Time to get serious folks: Passover is coming.
I wanted to give you a minute to either let you totally freak out because you haven’t really started thinking about it yet or else be really confused about why this would be a big deal.
Passover’s imminent arrival means that Jews everywhere are cleaning out cupboards, using up the last of whatever flours, rices, and beans they have sitting around, and pulling out the boxes of passover dishes. Not to mention stocking up on things like matzoh, matzah, and matzo–otherwise known as the Eleventh Plague (I swear I didn’t just make that up…OK maybe I did…a little).
Our house is no exception. It’s got sort of a slow build up and then one night (a week ago Sunday for me) you are laying in bed just on the edge of sleep and suddenly it stikes you: you have to clean your house and convert it for passover in a little under 2 weeks. This is when the panic can sink in if you aren’t accustomed to it.
If you aren’t familiar with the inner workings of a Passover kitchen, this might seem like much ado about nothing. But, I can assure you it is not. Some might compare Passover to Lent, since it involves giving up something in order to be a more spiritual person–better connected with the soul and your ancestors, less concerned with the day to day and the material. There are similarities, but Passover is much stricter and in my own experience, much much harder. For Lent you aren’t required to give up several entire classes of foods, nor are you required to enact a physical change over your dwelling space to ensure that those forbidden foods do not come in contact with your person. And though Lent lasts far longer, each person is at liberty to choose what they will give up, so it can be easier to exercise will power over this extended period.
Passover is meant to be a time to reflect deeply on ones roots–the ancestors of the Jews who were exiled from their homeland of ancient Israel, instead serving as slaves to despotic and racist Egyptian pharaohs. We are asked to place ourselves in the shoes of these ancestors, for good and bad. We give up leavened bread (and lots, lots more) and humble ourselves so that we can imagine what it was like as slaves fleeing our captors. And then, we celebrate the exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves had been there and were set free. But there is lamenting also, for ourselves in the desert, and for the Egyptians who were the victims of the Ten Plagues.
For me, Passover is also a way to discover how I came to be where I am. There are some who believe that when G-d handed down the 10 commandments to Moses all those many years ago in the desert, every single soul of every single Jew who ever existed or ever would exist was in attendance, hovering around to see that historical moment. Sort of mind boggling to be sure, but it is heartwarming to think that even a humble convert like me was actually intended to be Jewish–that somewhere deep inside me was a seed of this spirituality, nurtured into existence by my life experiences up to the point of contact with the Jewish world, when it then came into full bloom.
I have mentioned before that I was not born into Judaism. When I met my now husband, Joe, I was not a religious person–I still don’t consider myself to be. I was raised by parents who had respect for others’ spiritual practices, but none of their own beyond pretty much just being. My parents were, and for the most part still are, total hippies. They taught me to question anything that seemed outwardly authoritarian and religion was included in that group. I went to church occasionally with friends, and even had some friends who were Jewish, but I didn’t have a sense of what that meant.
As I started getting serious with Joe I realized that I needed to learn more about what it was he was doing with his spiritual self or I would never be able to truly connect with him. And since he kept kosher, I needed to learn something about that so that we could share meals together, especially ones that I had prepared. I realize now that this was my diving board into Judaism. I already had a passion for food, which I was building on by going to pastry school, so it was fitting that this was a way I could connect with him. Plus, you know. The way to a man’s heart is totally through his stomach. Whoever said that was not lying.
When I eventually chose to become a Jew there were a lot of elements at play. What it came down to was the spirituality that being a Jew can imbue into the everyday experience. Even beyond praying (which to be perfectly honest, I still have a hard time with), daily activities–and in some cases, restrictions–are meant to elevate the Jew beyond the physical world. And to me, food was the culmination of these ideas. Keeping Kosher is about treating things right: our G-d given bodies, the bodies of the animals who give their lives to nourish us, and the earth that houses us all. It’s about using food as a tool to connect you to the being that is G-d.
So, like that time Joe and I were dining out in a restaurant for one of the very first times and he wouldn’t share a bowl of measly clam chowder with me because he didn’t “eat shellfish,” I now find myself answering questions about how I won’t eat this or that, or why this or that dish isn’t something you will find in my repertoire. I still have a hard time with some things–nobody is prefect and it is incredibly hard to be a newly converted kosher foodie–but I do my best and I occasionally rededicate myself to “keeping Kosher” in the home and out. There are some modern rules for keeping kosher that I continue to have a hard time understanding, like why you aren’t supposed to mix poultry and dairy, even though chickens don’t make milk (and it’s therefore impossible to cook a chicken in it’s mother’s milk).
Here on Kernels and Seeds, I reflect this in subtle ways: many of the recipes are in a kosher category, and I try very hard to make sure they are all at least kosher style. The recipe I’m sharing today is kosher too. Yes, even for Passover. But it’s not really a recipe so much as an idea. I mean, you should be able to bake a potato and do whatever you want with it–but sometimes you just need a little inspiration. I’ve been loving these potatoes and I will continue to do so all the way through passover–they don’t even require you to bring the Eleventh Plague upon your house.
The earthiness of the potatoes is a natural partner for tangy, buttery blue cheese and sweet roasted leeks. Pair it with a big green salad for lunch and you’ve got yourself a matzah free meal that even the pharaohs would have had trouble turning down.
Baked Potato with Roasted Leeks and Blue Cheese
serves 4 for lunch or a light supper
4 medium sized organic russet potatoes
4 oz good quality blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup sour cream
1 lb of skinny young leeks, or one larger leek per potato
milk or buttermilk, just a splash or two
salt and pepper to taste
Bake the potatoes however you normally would. I do this in a 375 F oven. Take your potatoes and really scrub them, then lightly coat in olive or canola oil. Rub in a tiny bit of salt and poke it all over with a fork. Place directly on the rack, with a baking sheet on another rack just below the potatoes to catch any drippings. They’ll bake anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or more, depending on how big they are and how many you are baking.
While the potatoes are baking, you also want to bake the leeks. Slice each leek in half and soak in cold water to remove any grit that is hiding in between the leaves. You might have to gently rub the layers to work any remaining grit out. Remove the darkest green parts–you just want the whites and palest green leaves as they are the most tender. Place the leeks on a baking sheet and coat in a light splash of olive oil. Sprinkle just a small pinch of salt over. Toss to coat. Place the baking sheet in the oven with the potatoes and let them roast until they are tender all the way through and starting to get crispy. When they’re done, let them cool a bit and then chop them roughly, place them in a bowl. Cover with foil and set them aside.
While the potatoes and leeks are in the oven, prepare the blue cheese topping. Crumble the cheese into a bowl and stir in the sour cream, kind of smashing it all together as you go. Add milk or buttermilk until it’s a consistency you’re happy with. It will thicken a bit more as it sits, so you can add more later if it thickens too much. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
When the potatoes are done, slice each one almost through into quarters or sixths, and let each person top their own potato with leeks and blue cheese. Serve with more salt and pepper if need be.