lunar, Gregorian and Jewish calendars is complicated at best, so this is where I step away of that aforementioned timing debate. Foodwise it worked out just fine – I broke no laws.

My not-Passover meal was born from curiosity and a simple desire to connect – think cultural appreciation, not appropriation. Good intentions aside, things went functionally awry early on. I could ignore the hint of soy in my brisket and that the kugel was obviously chametz. But then I burned the shallots, sliced my finger chopping apples, accidentally drank the charoset wine, dropped an F-bomb when boiling artichoke oil spilled all over the floor (the low point) and tragically overbaked the challah. Yes, I understand that challah is absolutely antithetical to the symbolism of Passover. Again, not a Seder. I’m not being flippant, but this was borderline disastrous and I paid for my ambition. Still, that brisket rocked.

Good Friday and the official first night of Passover was a day of recovery for me before attacking the upcoming Easter dinner. Knowing that I would over-do this weekend, the Easter baskets were completed a week ago. Even though Sous Chef and Food Taster are adult children, giving them icky pastel candy and mediocre chocolate is one of those mom privileges I still invoke. Some people threw in the Easter Bunny towel way too early back in 1980 and I think my ruthless dedication is partially a reaction to that. But despite those grievances, we always celebrated with yummy and often eventful holiday meals which remain lasting memories of my childhood. Given the choice, I’d take those over a basket of Peeps any day.

after a quick recovery I began again

Today Easter is another one of those carefully negotiated holidays in my house. Growing up in Savannah, dinner meant a large afternoon meal, while a lighter evening meal would be called supper. It is a bit antiquated, but familiar and probably more healthy – I droned on about meal nomenclature here last month. Like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter dinner should be served around 2pm, but in our mixed* marriage I’ve relinquished the timing in exchange for full menu control. We were tided-over by a brunch of challah French toast and thick-cut bacon, finally eating dinner at 7:45pm. It wasn’t dinner, but I refused to call this feast supper. Damn Yankees.

*North-South

Whenever I plan a holiday menu there are a couple of vital questions which should be addressed before I run off to the market:

  1. what is the culinary tradition?
  2. how much license to innovate do I have?
  3. have I considered variety and balance?
  4. is it as pleasing to the eye as to the palate?
  5. can I pull off the ingredients, cooking, timing & presentation?

Here’s how I worked through it:

Although ham and lamb are ubiquitous, Easter dinner actually presents a lot of opportunity to introduce new recipes since there are no dietary restrictions, or even guidelines. To keep that window wide open I opted for both ham and lamb, even though Mother’s observation would be something like “Both??? Nobody needs all that food!” But this time I was Daddy’s girl – remember his motto, more is more.

Originally I planned to make the pomegranate-dill rice for “Passover,” but with all the piquant spice and caramelized sweetness, it seemed like a better anchor for the meat-a-rama. That’s some pretty strong stuff when you can marginalize a rack of lamb.

Easter dinner: pomegranate, onion & dill rice with feta, sriracha deviled eggs, brown sugar ham, haricots verts, carrot soufflé, garlic crusted rack of lamb.

Carrot soufflé and thin greenies worked fine as unassuming sidekicks with little ambition to compete – they served as foils to the strong flavors around them. Plus they introduced bright Spring colors to the otherwise meaty, red palate. Finally, I had to get this all prepared and served hot on the table with grace and flair, neither of which I consider personal strengths. Of course at the last minute I remembered that I had wanted a deviled egg or two. That’s probably why we ate at 7:45, but it was healthy, hot, delicious and lovely. Mission accomplished.

Ramadan

I admit gross ignorance when it comes to Islamic customs, traditions or worship and I find this to be an embarrassing hole in my adult education. But I haven’t lived a completely WASPy existence. The strange thing about Savannah, which one might assume fits a certain stereotype, is that from 1733 on there was a Jewish community living and thriving alongside the original Christian settlers. Perhaps because of that shared history I was never aware of any great religious divide growing up, although that is a child’s perspective. But I find myself without much frame of reference regarding the celebration of Ramadan. I’m afraid that I might not have even entertained making this dinner for this purpose were it not for that fortuitous, 33-year collision.

“Indeed in dates there is a cure”

~ the Prophet Muhammad

I will not pretend here – I am not really entitled to commentary other than I’m a fan of any practice promoting empathy, self-discipline and charity. Frankly, I could use a little more of all three. I read-up enough to understand that Ramadan is the 9th and most holy month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast during the daylight hours. Often beginning with dates, fast is broken twice a day – in the early morning with suhoor and in the evening with iftar. The meals are nourishing, high in complex carbs and low in sugar & fat in order to sustain a body for long periods of time. This is a time for contemplation, family and faith. Sounds familiar.

I randomly chose to make an iftar meal of Afghani origin and honestly, it might have been the most interesting, amazing recipe of the entire weekend: aushak, which are leek dumplings with a savory tomato sauce. Picky Food Taster showed up and had thirds – that’s saying something.

Right off the bat I knew I wasn’t going to boil these delectable little gems – the Tale of Two Dumplings taught me that. Normally a less greasy iftar is wiser during a fasting month, but since this was only a respectful nod I took some license. I dutifully chopped 3 leeks with a bunch of scallions and sautéed them in half. Tossing in a generous handful of minced cilantro resulted in a most savory, vibrant, green filling, which I hated to tuck away into the wrappers. I’ve gotten much better at dumpling construction and made 36 lovely pockets to pan fry in grape seed oil.

Ramadan iftar: Afghani aushak with keema

The keema was a simple ragu, only infused with coriander and cardamom rather than basil and oregano. I chose ground beef, but lamb, lentils, chickpeas, chana dal or vegan “meat” all work. The same person in my house who hates mayonnaise feels the same way about yogurt, but this garlic-mint base was really important to both the structure of the plate and the blending of tastes and textures. He loved it too, every bite – seriously, this was a huge success.

Monday’s paschalesque breakfast

My personal theology was well-suited for the idea of multiple paschal celebrations as symbols of springtime renewal and affirmation. Adding Ramadan into the mix only broadened and enriched my perspective, which made cooking for all three a worthwhile creative frenzy. It was like that weekend I cooked for Chinese New Year, the Super Bowl and Valentines Day, only with much more reverence and a little moral introspection. As it turns out, I could have served the rack of lamb and the pomegranate rice at all three meals and hit a home run. But why make it easy – where’s the challenge in that?

While I’m neither a zealot nor an iconoclast, I’m sure I could be called out for sacrilege on either end of the spectrum. But do you really wanna cast that stone? In the end I think I managed to infuse some thoughtful, provocative inspiration into my cooking. Because…spring.

they may be grown, but more is still more

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/04/why-dont-easter-and-passover-always-line/587572/

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