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What is there to eat on Pesach!

What is there to eat? This is a refrain often heard. Due to the culinary restriction of unleavened foods, plus for Ashkenazi Jews, no kitniyyot (rice or legumes), there is this psychological perception of food preparation and availability on Pesach being a challenge. I must admit, I’ve never related to it. If anything, I’ve found the ease of readily available matzah, unlike crusty-doughy bread which must be fresh or it loses its appeal, to be somewhat convenient for one week, to be used as a vehicle for the creation of so many different flavor profiles.

Matzah is like the blank canvas, you can create almost anything from.

Usually, I keep a variety of spreads in the fridge that I prepare ahead of time. Simple foods, such as jars of pesto, of caramelized onions or garlic cloves, freshly prepared guacamole, and maybe some pickled purple onions. Then, with stocked whipped cream cheese, butter, tomato sauces, eggs, lox, herbs, and a variety of vegetables and cheeses on hand, you’ve pretty much got yourself the basics for creating lots of wonderful afternoon lunches and snacks without exerting too much of an effort.

If you are setting out lunch for a crowd, and prepare a variety of matzah boards, once laid out, it actually makes for a pretty nice culinary quilt of colors: cream cheese, lox, tomatoes, dill and lemons, side by side with a matzah shmeared with caramelized onions and garlic, laced with flecks of thyme; a verdant green pesto piled on matzah, accented by a different shade of green on the next matzah as it holds guacamole and pickled purpled onions, aka, in new-age speak, “avocado toast.”

Or: slices of bright yellow soft boiled eggs and little chunks of asparagus drizzled with homemade mayo or aioli, and open faced cucumber tea sandwiches held in place by creamy white whipped cream cheese, sprinkled with tiny pieces of chives, or thick ivory butter spread on matzah, sprinkled with crystalline chunks of salt and sliced, round, spring, pink and white radishes.

And that’s without even venturing into roasted vegetables or fruits, let alone meats, such as chopped liver, and the on trend open faced flatbreads or pizzas of pulled brisket or pastrami. The original open faced meat pizza dish is Syrian sweet and sour ground beef, known as lachmagine. On Pesach, it is easily transformed into lachmagine using matzah.

All this is before we even mention the ubiquitous, delicious and alliterative “matzah pizza.” A Margherita pie of tomato, mozzarella and basil, placed on hand-baked matzah, or conveniently squared into machine-made matzah — either way, it’s the quickest lunch to whip up and enjoy. Of course just like real pizza, the warm cheesy pizza possibilities and permutations of toppings are endless. It’s kind of like artisanal pizzas taken to the nth degree.

If you have family members with Pesach birthdays, matzah pizza is also a good substitute for a Pesach birthday cake. Birthday Pesach pizza is not to be underestimated! Ladle some sauce on a round handmade matzah, form the digits of the age from shredded mozzarella, and decoratively border the circle with whatever topping you wish, be it sliced peppers, mushrooms, basil leaves (whole or chiffonade), colorful tomatoes or onions — the imagination is your limit. A birthday matzah pizza is born.

If you want to invest a bit more time, you can always soak the matzah just a bit before wrapping it in a thin tea towel to dry, perforating the matzah, filling it and then rolling them into cigars or egg roll style snacks. Filling them with sauteed vegetables or deli or ground beef, or even mashed potatoes to mimic a knish — really, whatever, floats your boat, and you have yourself some warm pan fried matzah-filled main courses for lunch and dinner.

They are also great for packing away for day trips or Pesach finger foods to have on hand with you when you can’t just pop into any supermarket and pick up a kosher for Pesach snack.

So what is there to eat on Pesach, you ask? Most of us are so blessed and privileged not to have to worry about this. We are more than a bit spoiled with the excess and decadence of food availability in our Western society. Yet I find the humble matzah still plays its starring role in our food for this one week. And as far as I am concerned, this is as it should be. Matzah is called lechem oni, which means food over which dialogue is stimulated, as oni is etymologically rooted to the word answer. On the seder night, indeed, the matzah is the lechem oni over which we dialogue long into the night and re-experience the meaning of freedom.

But the simple meaning of lechem oni is simply, poor man’s bread. Water and flour, a hard minimalist cracker, so fragile and breakable, devoid of the plush puff and richness of satisfying bread.

Even all the matzah toppings I write about above merely take the poor man’s anemic matzah to a more appetizing level.

There is something about mindfully consuming matzah, adding no frills, and internalizing that this lechem oni, this plain humble matzah, is indeed for many their sole sustenance, their true staff of life, this week and perhaps, every week of the year.

Let us carry this message of the matzah with us past Pesach, and always help others have something to eat, this week and every week.

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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