The commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt is the rare Jewish holiday whose principal celebration is not at the synagogue, but in the home. The heavy lifting is done not by the rabbi but by the home cook whose job it is to prepare the seder, the ritual Passover feast.
But what if the rabbi is also the cook?
That's the case with Jonathan Waxman, rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown. This year he will be presiding over seders on the first and second nights of Passover (April 14 and 15), and he'll also be the main force behind the meals.
Waxman, an enthusiastic and accomplished home cook, said that most other Jewish holidays have culinary components. "You eat dairy for Shavuot, hamantaschen for Purim. For Hanukkah you light candles, eat latkes, sing songs and take a Zantac," he said. "But at Passover, the center of the action is the meal."
Two cooks, with specialties
The rabbi doesn't go it alone in the kitchen. His wife, Sarrae Crane, makes her own gefilte fish from scratch, as well as chicken soup from her mother's recipe. ("I think she skims off a little too much fat," he said. "It's an annual argument.") And one of Waxman's go-to recipes, cabbage kugel, is also from his mother-in-law, Ann Crane. "This is a kugel," he said, "for people who don't like kugel, and who don't like cabbage."
Mostly, Waxman likes to get creative in the kitchen. One of the nights, he'll serve multicolored peppers stuffed with ground turkey and quinoa. (For years, there was a debate as to whether the South American seeds were kosher for Passover; since the Orthodox Union weighed in on the side of quinoa, Waxman considers the matter settled.)
Salad holds off hunger
One area where he departs from tradition is in the salad service, which he brings to the table directly after the Haggadah instructs participants to dip the karpas (green vegetable) in salt water. "I got this idea from Ron Wolfson [author and professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles]. I heard him speak, and he suggested serving the salad right after you dip the karpas. I thought, 'Wow! This will stop people from saying they are starving.' "
Along with a traditional Ashkenazic haroset of apples, walnuts and sweet wine, the rabbi always looks for something "interesting," such as a recipe that originated with the Jewish community of Curacao for haroset balls made with dried fruits and cashews and rolled in cinnamon.
No matter what's on the menu, Waxman's table is laid with lifetimes of tradition. Many of the items -- Israeli matzo plate and haroset dish, Miriam's cup (a goblet that honors the role of the Exodus prophetess and also the contributions of all Jewish women) -- were handcrafted.
Wine's ritual, remembrance
The dominant feature on the table is doubtless the enormous Elijah's cup, capacious enough to hold an entire bottle of wine. "This was on my parents' table as long as I can remember," he said. "And when my father died, I became the custodian." Waxman's father was Mordecai Waxman, who served as rabbi of Great Neck's Temple Israel from 1947 to 2002. To honor his mother, Ruth, who died in 1996, he tries to serve a bottle of wine from Ruth Vineyard, a boutique winery in the Judean hills.
One Waxman family tradition that the rabbi has abandoned is the use of boiled potatoes for karpas. "It's a Litvak [Lithuanian] tradition from my grandfather's seder," he explained. "In that part of the world, come late March-early April, what vegetables are around? The potatoes left in the cellar from the previous fall."
No such vegetables of affliction adorn Waxman's seder plate. In the promised land of Long Island, it's celery from Fairway.
To ease hunger, Jonathan Waxman serves a salad during the seder, at the point where the karpas (green vegetable) is dipped into saltwater.
6 medium beets (golden or red or a combination, all about the same size)
1 English cucumber
1/2 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking tray with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Place beets, in 1 layer, on tray; draw up foil and crimp on top to seal. Cook beets for 60 to 90 minutes, until a fork pierces them easily. When they are cool enough to handle, use a paper towel to remove the skin. Quarter the beets, then cut the quarters into 1/4-inch-thick slices
2. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Place in a large bowl with beets and add onion slices.
3. To make dressing, combine the vinegar, honey, oil and salt; pour over the vegetables. Toss to mix well. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
STUFFED PEPPERS WITH QUINOA AND GROUND TURKEY
Now that the Orthodox Union has declared quinoa kosher for Passover, Waxman serves this first course for guests who don't like gefilte fish.
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken stock
8 colored bell peppers
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 pound ground turkey
Salt and pepper to taste
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved (or half of a 28-ounce can)
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1. Combine quinoa and chicken stock. Bring to boil, cover and reduce heat. Simmer 15 to 17 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut off tops of peppers and remove the seeds. Remove and discard the stems from the pepper tops, then chop the tops.
3. Film a large skillet with oil, add chopped onion, garlic and chopped pepper tops and cook over medium-high heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the ground turkey, salt and pepper, and, mashing turkey against the skillet, cook until no raw color remains and meat begins to brown. Add the drained tomatoes, stir to combine, and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. Take off heat, add the cooked quinoa and mix thoroughly.
4. Grease or spray a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour in the tomato sauce along with reserved juice. Stir to combine. Fill each pepper with the turkey-quinoa mixture and place upright in the dish. Cover with foil and bake 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until peppers are tender. Makes 8 servings.
CURAÇAO HAROSET BALLS
This recipe comes from the Jewish community of Curaçao, one of the New World's oldest Jewish communities.
14 pitted dried dates
10 pitted prunes
8 dried figs
1 lemon, cut into chunks and seeds removed
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup unsalted cashews
1 cup honey
1 cup sweet red wine
Cinnamon, to coat
1. Combine dates, prunes, figs, lemon, raisins and cashews in a food processor and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the honey and wine and pulse to combine everything into a paste. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.
2. Spread cinnamon in a shallow dish, roll fruit mixture into walnut-size balls, then roll each ball in cinnamon. Makes about 30 balls.
CHICKEN BREASTS WITH SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND TOMATOES
Before the seder, prepare this dish up through Step 4. Cover cooked cutlets with foil to keep them warm; cover skillet to keep sauce warm. When dinner starts, bring sauce to a simmer, slip cutlets into sauce and cook until chicken is hot and cooked through.
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken cutlets
3 shallots, minced
1 small bunch fresh thyme
3 to 4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 bunch of scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch segments
3 to 4 plum tomatoes, seeded, and diced
1 tablespoon potato starch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
1. Film a large skillet with oil, place over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, slip as many cutlets as will fit comfortably into pan and cook until they just start to brown on one side; turn and cook until just brown on the other side. Set aside and repeat with remaining cutlets.
2. Put a little more oil in the pan and add shallots and half the thyme sprigs. Saute over medium heat until shallots begin to soften. Add thyme and garlic; continue to cook until shallots are soft and translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Garlic should barely brown.
3. Add vinegar, turn up heat and cook until liquid is almost evaporated. Add mushrooms and cook 2 minutes, until they begin to give up their moisture. Add wine and cook until liquid is almost evaporated.
4. Add broth and scallions and simmer 1 to 2 minutes longer. Add diced tomatoes and remaining thyme. Heat through. Add the potato starch with water and cook until thickened.
5. Add the chicken back to the pan, cover and cook 2 to 3 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
Rabbi Waxman's wife, Sarrae Crane, inherited this recipe from her mother. It even appeals to people who don't like cabbage and don't like kugel.
1 (3-pound) green cabbage
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
6 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 firm apple, peeled and grated
1/2 cup matzo meal
1. Quarter, core and rinse cabbage. Shred in food processor and place into salted boiling water to cover. Boil slowly until tender, 25 to 30 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Strain the cabbage and pour cold water over it. Squeeze out water from cabbage by hand and place in a large mixing bowl. Add egg yolks, oil, sugar, vanilla and apple to bowl and stir to combine. Stir in matzo meal.
3. Grease an 11 1/2-by-7 1/2-inch baking dish. Beat egg whites until fluffy and stiff (but not dry) peaks form. Fold beaten egg whites into cabbage mixture. Pour into greased pan and bake until browned, about 1 hour. Makes 8 to 12 servings. Can be served hot or at room temperature.
You can make this a day ahead of time and reheat for the seder.
8 Yukon Gold potatoes (2 1/2 to 3 pounds)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1 cup chicken broth
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove zest from lemons using a vegetable peeler. (Try not to get the white pith.) Stack the ribbons of zest and use a sharp knife to slice finely. Cut the lemons in half and juice them; you should have about 1/3 cup. (If you don't, add the juice of an additional lemon.)
2. Cut the potatoes into 1-inch-thick wedges and place them and the oil in a baking dish large enough to accommodate them in 1 layer. Add the lemon zest and juice, oregano, thyme, salt and pepper and toss to combine. Cover dish with foil and bake 20 minutes. Uncover dish, add chicken broth and continue to cook until broth has evaporated and potatoes are tender and starting to brown, about 40 minutes. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
These brownies are a Passover favorite in the Waxman household. They bake perfectly in a disposable aluminum 8-by-8-inch pan.
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup matzo cake meal
1/2 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-by-8-inch pan.
2. Combine eggs, sugar, cocoa powder and salt in a large bowl. Add oil and mix well. Stir in matzo cake meal, then stir in chocolate chips and walnuts.
Pour into pan and cook until a cake tester comes out almost clean, 20 to 25 minutes. Makes 8 to 12 servings.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story called for and additional 1/3 cup lemon juice. In addition, Ron Wolfson was incorrectly identified.