Passover seder meals can be a test of endurance for those sitting around the table for hours while the liturgy and particular rituals of the host family are recited and reenacted. The only reward besides the company we keep is, one hopes, a satiating meal and four glasses of wine. Yet, too often, creativity, for this meal bustling with anticipation, is unnecessarily sacrificed for fare familiar yet short of being fabulous.
Executive Chef Nir Elkayam of Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel offers tempting and tantalizing twists on traditional Passover recipes for diners over the holidays promising to make the hundreds of visiting hotel guests (from overseas as well as from within Israel) a memorable meal for all the right reasons.
Chef Nir recently demonstrated at the hotel for a handful of food journalists how he makes traditional dishes spectacular. And from watching, he made it look easy and even if you don’t hit his mark, there were preparation tips that were well worth remembering and even coming up a bit short on how his dishes came out would guarantee dishes far above the standard most of us have become accustomed to every year.
As a potential starter or even an amuse bouche between courses (if someone aspires to serve an amuse bouche at a seder i might stand and applaud) Chef Nir presented a leek soup that was subtle yet nuanced.
The leek soup was formed from a base of pureed leeks, onions, artichokes and potatoes. Potatoes, for Chef Nir and many experienced Passover home cooks, is a great starch substitute for non-kosher for Passover starches such as flour or corn without having to use matzo meal over and over again.
The star of the soup was Nir’s twist on Kneidelach (insert your own spelling here as many exist) which is often known less ethnically as matzo balls.
Yet, these weren’t the matzo balls you grew up on though Nir says it does blend his family traditions of Eastern European and North African cuisine. His Russian rooted mother and his Moroccan father influenced his cooking though he also spent time travelling and working across Europe with notable stops in Italy, Spain (where he hosted an Israeli pop-up restaurant in Madrid), Germany and Switzerland.
In his matzo balls, he makes two soups and separate balls for his diners. The leek soup’s “kneidelach” includes matzo meal, eggs, chicken stock, sauteed onions, parsley and onions where a spicier Moroccan version adds coriander and an array of spices to add heat. One of the tricks Nir suggests is that to makes sure your balls don’t crumble is to let them rest for hours after preparing before putting into the soup but its not the worst thing if they do crumble as it just makes the soup taste better anyways.
Even though the leek soup and kneidelach were noteworthy, Nir’s other two twists on traditional Passover fare were “to die for” and if you thought you might only ever have one Passover meal again these might be some of the dishes to put on your bucket list.
Nir served us an open faced brisket sandwich that was not only one of the best Passover dishes I ever sampled but one of the best sandwiches I could remember. Served on bread prepared by the hotel’s pastry Chef Doron Gruner, I could eat this unleavened bread all year long (and I’m going to have to track down that recipe as well).
Nir claims that brisket (or #3 cut here in Israel) from the lower chest of the cow, is an underrated cut of beef because most cooks and even chefs make the error of cooking it like a roast uncovered in the oven which takes the necessary moisture from the meat. After tasting Nir’s brisket, corned beef doesn’t seem the best fate for this undervalued but I can imagine his version of corned beef is an improvement on typical deli fare.
Nir backed up this claim with brisket juicer and more succulent than I can ever remember and serving it open faced allowed the meat not to get lost between two pieces of Passover friendly “bread.”
Nir says typically people like mustard on their brisket but mustard is forbidden on Passover to many so he prepares a pesto like marinade that includes fresh parsley, basil, various dried herbs, onion, garlic,thyme and olive oil which he rubs on both sides of the brisket before sealing it in foil and then even into a bag to seal the juices in before cooking for 3 hours. This dish can even be cooked a second time for another serving by warming it up for 45 minutes at low heat and once again marinating it with pesto and wrapping it up to retain the moisture that can cause reheated meat to suffer.
If the most moistened, tender and flavorful brisket wasn’t enough, Nir adds his own twist on salsa as a topping. Grilled red peppers and tomatoes are first skinned (the grilling makes it easier) then diced (though he says some at home might prefer using a processor as a chef he likes exercising his knife skills). Just a little salt and pepper are added and the previous grilling adds a bit of savoriness to the salsa. Add some sprouts for an edible garnish and some crunch and its a sandwich I could eat year round with their Passover recipe or traditional bread though you’d want it to be special to honor the fillings if with two slices or toppings if served open faced.
Last but not least was a meringue that to me expanded my definition of what meringue could be. and defies what one expects from typically non-dairy kosher for Passover desserts which are typically mock imitations of a better dessert available before or after Passover or when a kosher diner wasn’t having meat and could have dairy with their meal.
First and most importantly was the nature of the actual meringue which typically are airy and crumbly and can be tasty but not substantial. Their meringue however are anything but that. Meringues by nature can be simple creations of whipped egg whites, sugar and a pinch of salt and their worst enemy can be too much moisture. To help give the Inbal’s meringues some gravitas and prevent crumbling, cashews, almonds and walnuts are added so that when eaten the meringues as much resemble a nut brittle as a meringue but combining the two is a decadent delightful tribute to each. We were served the meringue with caramelized apples and fresh strawberries but there’s no limit to what kind of fruit or sweet toppings one could combine.
If these three dishes are just examples of the typical fare at the Inbal in Jerusalem’s Passover fare than their guests will likely walk away happy after their meals yet Nir and Doron’s creations are also inspirations for how we at home can raise our seder meals to new heights without a lot of effort for results that will have us repeating these recipes not only once a year but throughout the year. It also makes me wonder what the Inbal’s culinary team can conjure up when not working with the limited pantry restrictions of Passover.
a link to a video of the chefs’ presentation is below: