When people hear my husband, David, is Italian and Jewish, they always ask him: “Have you ever heard of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis?”
They are referring to the 1970 Academy Award-winning movie about aristocratic Jews in Ferrara during the 1930s. Fascination with the film never fades because Americans can’t fathom Jews coming from the land of romance and pasta.
Although the Italian Jewish population has always been scant, it dates back 2,000 years and claims a distinctive cuisine, particularly at Passover. Influenced by Mediterranean food, Italian Jews have developed a rich cooking style flavored by olive oil and herbs, vegetables, lemons and fish galore.
“No one can believe my father’s last name was Morpurgo,” said David, a baby boomer born in Manhattan. He recalls trips with his parents and siblings to the port city of Trieste, where his father grew up.
“My father never understood eating fish from a jar,” David said.
At seders, his family enjoyed poached carp, instead of commercially prepared gefilte fish.
In Italy, regional recipes for haroset abound, calling for anything from pears to ginger, candied orange peel, chestnuts or pine nuts. The Morpurgo family recipe is a zesty composite of ingredients.
The signature dish of Italian Jewish cuisine, fried artichokes, originated in Rome and is often served at Passover throughout Italy.
David’s seder memories include his Aunt Dora’s spinach torte. While this cake is pale green, it tastes lemony and light. It’s so delicate, it’s hard to believe it’s a Passover pastry.
While the Trieste synagogue was once filled with Morpurgos, only one cousin remains in town. The rest of David’s relatives have passed away or live in America and Israel.
“It’s sad,” he said. “There’s no reason to visit Trieste anymore.”
He cherishes Passover foods from his childhood, because they’re a tie to the scenic seaside city his family once called home.
1 inch of ginger root
8 ounces pitted dates, cut into thirds
¾ cup golden raisins
4 ounces pitted prunes, cut into thirds
⅓ cup honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup concord grape wine
½ cup water
½ cup orange juice
⅓ cup pignoli (pine nuts)
⅔ cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped
Peel and core the apples and pears. Cut into ½-inch dice.
Peel the ginger. Dice the ginger, and then chop the pieces finely.
Place the ingredients — except the nuts—in a nonstick saucepan. Simmer slowly on a low flame for an hour, or until the fruit softens. Add a little more wine or water if the mixture starts sticking to the pot.
Cool to room temperature and mix in the nuts with a spoon. Store in a covered container and refrigerate. The mixture lasts at least two weeks.
Yields approximately 3 cups
Poached Carp in Jellied Broth | Pareve
This appetizer is served instead of gefilte fish.
- Fish poacher or large
- pot with rack or steamer basket
- A flat-bottomed serving dish with a 1-inch lip
Cooking oil for coating
1 small onion, peeled and cut into quarters
1 carrot, peeled and cut into sticks
1 celery stalk, peeled and cut into sticks
4 whole peppercorns
¼ teaspoon kosher salt,
plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons dry white wine
4 carp steaks
1 wedge of lemon, plus a whole lemon
1 envelope unflavored pareve gelatin
Several parsley sprigs
Coat the poacher and its rack with oil. In the bottom portion of the poacher, place the onion, carrot, celery, peppercorns and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Add the wine. Set the rack in place. Pour in a generous amount of water, enough to cover the vegetables and reach the level of the rack.
Place the carp on the rack. The steaks may overlap. Cover the poacher and simmer on a medium flame for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the carp is cooked through and flakes when pierced with a knife.
With a wide spatula, carefully move the carp to a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut each steak in half. Using the spatula, move the halves to a flat serving dish with a 1-inch lip. If the halves break, just place the pieces back together. Squeeze the lemon wedge evenly over the carp. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Reserve.
Remove the rack from the poacher. Cover the poacher and boil the contents for 10 minutes.
Place a colander over a large bowl. Spoon the contents of the poacher into the colander. Pour in the broth to strain. Move the broth to a clean pot. Add the gelatin and heat uncovered on a medium flame. Stir constantly until the gelatin dissolves. Pour the gelatin mixture over the carp.
Cool the carp to room temperature. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the broth gels. It can be made to this point a day ahead.
When ready to serve, slice the lemon thinly. Arrange the lemon slices on the carp and garnish with parsley.
Roasted Red Snapper | Pareve
This sumptuous dish is a main course.
3½ – to 4-pound whole red snapper, or two 2-pound red snappers
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil leaves, plus several sprigs of basil, minced
Kosher salt to taste
¼ cup of olive oil, plus more for coating
Rinse the fish, inside and out, with cold water. Pat it dry with paper towels. With a sharp knife, cut the skin of the fish on a diagonal three times so it doesn’t split during cooking and to help the marinade absorb. Place the fish in a large oblong Pyrex or other dish with similar sides. Reserve.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, 1 tablespoon of basil, salt and ¼ cup of olive oil. Pour this marinade over the snapper, saving some to rub onto the cavity now. Cover the fish with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 12 hours. Bring to room temperature.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Coat a roasting pan and rack with olive oil. Move the snapper to the prepared pan and roast for 25 to 30 minutes or until the juices in the cavity run clear and the fish flakes when poked with a knife. Serve immediately. Sprinkle the remaining basil on top, if desired.
Spinach Torte with Passover Confectioner’s Sugar | Pareve
- 10-inch springform pan
2 pounds baby spinach
Cooking oil for coating
Pinch of salt
7 eggs, separated into 2 large mixing bowls
¾ cup granulated sugar
1¼ cup golden raisins
1 cup matzo cake meal
½ cup pine nuts
Place the spinach in batches in a colander and rinse under cold water. Break off the stems. Move them to a vegetable steamer and steam until wilted, about 2 to 3 minutes. Return the spinach to the colander to drain. Move it to paper towels to drain further. Chop the spinach. Reserve.
Through a sieve, squeeze the juice from the lemons into a small bowl. Zest the peels and add them to the juice. Reserve.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the springform pan with oil.
Add a pinch of salt to the egg whites. With an electric beater, beat until gentle peaks form. Check it often and do not over beat as egg whites turn watery. Reserve in a cool place away from the oven.
To the bowl with the yolks, add the sugar, lemon juice and zest. With an electric mixer, mix to blend. Add the spinach and blend well. Add the raisins and matzo cake meal and beat to mix. Fold in the pine nuts and egg whites and mix it by hand until they are well incorporated.
Spoon the mixture into the springform pan. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the edges brown, the cake feels springy to the touch and a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake returns clean. Cool to room temperature. Just before serving, sprinkle with Passover confectioner’s sugar.
Passover Confectioner’s Sugar
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
½ teaspoon potato starch
Place the granulated sugar into a Cuisinart Mini Prep Processor or a clean coffee grinder. Cover with the top and process/grind for 2 minutes. Leave the top on for 2 minutes or fine sugar dust will settle in your kitchen.
Add the potato starch and process/grind for another 2 minutes. Leave the top on for 2 minutes before opening. Sugar should have the consistency of velvety fine powder. Continue to process, if necessary.
Yields approximately ½ cup