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A vegetarian Passover Savoring the challenge of a meatless Seder feast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Passover, the first great liberation holiday on the Jewis calendar, begins this year on the evening of April 5. Unlike other Jewish holidays where the important aspects of the celebration occur in the synagogue, Passover is very home-centered. The main observance, the Seder, occurs around the dinner table. At the Seder, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is told and retold. Through this discussion, the participants can feel like they are among those liberated by Moses, that this occasion is not about something that happened long ago, but is immediate and happening today.

Passover has many rules associated with it, most of which focus on food. Foods with leavening are not eaten on Passover because the ancient Israelites fled Egypt in such a hurry that they didn't have time to let their bread rise. From the simple rule of forbidding leavening in all forms -- yeast, baking powder, cream of tartar, etc. -- comes a variety of related food regulations. For instance, some Jews say that anything that expands, that looks like it has been made with leavening, cannot be eaten. These foods include all legumes (beans) and rice. To avoid unintentional consumption of leavening, using regular flour for baking or anything else is not allowed. Some permit baking, but only with flour made from matzo.

Every year, I try to devise a new and interesting menu for our Passover feast. I like the admonition in the Haggada that recommends reclining during the meal. It says that because Jews now are free, we should enjoy the occasion like "kings." So I want to serve a meal fit for kings. When I think of all the regulations, I know I'll have to be very creative to meet the requirements of Passover and prepare a royal feast. This challenge became even harder for me when my husband and I decided to reduce fat and cholesterol in our diet, since Passover is a holiday founded on eggs -- a main source of cholesterol.

Now I have a new stimulus to my creativity. As my children grew up and went away to college, they came home as vegetarians. This year, they requested a vegetarian Passover feast. I always enjoy the opportunity to try something new so I accepted their suggestion to come up with a delicious vegetarian Passover menu, fit for royalty.

What I discovered is that a lot of the preparations for a vegetarian meal are not too different from those I do for a low-fat, low-cholesterol menu. I made a big pot of vegetable stock, which is very important in all the selected recipes (except dessert).

I use it in place of oil to saute the onions and garlic for the stuffed artichokes. It forms the basis of the special vegetable soup, made with only Passover-appropriate vegetables. I even use it to season the matzo balls. Oh yes. My children want a totally vegetarian menu, but they don't want to give up matzo balls. Happily, when I did the nutritional analysis for the entire meal, it turned out that total cholesterol is only 71 milligrams (all from the matzo balls), certainly not an "unhealthy" amount for an entire meal.

A vegetarian Seder has a lot to recommend it. The foods are very easy to make. They benefit from advance preparation. The recipes are new and therefore exciting. They include a Yemenite appetizer for artichokes stuffed with zucchini and onions. Vegetable soup made with onions, carrots, celery, cabbage, tomatoes, and peppers will follow with the matzo balls added to it. The entree will be matzo lasagna made with sliced eggplant "fried" in a spicy mushroom-and-tomato sauce. I know I'll please the assembled group with matzo apple crisp for dessert. The final quality of this menu that makes it so desirable to me is that one serving of each recipe comes to only about 660 calories, of which only 23 percent comes from fat.

The Seder focuses on discussing anything that make the participants "get involved," so that the feel they are part of the Exodus, that whatever happened to the ancient Israelites is also happening to them. Serve a vegetarian menu for your Passover feast. You'll certainly spark a lively discussion.

Basic vegetable stock

Makes at least 2 1/2 quarts.

3 carrots, cut into chunks

top half of celery bunch, including leaves, chopped

1 large onion, quartered

several parsley sprigs

1 parsnip, peeled and cut into chunks

12 to 15 whole peppercorns

1 large bay leaf

salt or lemon juice to taste

Place all ingredients in a large pot. Add enough cold water to cover. Slowly bring to a boil. Cover loosely and simmer about an hour and a half, or until the carrots and parsnip are tender. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Strain the vegetables from the broth. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Used without the vegetables, there is no measurable nutritional value.

Artichokes stuffed in the Yemenite style

Makes 6 servings.

6 medium artichokes

juice of one fresh lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup basic vegetable stocks

1 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 hot green chili pepper, seeded and chopped, or

2 tablespoons chopped green (bell) pepper

1 large tomato, chopped

3 cups zucchini, chopped

1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Place about 4 inches of water in a pot large enough to hold all the artichokes in a single layer. Add salt, if desired, and the lemon juice. Cover and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, remove the stems of the artichokes. Cut off the thorny tops as well. Trim away any discoloration on the outer leaves. Add the artichokes to the boiling water. Cover, and simmer 20 to 30 minutes, or until the leaves are tender and easily pull away from the whole. Do not overcook or the artichoke will fall apart and be difficult to stuff. When the artichokes are ready, remove from the heat and drain the water immediately. Set aside to cool.

Make the stuffing. Heat the oil and vegetable stock in a fry pan with a nonstick coating. Add the onion and garlic. Saute about 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to give off their own liquid. Add the chili (or green pepper), tomato, zucchini, and parsley. Stir well. Continue cooking, covered, on a low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the lid. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Continue cooking until all the liquid in the pan evaporates. When the artichokes are cool enough to handle, remove the thistle. First pull out the center leaves. Then gently open the remaining leaves. With a small spoon, remove the fuzzy thistle at the center bottom, leaving as much of the delicious heart as possible.

Fill the artichokes with the prepared stuffing. Serve at once.

Per serving: 72 calories; 5 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrate; 2.5 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 362 milligrams sodium, 25 percent of total calories come from fat.

Passover vegetable soup with optional matzo balls

Serves six.

6 cups basic vegetable stock

2 carrots, sliced

1 cup celery, sliced on the diagonal

2 medium turnips, diced

4 cups cabbage, shredded

1 green pepper, cored, seeded, and sliced

2 large tomatoes, chopped

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup chopped parsley

matzo balls, optional

Place all ingredients except the salt, pepper, green onions, parsley, and matzo balls in a large stock pot. Slowly bring to a boil. Cover and continue cooking on simmer until the vegetables are tender. Season to taste.

To serve, place up to 4 matzo balls in each bowl. Ladle the soup over them and sprinkle with green onions and parsley.

Per serving (not including matzo balls): 50 calories; 2 grams protein; 12 grams carbohydrates; 0.4 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 423 milligrams sodium; 6 percent of total calories come from fat.

Per serving (including 4 little matzo balls): 151 calories; 5 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrate; 5.9 grams fat; 71 milligrams cholesterol; 622 milligrams sodium; 35 percent of total calories come from fat.

Matzo balls

L Makes 6 servings, 4 small balls or 1 large ball per serving.

2 eggs

2 tablespoons Passover pareve margarine, melted

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup matzo meal

2 tablespoons vegetable stock or water

Beat the eggs in small bowl. Add the melted margarine, blending well. Stir in the salt, matzo meal, and stock (or water). Mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to the water, if desired. Shape the batter into balls. Wet your hands with cold water. Roll about 1 teaspoon of batter into a ball. Drop it into the boiling water. Repeat with the remaining batter, wetting your hands as necessary to keep the batter from sticking. Cook the matzo balls, covered, at simmer for 30 minutes -- up to one hour if you make bigger balls. The matzo balls expand as they cook, so use a big pot.

Per serving: 101 calories, 3 grams protein; 9 grams carbohydrate; 5.4 grams fat; 71 milligrams cholesterol; 199 milligrams sodium; 50 percent of total calories come from fat.

Eggplant lasagna made with matzo

Makes 6 servings.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup vegetable stock

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1 28-ounce can tomato puree

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed red pepper (optional)

1/4 cup Passover dry red wine

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup vegetable stock

1 pound fresh mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced

salt and pepper to taste

5 slices matzo

1 eggplant cut into 12 slices

Prepare the sauce. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and 1/4 cup vegetable stock. Add the onions and garlic. Saute about 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to give off their own juice. Add the tomato puree, parsley, oregano, basil, crushed red pepper, and wine. Stir well. Cover and continue simmering for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to assemble the casserole. May be made ahead.

Prepare the mushrooms. In a large fry pan with a non-stick surface, heat 1/4 cup vegetable stock. Add the prepared mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until the mushrooms give off their own juice. Turn the heat up to high and continue cooking until the liquid in the pan has evaporated entirely. This way, your sauce will not be runny. Add the cooked mushrooms to the tomato sauce.

Assemble casserole. Place the 5 sheets of matzo in an 8-by-8- or 9-by-9-inch glass baking dish. Cover them briefly with cold water, turning and separating the pieces. Place the wetted matzo on paper towels. Dry the dish and spray it with vegetable oil spray. Spread about 1/3 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the dish. Cover with one slice of matzo. Divide another slice into 4 pieces and use these to line the sides of the pan.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large pan with a nonstick surface, heat 1 cup of the sauce. Add 4 eggplant slices. Cook about two minutes on each side, just until the eggplant softens. Place them in the casserole. Fill in the spaces with a little more sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese if desired. Cover with another slice of matzo. Make two more layers, following this pattern, adding more sauce to the pan when necessary. End with the eggplant and sauce sprinkled with the last tablespoon of Parmesan cheese, if used. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 45 minutes. Uncover, so the top will brown, and bake an additional 15 minutes, or until the eggplant is tender.

Per serving (without cheese): 228 calories, 8 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrate; 3.2 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 393 milligrams sodium. 12 percent of total calories come from fat.

Per serving (with cheese): 242 calories; 9 grams protein; 45 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fat; 3 milligrams cholesterol; 451 milligrams sodium. 14 percent of total calories come from fat.

Passover apple crisp

Serves 8 generously.

6 cups tart baking apples, peeled, cored and sliced

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

crisp matzo meal topping

Place the peeled apples in a large bowl. Sprinkle them with the lemon juice. Combine the sugar and cinnamon. Toss the apple slices with the sugar mixture.

Oil a 1 1/2 quart baking dish. Place the prepared apples in the dish. Spread the topping over the apples. May be prepared to this point. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

About 1 1/2 hours before serving time, heat oven to 350 degrees. (( Place apple crisp in oven. Bake uncovered, 40 minutes, until apples are tender.

Per serving: 205 calories; 2 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrate; 5.2 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 34 milligrams sodium; 22 percent of total calories come from fat.

Crisp matzo meal topping

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup matzo meal

1/8 teaspoon salt, optional

2 tablespoons Passover pareve margarine, melted

1/4 cup chopped almonds

Combine ingredients.

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