Not Your Bubbie’s Seder

March 25, 2013 // //passover-pug

The last Passover Seder I attended was a gathering of friends to celebrate a holiday that most of us were not familiar with but were happy to learn more about (especially the part about drinking four glasses of wine). The reading of the Haggadah was more reminiscent of a Baptist sermon than anything from the ancient Holy Lands.  The Jewish to Irish ratio was 1.5:4, and the host ran out of yarmulkes, so the men wore cowboy hats, John Deere caps, and one bicycle helmet. Whiskey naturally made its way to the table.

Yet there was one Seder tradition that was resolute–the central, ceremonial aspect of the dinner itself.  The gathering of loved ones around dishes which have been prepared for centuries before we were even born. We learned how horseradish can affect the nasal passages of the unwitting, and about the oddities of a foodstuff called gefilte fish (specifically, the canned variety).

The Jewish religion is a unique one, in that it is ever so intertwined in its culture and peppered with regional influences, none more apparent than in the food. Like the language and lifestyle, the food reflects a diaspora far and wide, picked up from fishermen in the Nordic seas to the pickling devices of Russian grandmothers, to the pastries and knishes of Polish bakeries to the bold spices of Northeast African Sephardic Jews, and more recently, the brisket-making in the Americas.

DC is home to 110,000 Jewish households, and to celebrate this year’s Passover which begins this evening, a handful of restaurants are celebrating with special menus.  So, gather a few friends and try a very welcome twist on Jewish classics. It’s okay to leave the hats at home, but not the wine.  There are traditions that should never be left out.

Whatever you thought “modern Jewish deli” was, DGS Delicatessen isn’t what you expected. Friends, sexy Jewish food is here.  Chef Barry Koslow will be adding bone marrow to the matzo balls instead of schmaltz, and the traditional “bitter herb” will be incorporated into a crust on halibut, which stands in for gefilte fish. The sacrificial lamb will be braised and accompanied by crispy artichokes, peas and carrots, and a modern take on haroset finishes out the meal in the form of an apple, rhubarb and walnut crumble.  DGS’s Passover menu will be available until March 31 during dinner for $40, $60 with wine pairings.

This year’s Passover is timed perfectly with the release of Chef Todd and wife Ellen Gray’s new cookbook,The New Jewish Table. The cookbook is a lovely example of their relationship both at home and at work. At their acclaimed restaurant Equinox, Chef Gray is offering a special Seder menu until April 2, including a quinoa salad with figs and mint, Chef Todd’s Brisket, and flourless chocolate cake.  $45, $60 with an Israeli wine pairing.  I for one, have never had Israeli wines, which makes this a good reason to go.

Rosa Mexicano is one of the last places I look when I’m craving matzoh ball soup. But for the 11th year in a row, the Penn Quarter Mexican restaurant surprises me yet again. Until April 2, Mexican Passover will meld Jewish traditions with current culinary trends in Mexico with dishes like tropical haroset, red snapper gefilte fish, pulled beef brisket tacos and a Mexican macaroon ice cream sandwich.  The most intriguing item on the menu? Other than the matzo ball posole soup, that would be Grandma Shapiro’s strudel a la Mexicana. I mean, who is this Grandma Shapiro, and how on Earth does strudel become Mexican?

If you’re hosting Seder at home, there are options for a little help. Check out Hill Country’s brisket to go, or pastrami by the pound at Stachowski’s in Georgetown (if you can get through the case filled with pork products).

Additionally, visit the recipe collection at the Jewish Food Experience if you’re feeling very adventurous in your own kitchen.  You’ll find local chefs, writers, and bloggers sharing their stories and recipes for traditional Seder dishes.

Photo: Handmade Monster via Etsy