Passover is a Jewish holiday that’s been celebrated for thousands of years. Needless to say, the traditions we observe for it are… also old. To celebrate, Jewish families like mine have a big feast called a Seder on the first two nights of the 8-day holiday. It’s a ceremony that has carefully prescribed rituals, including several special dishes and foods that need to be placed on the table in order to properly perform the Passover Seder. The most important is the Seder plate, which is the ceremonial centerpiece that contains six symbolic ingredients (more on those later). A festive kosher-for-Passover meal follows the ceremony, and although you can really serve anything that’s kosher-for-Passover (or free of chametz—this typically includes leavened foods, but can also include corn, rice, peanuts, lentils, and more, depending on who you ask), there are a few traditional recipes you can expect to see. In my family, the same dishes are served the very same way year after year—gefilte fish that sits on a single leaf of curly lettuce garnished with a boiled carrot coin, matzo balls swimming in golden chicken soup, potato kugel, boiled eggs, carrot tzimmes, and brisket. Everything is relatively beige, but delicious nonetheless.
When I was a kid, my mother held my siblings and I hostage for three days before we hosted the Passover seder. We’d have to polish the silverware, press the linens, set the table, help prep vegetables, and lay out our clothes. My mother’s stress was palpable and for good reason: We’d usually have at least 20 people over for dinner, and she wanted everything to be perfect.
Without abandoning the sentimental traditions everyone loves about Passover, myself included, I’m here to give some tips and tricks on how to modernize the event. Despite the Seder being a formal holiday, modern hosting can look a bit different. Gone are the days of sterile entertaining where the goal is Emily Post’s idea of perfection—instead, we welcome a more casual approach to hosting that puts emphasis on spending intimate time with family over being isolated in the kitchen. Fear not! This does not mean abandoning the traditions we have built our nostalgia around as I’m certainly not in the business of upsetting anyone, especially my bubbie, who looks forward to a quenelle of gefilte fish and a big fluffy matzo ball every year. To me, modernizing means being more efficient, more inclusive, adding more color, spending more time with family all whilst respecting the Passover traditions.
1. Update the Seder Plate
The Seder ceremony revolves around the Seder plate, displaying the foods that are symbolic to the Passover story. There are six traditional ingredients—beitzah (a hard-boiled egg), maror (horseradish), charoset (a sweet dish typically made with apple, nuts, and red wine), karpas (usually parsley), chazeret (often romaine lettuce), and zeroah (roasted shank bone)—but many families have begun including other items to represent modern social justice issues. An orange, for example, is a symbol for inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community. Similarly, an olive has been added to many Seder plates to symbolize peace. In this case, modernizing means reinterpreting and making space for new traditions without canceling the old ones.
2. Switch Up Your Serving Strategy
When it comes to reimagining food traditions, sometimes it’s less about what you serve and more about how you serve it. Gefilte fish, as polarizing as it is, has a place on the Passover table. Traditionally, it’s served as a plated second course (after soup and before the mains), so to modernize the dish, I like to serve it on a large platter or board. Slice the gefilte fish and serve alongside a bowl of horseradish, pickled red onions, fresh dill, and broken up matzo (not unlike the concept of a Passover grazing board). The same principle can be applied to the classic hard boiled eggs. Instead of serving in a bowl, you can opt for a platter similar to the gefilte fish, where halved eggs are garnished with flakey salt, a dollop of mayonnaise, and freshly cut chives. Or, up the ante and make a batch of beautifully dressed, delightfully pink devilled eggs like Grant Melton’s Pickled Deviled Eggs with Smoked Salmon.
And of course, you should consider your serveware. Matching sets of white porcelain platters are outdated—instead, try pairing your bubbie’s vintage floral platter with dishware in various colors, shapes, and textures. Think: ceramic plates, glass platters, wooden salad bowls, and the like. Whether you’re going for bright colors or muted tones, mismatching will help make the table sing. Thrift shops are great places to find unique pieces to mix up your table without breaking the bank, or you could splurge on a new family heirloom in the form of something like Susan Alexandra’s Swirly Seder Plate.
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3. Add Plenty of Color
Let’s face it, Jewish food can be pretty beige. Instead of looking for new recipes, think about what you can add to your existing repertoire to give it life and color. Use colorful vegetables in your salad, like vibrant radishes, heirloom carrots, and purple kale. Lean into colorful, textured garnishes like chopped nuts, seeds, pickles, and even pomegranate. Throw a big handful of fresh herbs on top of dishes (savory and sweet!) to make them come alive both visually and in terms of flavor.
For example, take the classic glazed vegetable dish that is carrot tzimmes. I serve mine with a mountain of thinly sliced green onion and finely chopped pistachios on top. Then, I place big wedges of lemon and orange alongside the platter so my guests can add their own squeeze of fresh citrus. These additions of color, texture, and a hit of acid really transform this dish. In her book Salad Freak, Jess Damuck reimagines charoset using natural wine (it’s traditionally made with Manischewitz) and big chunks of toasted walnuts to create more texture and a modern flavor twist.
4. Embrace Room-Temperature Dishes
This might seem like a strange tip, but relieving yourself of the stress of getting everything to the table piping hot will allow you more time to be present with your guests. Modern hosting means enjoying more time with friends and family instead of stressfully fitting multiple dishes in your oven like a game of Tetris. You’d be surprised how great roasted vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and green beans taste at room temperature. Plus, room temperature dishes also offer more opportunities for plating before guests arrive and then adding garnishes like fresh herbs right before they hit the table.
5. Introduce a New Tradition
Once you’ve appeased your crowd’s appetite for nostalgia by keeping some of the classics, make your mark on future generations by introducing them to something new, like an unexpected dish. (This is, of course, how we came to love the beige and brown foods of our ancestors.) I made a flourless chocolate cake a few years ago and now Passover wouldn’t be the same without it.
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