Passover steeped in Mexican flavors

Passover celebrates the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt to freedom more than 3,000 years ago. Jews around the world will remember that exodus at sundown March 25 with a ritual dinner, or Seder. And what’s on the table will tell a story of its own, one based on faith, tradition and family.

Pati Jinich will gather her husband and three sons at their home in Drummond, Md., for a meal that reflects their story as Mexican Jews, a tiny religious minority, an estimated 40,000 people, in a country that is overwhelmingly Christian.

“I was one of three Jews in a class of 120 kids,” Jinich recalls in an email. But since her family was not very involved in Mexico City’s Jewish community, she felt “sort of not from here and not from there.” She celebrated Jewish holidays with family and went to Christmas posadas with friends and Sunday mass with her Roman Catholic nanny. One place where faiths and traditions intermingled “so beautifully” in Mexico was at the table around food, she notes.

Although she doesn’t keep kosher, Jinich uses food to keep strong her family’sJewish faith and traditions. She wants her three sons, ages 6 to 13, to be “comfortable in their skin” so they’ll know who they are and develop a good idea of what they want to do in life. She works to weave together the culture her sons experience in the U.S. with their Mexican and Jewish heritages.

“All these identities enrich each other,” Jinich says, as she serves dishes she’ll make for the Seder.

Jinich is host of the public television series “Pati’s Mexican Table” and author of a just-published cookbook, “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). A onetime political analyst, she now works as the chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, where she introduces her beloved homeland to others through Mexico’s foods and flavors.

She tapes her cooking shows in the spacious kitchen of her handsome house, which is ringed with lush gardens where assorted chilies and culinary herbs share space with ornamental plants. On a nearby sideboard, gleaming proudly, are tall silver candlesticks fashioned by her maternal grandfather, a talented silversmith.

Jinich’s family came to Mexico from Poland, Austria and Czechoslovakia in the early decades of the 20th century. And, like most people in a new land, they began using the foodstuffs they found, along with Mexican cooking techniques, to create new fare that reflected their new lives, while retaining what mattered to them. On important occasions, like Passover, dishes from the Old and New Worlds sit side by side.

“The food retained its soul and its meaning,” Jinich explains. “They enriched it with the flavors they found.”

Take this recipe for chicken in a tomatillo, chipotle and piloncillo sauce. Created by her sister Karen, a restaurateur in Mexico City, it symbolizes to Jinich what Passover is about.

“It has all the elements one is reminded to consider,” Jinich wrote in an email. “Sour and tart to remember bitter times, sweetness to appreciate good times and a spicy kick to add some needed spunk to life.”

Chicken in a tomatillo, chipotle and piloncillo sauce

Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 50-60 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: This recipe, called pollo con tomate verde chipotle y piloncillo in Spanish, was developed by Pati Jinich’s sister Karen. Piloncillo is a Mexican brown sugar; substitute a dark brown sugar that is kosher for Passover, if need be. If you can’t find chipotle in adobo sauce certified kosher for Passover, Jinich recommends cooking one jalapeno along with the onion. “It will be a different dish,” she says, “Yummy, but different.” This recipe is easily doubled to feed a crowd.

Ingredients:
6 chicken pieces with skin and bones (thighs, legs, breasts or a combination), patted dry
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup safflower oil
2 cups sliced white onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 pounds tomatillos, husked, rinsed, quartered
1/4 cup shredded piloncillo or dark brown sugar
1 whole chipotle chili in adobo sauce, plus 2 tablespoons sauce
2 cups chicken broth or water

1. Season the chicken with half the salt and pepper to taste. Heat the oil in a thick, tall, heavy skillet or casserole over medium-high heat. Add chicken; brown on both sides, flipping once, 6-7 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a bowl.

2. Reduce heat to medium; add onion to the skillet. Cook, stirring until softened and edges begin to brown, 6-7 minutes. Add the garlic; saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatillos and remaining salt; cook, 6-8 minutes. Add the piloncillo, the chipotle chili and sauce; stir well. Heat to a simmer; add the chicken and chicken broth. Cook, covered, 10-15 minutes. Remove the lid; cook until sauce thickens to coat the back of the spoon, 10-15 minutes.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 503 calories, 31 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 182 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 798 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

Flourless almond and port cake

Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 30 minutes
Servings: 12 to 15

Note: This flourless kosher dessert (pastel de almendra con oporto) is suitable for Passover and also gluten-free. “This cake is a treat,” writes Pati Jinich. “As a devoted fan of marzipan, this cake feels like a fluffy, smooth, tasty piece of marzipan that has turned into a cake to become a bigger, lighter and a longer lasting version of itself.” Serve it as dessert topped with whipped cream or for breakfast with berries. If you don’t have port certified as kosher for Passover, substitute a sweet Passover wine.

Ingredients:
2 cups slivered almonds
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup butter or shortening, at room temperature
1 tablespoon port, optional
1/4 cup apricot preserves
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
Whipped cream, optional

1. Grease a round 9- to 10-inch springform pan; cover the bottom with parchment paper. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. Place the slivered almonds and sugar in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground. Crack the eggs on top of the mixture. Stir in the vanilla and port. Drop in the butter or shortening in chunks; process until smooth and thoroughly combined.

3. Pour the batter into the pan. Place on a rack in the middle of the oven, bake, 30 minutes. The top will be nicely tanned, the cake will feel springy to the touch and a toothpick should come out clean when inserted in the cake. It is a thin cake.

4. Remove from the oven; let the cake cool, 10-15 minutes. Run the tip of a knife around the edges of the pan; release and remove the sides of the pan. Place a platter over the cake; carefully invert the cake onto the platter. Remove the pan’s bottom and the parchment paper. Invert the cake again onto another platter to have the top of the cake right side up.

5. Mix the apricot glaze with the lime juice in a small saucepan. Set over medium heat; simmer until fully dissolved and liquid, 2-3 minutes. With a brush, spread the apricot glaze on the outer circumference of the cake, a band about 1 to 2 inches wide. You also can add some in the center. Sprinkle the glazed area with the toasted sliced almonds. Serve with the whipped cream on the side or on the top of the cake.

Nutrition information:
Per serving (for 15 servings): 220 calories, 15 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 5 g protein, 20 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

Veracruz-style gefilte fish

Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: About 20 patties

Note: Pati Jinich calls for red snapper and flounder fillets here, but you can use any white-fleshed, mild fish for this appetizer, in which the fish patties are poached in a zesty tomato sauce. If you can’t find capers certified as kosher for Passover, omit and add more olives, Jinich suggests. If you can’t find kosher for Passover pepperoncini, use one or two pickled jalepeno or canned hot peppers that are kosher for Passover.

Ingredients:
1 pound red snapper fillets, no skin or bones

1 pound flounder fillets, no skin or bones
1 white onion, about 1/2 pound, quartered
2 carrots, about 1/4 pound, peeled, roughly chopped
3 eggs
1/2 cup matzo meal
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Sauce:
3 tablespoons safflower oil
1/2 cup white onion, chopped
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
3 cups water or fish broth
3 tablespoons ketchup
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 cup Manzanilla olives stuffed with pimentos
8 pepperoncini peppers in vinegar brine
1 tablespoon capers

1. Rinse the fillets in cool water. Slice into 1- to 2-inch pieces; place in a food processor. Pulse until fish is finely chopped but hasn’t turned into a paste, 5-10 seconds. Transfer to a large bowl.

2. Place onion, carrots, eggs, matzo meal, salt and white pepper in same bowl of food processor. Process until smooth; add to fish. Combine thoroughly.

3. For the sauce, heat the oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion; cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, 7-8 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes; cook, with the lid ajar, 7-8 minutes. Stir in water or broth, ketchup, salt and white pepper. Heat to a boil; reduce the heat to low to get a gentle simmer.

4. Place a small bowl with lukewarm water to the side of the simmering tomato broth. Start making the patties, using about 1/4 cup of the mixture for each. Wet your hands as necessary so the fish mixture will not stick to your hands. As you make the patties, slide them gently into the simmering broth. Make sure it is simmering and raise the heat to medium if necessary to keep a steady simmer.

5. Once you finish making the patties, cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Cook the patties, covered, 25 minutes. Take off the lid, gently stir in the olives, peppers and capers. Simmer uncovered until the gefilte fish are thoroughly cooked and the broth is seasoned and thickened nicely, 20 minutes. Serve hot with matzo.

Nutrition information:
Per serving (1 patty plus some sauce per serving): 112 calories, 4 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 8 g carbohydrates, 9 g protein, 668 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

Apple, pear, hibiscus flower and pecan charoset

Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 25 minutes
Servings: 4 generous cups

Note: Pati Jinich likes to make a chunky charoset for her Passover Seder. The dried hibiscus flowers add a cranberry-like tartness. “You know the kind of tart that makes your eyes close and your mouth water at the same time? That good kind of tart,” she wrote in an email.

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups fresh squeezed orange juice
3/4 cup sweet Passover wine
2/3 cup or about 1 ounce dried hibiscus flowers
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, diced
2 Bosc pears, peeled, cored, diced
1/3 cup sugar
2 cups pecans

1. Place a medium saucepan over medium heat. Pour in the orange juice and wine; stir in the hibiscus flowers. Heat to a simmer; cook, 10 minutes.

2. Stir in the apples, pears and sugar; cook, stirring occasionally, until fruit is cooked through and tender, 15 minutes. The mix should still be wet, but the ingredients should not be swimming in liquid. Stir in pecans; remove from the heat.

3. Once the mix has cooled down a bit, place it in a food processor. Pulse just until coarsely chopped. Serve, or cover and refrigerate up to 4 days.

Nutrition information:
Per tablespoon: 37 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 0 g protein, 0 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.

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