Happy Passover! The Jewish holiday celebrating exodus and freedom starts at sundown this Monday, March 25, and continues for the next eight days. The foods served during this holiday week are influenced primarily by the prohibition on eating any kinds of grains or flour.
The prohibition isn't so much on the grains themselves, but on leavening, and if there's one things grains do really well once they're moistened is to interact with natural or added yeasts and --poof!--start fermenting into tasty, stretchy, airy-chewy dough (or alcohol). So, no leavening=no grains. The only allowable grain product is matzo, the crackly-thin flatbread that must be mixed, shaped and baked in no more than 18 minutes exactly. Any more time than that and fermentation can start to occur.
As a result, matzo is the only breadstuff of the holiday, and its cousins, matzo meal (coarse matzo crumbs) and matzo cake meal (the same, only finer) the main substitutes for flour. Potato starch stands in for corn starch, and ground nuts give structure and heft to dozens of cakes. I've already sung the praises of my breakfast mainstay, Passover rolls, and every Jewish cook I know has a favorite flourless chocolate cake (like Laurie Colwin's bittersweet chocolate-almond cake, based on a classic recipe of Elizabeth David's) for dessert.
So, sweet or savory, matzoh is a mainstay of this week. Passover being a celebration of spring, there are also a wealth of ways to feature the beauty of the season's first new vegetables and fruits on your table through the influences of Jewish culinary traditions around the world. At Firefly, Delfina, Comal, and Perbacco, the chefs and staff are adding special Passover dishes to the menu next week, inspired by recipes and flavors from Italy to Mexico and beyond. (Perbacco will be limited to one special dinner on Wednesday, March 27.)