Traditional Passover Seder menus can tell us a lot about the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisines. While Ashkenazi Jews cling to the comfort offered by Central European wintery cuisine, the Sephardi cuisine from the Mediterranean and the Middle East naturally associate the holiday menu with spring. Whether it’s tender fava beans, so young you can cook them in their shell, fresh artichokes cleaned and stuffed with ground meat, roasted green garlic, or fresh peas and thin green beans briefly steamed (how easy it is to be a Sephardi during Passover! You can eat all the legumes you want!) And of course, newborn lambs.
Israel, the ultimate melting pot (at least when it comes to food) has succeeded in creating a fusion Seder menu, one that takes the best of all traditions and blends them into one of the year’s most important dinners. As Passover nears, pages of newspapers, magazines burst with articles about Israeli chefs making use of everything spring has to offer on their Seder table. The trend, for most chefs’ Seder menus, is distinctively Middle Eastern.
A popular first course, for example, would be Moroccan or Libyan fish steaks in a spicy tomato and paprika sauce, a contrarian take on the Ashkenazi tradition of having gefilte fish for starters. The main course will almost always include a fancy cut of lamb, such as a leg of lamb, simply roasted with rosemary and garlic. Stews of beef with fresh fava are also popular, as are artichoke bottoms stuffed with ground lamb.
Charoset recipes vary from one chef to another and are deeply rooted in the family’s origin. For some it will be Iraqi charoset of dates and walnuts, for others an Egyptian version with dates and raisins, or the Ashkenazi recipe using apples and sweet wine. Syrian Charoset from Damascus is made only from raisins. (Try my recipe for date, walnut and red wine Charoset, inspired by the Iraqi kitchen)
Agreement can be found only in one dish: Whether you’re Sephardi or Ashkenazi, from Morocco or Poland, start off your Seder with sweet gefilte fish or with spicy fish, no one will give up the good, old fashion matzo ball soup.
Spring Lamb with roasted vegetables
This dish of roasted lamb shoulder with vegetables is all about the beauty of spring. I used green and white asparagus, sunchokes and artichokes, endive and green onion, but a variety of three veggies would definitely be enough. Just try to choose the best spring produce you can find, roast them briefly, and arrange around the lamb.
An important factors to consider when deciding on a recipe for the Seder is the how much of the preparations can be done in advance. Lamb shoulder is a forgiving cut and it requires long roasting or braising. You will be able to do most of the work in advance and will need only about ten minutes for plating, roasting the asparagus and cutting the meat just before serving. It’s an easy process that makes for a very impressive dish.
Ask your butcher to debone the lamb shoulder (some supermarkets sell the shoulder already without it.) An average lamb shoulder of 3-3.5 pounds will serve about 5-6 people (if they even have room for any more food after the matzo ball soup). You can double the recipe, get two shoulders and use a larger pan or pot to roast them. Just make sure the pot base is about the size of the shoulder (or shoulders) and not much bigger, so the wine and meat juice reach about an inch high during the roasting period.
For the lamb:
One 3 to 3.5 lb. lamb shoulder roast boneless
3 anchovies in oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, halved
Grated zest of one lemon
1/2 cup white wine
1. 4.5 hours before you wish to serve the lamb, take the shoulder out of the fridge. Open it on a cutting board to reveal the inner part. Using a mortar and pestle mash the anchovies and spread them over the inner side of the lamb shoulder. To the same mortar add fennel seeds, cumin seeds and salt, and crush with the pestle. Add ginger, nutmeg and 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix. Spread half the mixture over the inner side of the lamb. Arrange the garlic over the meat and sprinkle the lemon zest above. Roll the lamb back to a roast, use toothpicks to secure the meat in a roll shape.
2. Using a sharp knife, score the fat on the top of the lamb in a crisscross pattern at 1” intervals. Using your hands, spread the rest of the spice mixture over the lamb and massage the meat. Cover and leave at room temperature for one and a half hours.
3. While the lamb is resting, start preparing the vegetables (recipe at the bottom).
4. Oven to 325 degrees.
5. Put 1 tablespoon of oil in a Dutch oven (or another oven proof pot) just large enough to hold the lamb shoulder. Place the Dutch oven over medium high heat. When the oil is smoking put the lamb in, fat side down, and brown for a few minutes. Flip to the other side and brown for a few minutes longer. Add the white wine and remove from the heat. Cover with pot with two layers of aluminum foil and then with the lid. Make sure the pot is completely sealed. Transfer the pot to the oven for 2.5 hours. After about one hour, open the pot to make sure there’s enough liquid (about 0.5”-1” of liquid is fine), and drizzle from the liquid over the lamb. Seal again and continue until it’s been roasted for 2.5 hours.
6. After two and a half hours check the lamb. It should be very tender, almost falling apart. Remove the lid and the aluminum foil and roast for 15 minutes to brown the top.
7. Remove the lamb from the oven. Turn the oven to broil.
8. Transfer the lamb to a large serving platter, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes. Discard the fat from the juices accumulating in the pot, and keep the juice.
9. While the lamb is resting, put the two asparagus trays in the oven, roast for 4 minutes, shake the trays and rotate them and roast for 4-5 minutes longer.
10. Chop the lamb to serving size sections and drizzle the juices from the pot on top. Arrange the asparagus, suchokes and artichokes around it and serve immediately.
Roasted spring vegetables
You can start making the veggies for the roast in the morning of the event.
1 lb. green asparagus
1 lb. white asparagus
6 green onions, ends trimmed
3 endive (optional)
1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)
1 lb. sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
Olive oil spray
1. For the green and white asparagus simply break off their tough ends and arrange in one layer in a roasting pan (you might need two roasting pans). Spray the asparagus with oil spray, drizzle a little oil and sprinkle kosher salt. Cover the trays and leave on the counter for later.
2. If you’re using endive, quarter them lengthwise, arrange on the same trays with the asparagus, spray with oil and sprinkle with a little salt and brown sugar. Leave them with the asparagus to be roasted later.
3. To make the artichokes, squeeze the juice from the lemon halves into a large bowl of cold water. Remove the tough outer leaves of each artichoke to expose the pale yellow core. Peel the stem end, keeping about 1 inch of the stem intact. Trim 2 inches off the top of the artichoke, and cut in half lengthwise. Add the artichoke to the lemon water. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.
4. Drain the artichokes and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt. Place the artichokes and 1/4 cup olive oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat and cover. Fry, rotating them occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate and keep at room temperature until ready to serve.
5. To make the sunchokes, brush them thoroughly under cold water to remove any dirt. Slice to 1/4” slices. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a pan over medium-low heat. Add sunchokes, salt and pepper, cover the pan, and cook for about 12 minutes. Remove the lid, turn the heat to medium-high, and fry for another 5-6 minutes, until tender. Transfer to a bowl and keep at room temperature until ready to serve.
5. Roast the asparagus when the lamb is ready (see the instructions for the lamb above)
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