April brings a stream of festivals and holidays to celebrate spring, rebirth and freedom. The Christians immortalize the miracle of Christ's resurrection on Easter, while the Jews celebrate their ancestors' liberation from slavery during Passover. Spring fever has also inspired the U.S. calendar gremlins to declare April our National Poetry Month.
It seems that every religion, country and ethnic group on Earth has an April holiday linked to food. Whether a feast or a fast, food is the cornerstone tradition, expressed through its preparation, rituals and communal consumption and always, some holiday shindig.
Passover, or Pesach, which begins at sunset on April 8 this year, happens to be one of my favorites, although after eight days of eating unleavened bread, every space between my teeth is cemented with fillings of edible cardboard - aka matzo or matza - and my belly is pleading with my mouth to lay off my cousin's rock-hard matzo balls, which seem lodged like bowling balls in my gut.
The holiday requires weeks of tedious preparation in the home prior to opening night. As a kid, I remember helping my mom hunt for the chometz, the ancient ritual of cleansing the house of every last crumb of bread, flour, grains, leavening agents, legumes and other taboo foods with wooden spoon and feather in hand.
My favorite chometz was Oreo cookies, and I gladly offered to rid the home of these offensive vittles.
Let me assure you that no one feels deprived during Passover. Fresh fruits and veggies are allowed, along with kosher fish, meat and fowl, and, yes, macaroons. Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors came from Spain, via Turkey, Persia and the Middle East, are permitted to eat rice and other no-nos in the Ashkenazi (Jews from Eastern European parts) household.
On the two Seder nights, symbolic or ritual foods are arranged on the Seder plate. I remember the childhood ditty that still helps me prepare my plate: "Let's arrange the Seder plate everything in order; haroset, shank bone, parsley, egg and in the center morror."
The favorite is the dessertlike haroset, a mixture of fruits and nuts that resembles the mortar the Hebrew slaves used to build the Egyptian pyramids. My sweet and savory version is a Middle Eastern blend that I'm sharing with you below.
On the heels of this matza mania are Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The iconic marshmallow Peeps are everywhere along with hot cross buns, the chocolate Easter bunnies and the colorful hand-painted eggs.
Pardon my ignorance, but it just occurred to me that bunnies don't lay eggs - so why aren't there chocolate-covered chicks? Could it be because rabbits were symbols of fertility in ancient Egypt? Or is the confusion due to a probably apocryphal 15th or 16th century German folklore about red eggs being laid on Holy Thursday and rainbow-colored eggs on Easter Sunday eve?
Scholars believe Easter is derived from Eostre, the goddess of spring and renewal. Legend has it that Eostre saved an injured bird with frostbitten wings by turning it into a rabbit. This magical rabbit could lay eggs, ergo the connection of the Easter bunny and eggs.
The egg is Mother Nature's precious package - a symbol of creation, fertility, rebirth and Easter celebrations around the globe. It was honored in rites of spring by the Romans, Chinese, Egyptians and Persians who held yearly rituals of exchanging gorgeously decorated eggs during the spring equinox.
This holiday season inspires me to paraphrase Dr. Seuss with "pink roast leg of lamb, served with painted green eggs and ham," which brings us back to National Poetry Month.
Here's my own food-obsessed haiku:
Spring-cleaning, eat green Matzo will soon passover
Hot cross bunny buns
My holiday contribution is two seasonal dishes - a primavera egg bake to serve for Easter brunch, and a symbolic Passover treat that you can enjoy all year.
Primavera Easter Egg Bake
- 10 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon of butter (If you don't have a cholesterol problem)
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 1/4 cup of milk (2 percent or whole)
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 Portobello mushroom, thinly sliced
- 1/2 small red onion, diced
- 8 asparagus stalks cut into 1-inch pieces
- 6 mini sweet peppers - red, yellow and orange, sliced in rings
- Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
Preheat the broiler of the oven.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs, milk and seasonings. Set aside.
In an ovenproof skillet, melt the butter and oil. Saute the vegetables on low heat until tender. Add the egg mixture and cook until partially set.
Sprinkle with cheese and pop in the oven until the top is golden. Enjoy immediately or serve at room temperature.
- 1/2 cup of pitted dates, chopped
- 1/2 cup of dried apricots, chopped
- 1 cup of chopped walnuts
- 1 cup of chopped raisins
- 2 teaspoons of chopped ginger
- 2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon of sweet Passover wine
- Juice of one lemon
In a small saucepan, mix the dates, apricots and lemon juice, adding enough water to cover the mixture. Cook until soft. Drain and mash with a fork until smooth. Blend in the nuts, raisins, ginger, cinnamon and wine, and mix well.
Transfer the mixture to a platter, and mold into a pyramid shape. Chill and serve.
Save a sample for the Seder plate.