Food Focus: The Seder Plate

By: Michael Engle

On Friday and Saturday nights, April 6 and 7, 2012, Jewish families worldwide will commemorate Passover with seders. Seder is actually the Hebrew word for "order," because there is a strict order to the festivities during these first two nights of Passover. In addition to components such as ritual hand-washing, reading the haggadah, asking "The Four Questions," and leaving drops of wine on the side of your plate, there is much more to a seder than just a Passover dinner.

Two food-centric centerpieces that appear on every seder table are the three-sheet pile of matzo and the seder plate. The seder plate has six food items; each one carries its own symbolic element.

  1. Bitter herbs, or maror, and...
  2. Bitter vegetables, or chazeret, respectively, symbolize the bitterness and harshness of the ancient Hebrews' slavery in Egypt. On seder plates, these are represented by horseradish and romaine lettuce.
  3. Charoset combines the texture of mortar with the sweetness of freedom. Charoset is essentially a chopped fruit salad, with endless variations and family traditions. Charoset almost always contains nuts, apples, cinnamon, and sweet red wine; sephardim (Jews of Western European, African, and/or Middle Eastern descent) commonly add dates and honey to the mixture.
  4. Karpas is a non-bitter green vegetable that symbolizes springtime. The most commonly used vegetables for karpas are parsley, celery, or boiled potato. As per Passover tradition, the karpas is dipped in salt water, which replicates the tears shed over the hardships of slavery, before consumption.
  5. Zeroah is the only meat product on the traditional seder plate. The zeroah represents ancient times, when animals were offered as sacrifices at the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. This is generally represented by a lamb shank bone or a chicken neck; vegetarians may elect to use a roasted beet, owing to its sanguine color and its passing resemblance to an animal bone.
  6. Beitzah is a simple hard-boiled egg. Because eggs are traditional symbols of mourning (eggs are served after Jewish funerals), beitzah represent the sorrow over the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, there is also the stack of three matzo, which remains separate from the seder plate yet is equally as vital to the seder. The bottom matzah is passed around the table to make "Hillel sandwiches," which place charoset and maror on matzah. The middle matzah is broken in half; one half remains untouched, while the other half, now known as the afikoman, is hidden. At the end of the seder, the children in attendance are encouraged to find the afikoman. Once brought back the the table, it is shared among all guests; the afikoman is, by definition, dessert, so claim your last serving of fruit salad before you eat it!

Photo: mollyjade

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What Exactly Is Kosher?

By: Michael Engle

With Passover just about to begin, many may be wondering what in fact makes a food kosher or non-kosher. Few non-Jews truly know the meaning and reasoning for the kosher food label. Kosher food can be dated back to the beginning of the Jewish religion and are known as a framework for foods that are fit to be eaten by those practicing their Jewish faith. But with little knowledge of what exactly is in our own processed food nowadays, it can seem a daunting task trying to figure out if something is kosher or not. Imagine having to, while grocery shopping, inspect every single label not just for calories and allergens, but also for religious approval. Luckily, kosher supermarkets exclusively stock kosher products, allowing observant shoppers to focus more of their energy on menu planning.

Kosher food products are specifically approved by trained kosher inspectors; they certify that each kosher item was made with kosher ingredients in a kosher facility. By Jewish law, all kosher inspectors are graduates of rabbinical school.While there are many different regional and state-specific kosher designations, the most "national" is that of the Orthodox Union, which is denoted with a "U" inside of an "O." "Glatt kosher," another popular label with national recognition, is exclusively used to certify kosher meat; in other words, there is no such thing as glatt kosher cheese. Glatt kosher is, essentially, a "steakhouse quality" grade for kosher steakhouses.

Believe it or not, there are occasional discrepancies among kosher regimens. For instance, beef tongue, does not satisfy the requirements for "Beit Yosef" kashrut, even though it is an excellent sandwich filling at most New York area delicatessens. As a result, tongue is almost exclusively eaten by ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent), and forsaken by sephardim (Jews of Western European, African, and/or Middle Eastern descent). This tongue represents a rare case where an extra label is required, in order to maximize customer satisfaction. Kosher markets have their fair share of ethnic ingredients and Israeli imports, as well as curious food items; like a kosher bacon-flavored dip for crudites, thanks to the wonders of imitation bacon soy bits.

Some meat is kosher. Most cheese is kosher as well, because the three most commonly milked animals (cows, sheep, and goats) are kosher. With these facts in mind, would a cheeseburger be kosher? Surprisingly, the answer is "No." Despite the fact that kosher and halal rituals and diets are similar, kosher's prohibition against mixing meat and dairy is one of the most notable distinctions from halal. Most kosher homes have separate ovens, plates, utensils, and even sinks, in order to ensure that meat and dairy never intermingle. Furthermore, most observant Jews impose an hours-long "waiting period" in between dairy and meat meals.

As a result, "pareve" items (neither meat nor dairy, e.g.: all raw produce) are treasured in kosher cuisine, whether as dairy substitutes or as simple, yet versatile, snacks. While kosher cheesecakes do exist (and are wonderful), most desserts tend to be pareve, because they can be eaten at any time. From personal experience, pareve desserts are, more often than not, just as decadent as their dairy counterparts! (In case you were wondering, eggs are pareve, even though they are "animal products." Meanwhile, fish with scales, such as salmon, herring, and tuna, are pareve as well; poultry is meat.)

While specificity of the kosher requirements in the Jewish law can go on, that was a brief explanation to what makes a food kosher or not. Sometimes it may not cross our minds why our favorite matzo ball soup is kosher, but knowing that it is makes it all the more tastier!

Photo: drhenkenstein

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Everyone's Favorite Jewish Dish: Matzo Ball Soup

By:Michael Engle

Exactly one week from now, Jews all over the world will be observing Passover (Pesach, in Hebrew, as well as in universal Jewish common vernacular) with the first of two seders. Technically, by that time, all Jewish homes should be completely ridden of chametz, or leavened bread products. During Passover, five common and normally-kosher grains: wheat, barley, rye, oat, and spelt, temporarily become forbidden in all forms, except for Kosher for Passover matzo. In addition, beans and legumes are widely avoided, as per Eastern European tradition. This is why certain high-fructose corn syrup-dependent products, such as Coca-Cola and Fox's U-bet chocolate syrup, make special batches with refined sugar, in order to maintain sales during Passover. (Because of this seasonal change, certain food purists and enthusiasts, whether Jewish or gentile, buy these items in bulk during Passover.)

The most iconic Passover staple, matzo ball soup, is now in a class of its own. No longer a week-long phenomenon, it is enjoyed year-round. In fact, it is a very simple dish: all you have to do is make matzo balls, place them in a bowl with kosher chicken stock, and serve it! Even spare dill sprigs or celery or carrot chunks can be considered superfluous.My local Long Island diner offers matzo ball soup year-round, but inexplicably, noodles are included. (Since noodles are rarely kosher for passover, it truly is a combination as inauthentic as a "kosher" hamburger with cheese.) For vegetarians, vegetable stock may be used instead of chicken stock, despite the fact that chicken stock truly is the traditional base of this dish. (A healthy portion of Jewish guilt may or may not necessarily accompany vegetarian matzo ball soup.)

Matzo balls are deceptively tricky to make. Even though the recipe is straightforward with easy-to-find ingredients, it takes a lot of practice (and a prayer for each batch) in order to consistently make quality matzo balls. If you don't have a Jewish grandmother from whom you could borrow a recipe, fear not. Grocery stores routinely sell matzo meal, as well as matzo ball soup mix, seven days a week. (Six for the kosher markets, as they are closed on Shabbat!) Most packages come with a suggested recipe printed on the box or bag.

If, after you succeed in making your matzo balls, you find that they are too hard or fluffy for your tastes, you can experiment with different amounts of eggs, water, and oil. This is actually an eternal debate among Jews. My own mother's family is perfectly divided with respect to this question: her mother's family prefers the "floaters," while her father's family swears by the "sinkers!"  On the other hand, if you grow tired of tweaking your recipe to perfection, there are plenty of take-out options for matzo ball soup. Your favorite New York-area kosher (or kosher-style) deli probably sells matzo ball soup; the famous ones, such as 2nd Avenue Deli, Katz's Deli, and Zabar's, are famous for theirs. In NYC, the destinations are endless! L'chaim!

Aside from "Bubbe's house" or your mother's kitchen, where is your favorite bowl of matzo ball soup?

Photo:devlyn

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