Food & dining

Let the Seder plate determine the menu

Luke Pyenson prepared the braised brisket with red wine, spices, prunes, carrots, onions, and leeks.
Luke Pyenson prepared the braised brisket with red wine, spices, prunes, carrots, onions, and leeks.

Cooking for Passover is like finding out that your vegan dinner guest is also gluten allergic. Jewish specialties can be heavy, and for the upcoming holiday, which begins on March 25 and lasts for eight days, there are many restrictions about grains and other foods.

I wanted to create a Passover menu that stayed true to the holiday’s roots, with the point of departure being the traditional Seder plate. In this symbolic offering, there is a bone (to signify the Passover sacrifice of a lamb at the Temple in Jerusalem), hard-cooked egg (a symbol of mourning), parsley (when dipped in saltwater, this represents the tears of the enslaved Israelites), charoset (an applesauce-like mixture with raisins and nuts to symbolize mortar), and horseradish (the bitterness of slavery). So the idea was to cook a bony dish, an eggy dish, a dish that celebrates parsley, and so on. The infrastructure was all there, and if approached correctly, even matzo can be alluring.

London chef Fergus Henderson and his world-famous dish of bone marrow with parsley salad first came to mind. Saving the bone marrow for another occasion, I turned my attention to the parsley. This man has done wonders for parsley’s reputation. Usually relegated to its role as a confetti-like garnish, parsley can be a major component in a salad and really shine. For a Seder, pair it with diced apples, and dress it simply with apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and a pinch of salt; it needs nothing else.


Though not on the Seder plate, brisket is often a main component of the meal. My grandmother’s is as good as it gets. I decided to give it a shot myself, elaborating on the combination of beef and prunes — popular on both Ashkenazic and Sephardic tables — by adding some of the Moroccan spices I often ate when I lived there. I braised the brisket in red wine, beef stock, spices, prunes, and added the usual carrots, onions, and leeks. With it, we had horseradish mashed potatoes, a welcome stage for the prepared white condiment. (Growing up, it usually went with gefilte fish from a jar; I admit to a vague affection for this product, no doubt due to nostalgia.)

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Finally, for dessert, notoriously the most difficult course in any Passover meal (flour and some other ingredients are not allowed), I chose a simple chocolate mousse, and decided to use matzo to my advantage. I covered it in a caramel made from sugar and butter and sprinkled it lightly with sea salt. My guests started gobbling the salted matzo brittle before the mousse was out of the fridge.

One of my friends hid the afikoman — a small bundle of matzo meant to be searched for and found by children for a prize — reminding us all at the end of the meal that no one had found it yet. But full of brisket, we all lingered around the table. Then, one by one, my housemates drifted off to bed and guests headed home.

The afikoman is still somewhere in our house. But considering that those pieces were not covered in salted caramel, they just might stay hidden till next Passover.

Luke Pyenson can be reached at