Lawrence Szenes-Strauss

The Kemach Torah 2012 Passover Guide

In Holidays, Passover, Pesach on 30 March 2012 at 2:57 AM

Most Passover guides—every kashrut agency produces one—are big clusters of information about which food products are kosher for Passover, with an emphasis on processed products. (Raw ingredients are usually, but not always, no-brainers.) They list page after page of cream cheeses, canned preserves, alcoholic beverages and anything else you might think of, indicating its appropriateness or lack thereof and sometimes giving information about whether it needs a special Passover mark to be considered acceptable. Passover guides also include information about how properly to make one’s home and kitchen tools (where possible) kosher for Passover, a process that can involve anything from a good scrubbing to a generous once-over with a blowtorch depending on the utensil and how it is used.

This is not that kind of guide. A little less than a year ago I announced a plan to create a new kind of Passover guide, one meant not to help people observe the holiday scrupulously, but to help them enjoy it thoroughly. Observant Jews are not very good at this, you see. You start hearing complaints about Passover food around lunchtime on the first day, and they get louder and more frequent until all anyone seems to talk or think about is which chametz foods they’ll eat the moment they’re allowed. This runs against the precept of simchat chag, “joy of the holiday,” and anyway it’s annoying. Why devote all that energy to complaining about a thing or two missing from your diet? Why gum up the conversation with surprisingly frank announcements about indigestion and constipation? For that matter, why eat things that make such topics germaine when you don’t have to? I have one answer to all of these questions: There is no reason, so don’t do it. Let’s look at another way.

Health

We might as well start with the biggest offender. I really enjoy Passover (which I’m going to start calling Pesach here because it takes less time to type, and the baby will only sleep so long). The problem is that enjoying Pesach while all your friends are complaining about their gastrointestinal tracts is a bit like trying to watch Citizen Kane in a crowded theater where all the other audience members are constantly making armpit noises. Since I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone that they enjoy their condition, here are some tips on how to avoid it entirely:

Three handmade matzotEat less matzah. Much, much less! Matzah is the reason we have this problem in the first place, and while Pesach is undoubtedly a matzah-themed holiday, you don’t have to eat it all the time. There are only a handful of occasions when you must eat matzah (barring a doctor’s note or something):

  1. At the seder. We eat matzah at the beginning of the meal proper, then we eat some more with bitter herb on it, then we eat some more at the very end of the meal. That can still come to a lot of matzah depending on which authority you trust to define a kezayit, the olive-sized bulk that is the minimum amount of matzah needed to fulfill the commandment. Still, you don’t have to eat any during the rest of the meal.
  2. During the daytime holiday meal, which begins with wine or grape juice and then necessarily moves on to matzah. Once you’ve eaten matzah at the beginning, it is likewise ignorable.
  3. If you live outside of Israel, follow steps 1 and 2 again on the second day.
  4. Matzah is also necessary for Shabbat meals, since we have to eat bread and this is the bread available to us. This year Pesach contains two Shabbatot, both of which coincide with full holiday days on which you would have had to eat matzah anyway, so we get off easy.

That’s it. No more required. This year a typical outside-of-Israel Jew will be obligated to eat a prescribed amount of matzah on the first two and last two days of the eight-day holiday, and will otherwise be free to avoid the stuff altogether. Want more starch? There are a thousand ways to cook potatoes that don’t involve grain. Tired of potatoes? Try sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, yams, carrots, parsnips or celeriac. Want something crispy to dip into things? Tostones might be a good way to go.

This is not to say that you ought to abstain from matzah. Maybe you like the stuff (though in my experience most people who are enthusiastic about it aren’t Jewish). Maybe you’re like me and can’t bear to go an entire Pesach without making matzo brei at least once. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep in mind that your digestive system is not well built for the task of processing and passing large amounts of barely hydrated starch. Plan accordingly and see what a difference it makes.

Bunch of asparagusEat more fruits and vegetables. I guess you could call this a corollary to the previous point, but it’s worth mentioning on its own. In fact, it’s good year-round advice that most of us ignore year-round. In his eminently readable In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan notes that virtually every nutritionist, regardless of ideology or preferred theory of health, says that Americans (and Westerners in general) eat too little produce, and that this is part of the reason our diets so often make us sick. It just happens that during Pesach our bad habit gets worse, maybe because we’ve filled up on matzah and can’t stand the thought of anything else in our overburdened stomachs.

When I started asking friends and readers to suggest content for this guide, several pointed out that ratatouille works, unmodified, for Pesach. Add any protein source and it’s a meal, as are many other vegetable stews and casseroles. (Mediterranean and Balkan cooking provide lots of ideas here.) Try making a big batch to keep around, and dipping in whenever the urge strikes. Instead of snacking on matzah and cream cheese or matzah and jam, have fresh fruit on hand. When playing ball sports, replace the ball with a kohlrabi or a pomelo!

Actually, ignore that last one.

Drink more water. Always good advice, for this and a host of other reasons.

Suspend your low-fat regimen. I’ll probably get in trouble for this one, but it matters. Lipids (the family of molecules to which fats belong) have been used as laxatives for centuries, and at least some people report that they lose regularity when they switch to a very low-fat diet. Given the scientific community’s increasing skepticism about the role of dietary fat in chronic illness, it may make sense to phase some of the fun stuff back into your diet, especially at this time of year. (Has anyone else ever wondered how the FDA can tell us with a straight face that olive oil prevents heart disease, fish oil prevents heart disease, and fat—a category including olive and fish oils—should be avoided because it gives people heart attacks? Can someone explain the logic to me?)

This is not to say that you should spend Pesach washing down sticks of butter with glasses of olive oil. Just remember that the addage “all things in moderation” seems repeatedly to show up as the best nutritional advice. Speaking of fats …

Read the ingredient label. Over the past few decades, the gradually shrinking list of acceptable vegetable fats to use on Pesach has led to some strange choices. Before my time (but during my lifetime) everybody used peanut oil, but now it seems to be impossible to find kosher-for-Passover peanut oil; allergy concerns will probably ensure that there is never a resurgence even if people lighten up about eating peanut derivatives on Pesach. Corn, canola and soybean oil, the three most common vegetable oils in the United States, are all off the list because they are derived from kitniyot, beans and grains that are not technically forbidden on Pesach but which the Ashkenazi majority traditionally avoid during the holiday. The same goes for sunflower seed oil and sesame oil. That leaves some perfectly good oils for the taking, including almond, grapeseed and avocado oil, but they’re on the pricey side and can interfere with profits (if the manufacturer chooses not to jack up the price) or marketability (if they do raise the price, which is usually what happens even without expensive oils). Now the go-to oil is cottonseed oil.*

Normally I’m a big fan of using every part of a plant or animal to minimize waste, but cottonseed oil carries a special problem. If you’ve ever read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22—and even if you haven’t—you’re probably aware that cotton is not food. We can’t digest it, and so we don’t eat it. That means there aren’t a whole lot of government regulations in place to limit the use of pesticides by farmers who grow cotton. When you see cottonseed oil on the label, consider that it was probably grown in an environment saturated with chemicals meant to assure that nothing could live there other than cotton.

Got it? Good. Now consider that you are not cotton. See where I’m going with this?

There are plenty of good options. If you like the flavor, you can use extra virgin olive oil. If you want something without a distinct taste and live near a supermarket with a large kashrut-observant clientele, you may be able to get bottles of refined nut oils. If you’re near a natural foods store or a supermarket with a well-stocked natural and organic section, virgin coconut oil is definitely worth a try. Just remember what Milo Minderbinder learned the hard way: Cotton is not food.

Wealth

This section is short, because I only have a small piece of advice. It applies the rest of the year, too. Here it goes: Try to do most or all of your cooking for Pesach from scratch. Is it more work? Yes, but not insanely so, and the amount of money you save by reducing your mixes and other value added products—remember that “value” here is a euphemism for “price”—will be substantial. Pesach often places a financial burden on individuals and families, and these days that burden is less welcome than ever. Consider paying with extra work rather than with your wallet.

Happiness

Smiley faceDon’t cook anything that you wouldn’t happily eat the rest of the year. If you can help it, don’t eat anything you wouldn’t happily eat the rest of the year. (Sometimes it can’t be helped. If you’re expected to visit your cousin and eat his cake while exclaiming through suddenly parched lips and tongue that “it doesn’t even taste like Passover,” that might just be one you take for the team.) Try to set a standard that says any food not good enough for Rosh Hashanah isn’t good enough for Pesach either.

Occasionally I hear someone talk about how creative Jewish cooks have to get on Pesach, but more often than not what we actually do is fail to be creative and then make up for our lack of creativity by replacing a forbidden ingredient with a permitted but less suitable one. You can buy or make Pesach rolls made with matzah meal instead of flour, and with eggs for non-fermented leavening, but it’s not the sort of mistake anyone should make twice. Decide that you would prefer to go without something rather than eat its inferior Pesach equivalent. Focus on the things you can use freely: all fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and dairy products. There’s a lot of potential there if you’re willing to step outside your routine.

Want a quiche with a crust? Bake a layer of mashed potato in the oiled pan before adding the custard. Unimpressed with the limited and overpriced Pesach-certified spices you’ve found? Spend a week using fresh herbs instead. (Some cuisines, such as Persian, Turkish and Georgian, use herbs more freely than they do spices, and have a lot to teach us.) Don’t like macaroons? Of course you don’t; I’m the only person who likes macaroons, and even I am picky about which brand I buy. Make it fruit-based desserts all around!

And now we come to the most difficult principle to apply in this entire guide, but a very important one:

Just be happy. Bekhol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim—”In every generation a person must see himself as if he departed from Egypt.” Quite a thing to think about, isn’t it? This is the holiday whose message of liberation is so powerful that its central ritual, the seder, has been appropriated in some form or other by half the religions and all the political causes I know of. This is the holiday when we read Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs that describes in allegory the romance of God and the Israelite nation. This is the holiday when every Jew is expected to dine in the manner of the free and secure regardless of personal means. There’s a lot to be happy about.

Maimonides offered a variant on the imperative in the haggadah: Bekhol dor vador chayav adam lehar’ot et atzmo ke’ilu hu be’atzmo yatza ata mishibud mitzrayim—”In every generation a person must present himself as if he himself had just departed from subjugation in Egypt.”** Be a newly liberated person who remembers what lies behind and is hopeful for what lies ahead. Even if you don’t feel it, see how acting it out affects your view of this time of year. This one time, can it hurt to try?

* Since the initial publication of this post it’s been pointed out that I neglected to mention safflower seed oil. Safflower oil is available for Pesach and less expensive than some of the others (though still more expensive than cotton oil). Some day I would like someone to explain to me why safflower seeds are not considered kitniyot when every other seed in the world seems to be.

** Yes, the Israelites spent a lot of time complaining about the food right after they left Egypt (Numbers 11:5). Don’t get any ideas.

  1. Ah, that explains why the large quantities of matzoh I eat don’t destroy my digestive system: I generally eat my matzoh with margarine (which is to say, a fat. Given that it’s Pesach margarine, probably an incredibly unhealthy fat, but never mind.)

    As for oil, another option is safflower oil. I think my family chose it because a) as you said, cottonseed oil comes from a plant that isn’t food and b) I think that, like canola oil, it has no transfats.

    • Just FYI, trans fats occur naturally in very small quantities in animal fats and never in plant fats. Most of the trans fats in our diet are created by hydrogenation, the process of exposing oils to hydrogen gas to saturate them and make them more solid.

      • So then I misunderstood the issue with healthier vs. less healthy oils. I just remember learning that safflower was one of the better ones.

      • The reason safflower is usually considered a healthy oil is that most of its fatty acids (around 80%) are monounsaturated. Monounsaturated fatty acids increase serum levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) while lowering levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol”). Olive, canola and avocado oils have similar profiles.

  2. Yasher koach! This was comprehensive and entertaining as well as thought-provoking. You Michael Pollanowitz, you.

    I will admit that I am making Pesach popovers from a recipe I found in the newspaper for the sheer horror factor. This is probably wrong, but I’m not going to SERVE them to anybody. Maybe the toddler. The toddler will eat any white starch in any quantity at any time, see the preschool Seder where the matzah got into the mashed potato.

    • My mom makes a reasonable tasting roll with eggs, oil and cake meal. The trick is lift from air and steam, kind of like pâte à choux. They are good for taking deli or tuna sandwiches on the road or for substantial outings (a day at the zoo sort of thing).

  3. Now what do those of us who don’t like sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, yams, parsnips, or celeriac, eat?

  4. Orin, have you considered winter squash? There are still some left at the produce markets in my part of northern California this time of year. A roasted (or microwaved) acorn squash or butternut squash makes a great starch to go with a meat or fish dish. Spaghetti squash isn’t perfect, but it will actually substitute for noodles in many recipes.

  5. Great article!

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