If you’re finding holiday menus a bit ho-hum, turn to the latest batch of Jewish cookbooks for some vivid flavors, such as Jalapeño-Shallot Matzo Balls or Moroccan Spiced Short Ribs.

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Passover is a millennia-old story of freedom that continues to inspire celebration. But if you’re finding holiday menus a bit ho-hum, turn to the latest batch of Jewish cookbooks for some fresh ideas and vivid flavors. Mix some modern dishes in with old favorites at Passover, which begins at sundown April 3.

“Fix the things that are the deal breakers, the things that have to be there, and then feel free to experiment,” says Leah Koenig, author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen” (Chronicle, $35). “Add one new thing this year; it may become the thing your family can’t live without.”

Koenig, of Brooklyn, N.Y., says that new thing can be a new ingredient in a familiar recipe or a new dish. Look for inspiration and flavor in what she calls “the global Jewish food canon.”

Passover can present challenges in adapting recipes and menus. Some cooks may be reluctant to tinker with traditional holiday foods for fear their families may disapprove. Still, the new thing can be something as simple — and startling — as Koenig’s matzo balls spiked with chopped shallot and jalapeño.

“It takes something people are familiar with and tweaks it a little bit,” Koenig says. (Her book has Ashkenazi, Sephardic and vegetarian seder menus as well as a weeknight meal and breakfast suggestions.)

Adhering to traditions while playing with flavor is also the strategy of Paula Shoyer, whose latest work, “The New Passover Menu” (Sterling, $24.95), offers an updated Ashkenazi seder menu featuring banana charoset, fresh salmon gefilte fish and Peruvian roasted chicken with salsa verde. (She also offers an international seder menu, an Italian vegetarian menu and even a barbecue dinner menu.) Taking traditional recipes and making them healthier and lighter is her goal. She wants to offer dishes that fit modern sensibilities and connect back with Jewish tradition.

“We’re seeing what’s out there in the world and asking, ‘Why can’t I eat what everyone else is eating?’” says Shoyer, a resident of Chevy Chase, Md. “Cookbook authors like myself say we’ll bring it to them … and adapt it for your kosher lifestyle.”

Jeff Morgan, co-author with his wife, Jodie, of “The Covenant Kitchen: Food and Wine for the New Jewish Table” (Schocken Books, $35), says they were raised in “extremely secular Jewish homes” and that the decision to make kosher wine “changed the way we eat and drink.” Still, Morgan says he’s “not willing to sacrifice flavor for spirituality and there’s no reason you have to.”

The Morgans, co-owners of the kosher Covenant Winery in Berkeley, Calif., write that they like “to push the envelope” with their Passover seder menu. The Jewish home kitchen has come of age, they add, with a “new focus on international Jewish cuisines.”

“Americans are used to big flavors,” says Joyce Goldstein, the San Francisco-based chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, explaining the new emphasis on global ingredients and tastes. Traditional Ashkenazic fare, based on Central and Eastern European cooking, can seem “pretty bland” and “heavy” and not offering a lot of vegetables in comparison, notes Goldstein, who is working on a new book of Mediterranean Jewish cooking for the “modern palate.”

“Chefs are trying to liven it up,” she says.

Take Shoyer’s recipe for Moroccan spiced short ribs as a delicious example of what’s possible today thanks to spices, herbs and barbecue sauce.

“This is how I eat, period, and not just at Passover,” Shoyer says. “The recipes are so accessible and so easy.”


Makes 6 to 8 servings

A recipe from “Modern Jewish Cooking” by Leah Koenig. “From the outside, they look comfortably familiar,” Koenig writes. “But inside, the softened shallots, colorful speck of jalapeño, and the hint of heat they impart is a surprising but totally welcome addition to any pot of chicken soup.” Use your favorite chicken soup to serve the matzo balls.

¼ cup vegetable oil or schmaltz (chicken fat)

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 small jalapeño, finely chopped (remove seeds for a less spicy matzo ball)

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup matzo meal

3 tablespoons seltzer water

Chicken soup

1. Heat the oil in a medium pan set over medium heat. Add the shallots and jalapeño; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about five minutes. Transfer the jalapeño mixture, including the oil, to a large bowl (to speed up the cooling process). Let cool to the touch.

2. Once cooled, combine the eggs, salt, matzo meal and seltzer in the bowl with the jalapeño mixture. Cover; refrigerate, 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Turn the heat to medium-low; keep at a simmer while you form the matzo balls.

4. Moisten your hands with water. Scoop out a rounded 1 tablespoon of matzo ball batter; roll it into a 1-inch ball. Drop into the simmering water; repeat with the remaining batter. You should end up with about 18 matzo balls. Cover the pot; simmer until the matzo balls are tender and puffed, 30-35 minutes. (If you cut one in half, it should be pale in color throughout.)

5. Remove the matzo balls from the pot with a slotted spoon. Divide them among serving bowls and ladle soup over them. (Matzo balls can be cooled to room temperature, then stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to a day. Rewarm them in your soup before serving.)


Makes 6 servings

You can sear the ribs on your outdoor grill or in a heavy pan on the stove, writes Paula Shoyer in “The New Passover Menu.” This dish, part of Shoyer’s international seder menu, may be made up to three days in advance. Use your favorite barbecue sauce, either homemade or a store-bought kosher-for-Passover product.

4 long strips (3½ to 4 pounds) short rib

1 tablespoon each: light brown sugar, ground cumin

1 teaspoon each: ground turmeric, ground thyme, ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, optional

¾ cup barbecue sauce

1/3 cup hot water

1. Place meat in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. In a small bowl, mix the brown sugar, cumin, turmeric, thyme, cinnamon, salt and ½ teaspoon pepper until well combined. Rub the spice mix all over all sides of the meat. Cover the pan with plastic wrap; refrigerate, at least eight hours or overnight.

2. Sear the ribs. On an outdoor grill, heat the grill to high, 550 to 600 degrees. Sear each side until the meat releases from the grate on its own, five to seven minutes per side. Return the ribs to the baking pan. To sear on the stovetop, heat the oil in a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat; brown the meat on all sides.

3. Combine the barbecue sauce and water in a small bowl; pour it over the meat. Season with pepper to taste. Cover the pan with aluminum foil; bake in a 325-degree oven, 2½ hours. To serve, cut the ribs into 3-inch pieces. If you cook the ribs in advance, cool before covering and storing in the fridge. Before reheating, remove the fat from the top of the ribs; heat in a 350-degree oven, 35 minutes.


Makes 12 servings

In “Food, Family and Tradition: Hungarian Kosher Family Recipes and Remembrances” (The Cherry Press, $35), Lynn Kirsche Shapiro weaves treasured family recipes with stories of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, and the horrific memories of the author’s parents, Sandor and Margit Kirsche, who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

As Shapiro puts it, “the memories … enrich the recipes with flavor, some sweet, some bittersweet and some bitter.” The voice of one family becomes the voice of many who lived in that time and place.

Margit Kirsche made the flourless chocolate nut cake recipe here for Passover, and in the book it is accompanied by her memory of the last day of Pesach in 1944. Her uncle arrived.

“I was so happy to see him, because I loved my uncle and was always happy when he came over,” she writes. “Then he started to cry. He said that all Jews would have to leave their homes. … We tried to escape. My uncle’s family and my family each hired a non-Jew with a wagon to take us away separately. We hoped we could hide out until the war was over, but the Nazis caught us. … That was the last time I saw anyone from my uncle’s family. None of them survived.”

Margit and Sandor immigrated to America and eventually founded Hungarian Kosher Foods in the Chicago area, the largest all-kosher supermarket in the Midwest.

10 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar

6 ounces dark chocolate, melted and cooled

2 cups walnuts, finely ground

Pinch of salt

Optional raspberry sauce (see note)

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9- or 10-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray. Line bottom with parchment paper cut to fit. In the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg yolks with sugar until thick and light yellow. Using a spatula, fold in the chocolate. Then fold in the nuts.

2. In a separate large bowl beat egg whites until stiff, adding a pinch of salt when almost done. Carefully fold the whites into the cake mixture. Pour cake batter into prepared pan. Bake cake in the center of the oven for 1 hour, until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Remove pan to a rack to cool. Using a thin spatula loosen sides and remove from pan. Transfer to a serving platter. Slice and serve with fruit sauce on the side, if desired.

Note: To make a fresh raspberry sauce, place 1 pint raspberries in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and purée. Add sugar and continue to purée until almost liquid. If desired, strain sauce to remove the seeds. Refrigerate and cover until needed. Makes about 1 cup.

— Adapted by The Miami Herald from “Food, Family and Tradition” by Lynne Kirsche Shapiro.