In my Catholic home in Puerto Rico, the smell of a roasting ham in the oven meant only one thing: Easter! Add a dish of rice with cabbage and bacon (because you can never have too much pig), potato salad (because you can never have too many carbs), a green bean casserole (because two beans are better than one), and flan (a creamy caramel custard that could make you weep) — and you’ve got our Easter menu. Every year, for as long as I can remember, this was what we ate when we gathered around the table after Easter Mass to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. It was always one of my favorite holidays.
When I moved to the U.S., I made it a point to plan an elaborate Easter meal every year. The religious meaning of Easter had lost some of its power as I struggled as a young adult to define my spirituality, but the importance of gathering friends around the table was more powerful now that I lived thousands of miles away from my family. Easter became the time to celebrate the coming of spring, a new beginning, everything that was green and fresh in our lives. Although the menu changed to accommodate vegetarians, those on the latest fad diet, or just because I wanted something different, Easter morning always began with the smell of the baking ham, at least in my memory.
Almost four years ago, when my very Jewish boyfriend Ben and I decided to move in together, he made it clear that he wanted to have a kosher home. He also told me that Passover — that other holiday in the spring — was his favorite and that he would keep kosher for Passover in the Ashkenazi tradition: no flour, no rice (what!?), no beans (again, what!?), etc. My argument that we should follow Sephardic traditions because my ancestors were Spanish Jews was met with a smile and a “Nice try, honey!”
Ay vey! There went my Easter ham!
Ben had no trouble with hosting an Easter meal in our home, but I had to make sure that it would conform to the strict dietary guidelines of Passover. To the kitchen I went, armed with my Puerto Rican cookbooks and the phone — to call my mother, of course (I should say that she was a professional caterer for most of my childhood, so she is my kitchen guru) — to plan a kosher-for-Passover Easter meal a la Puerto Rican. Yes, it could be done! Never mind that the three staples of Puerto Rican cooking were banned (rice, beans, and pork). I would conquer the Passover kitchen!
This Passover will be our fourth one, our first as a married couple and my first as a Jew. Although we no longer celebrate Easter in our home, we will still have a brunch on Easter Sunday and gather the usual cast of family and friends to celebrate the much-awaited spring. This is my way of creating continuity between my Puerto Rican family and my Jewish one, and since two of my brothers have come to live in New York, I want them to feel like they have a place to go during their holidays. Ben and I both think that by marking the date, our future children will find it less confusing when their Puerto Rican family members call with good wishes and send them chocolate bunnies. We will also host the first seder, at which we will celebrate the struggle and freedom of our Jewish ancestors by eating the food of my island. We hope this combination of cultures and traditions will set the stage for future generations of JewRicans in our home by adhering to the practices of our religion while validating my (and their) cultural heritage.
As for the ham… Well, I think you will find that with this menu, you don’t really miss it at all. It won’t be ham, but it will sure be yummy… and kosher for Passover, too!
Kosher-for-Passover Puerto Rican Easter Dinner
These dishes are based on our definition of kosher-for Passover. Many families adhere to different “levels” of kashrut. As far as I know, we are not violating any of the obvious rules for Passover, but please check with your rabbi if you are concerned. My mother taught me the basic version of these recipes, and over the years they have been adapted and changed many times. If you want a good resource for Puerto Rican recipes, you can try Cocine Conmigo by Dora R. Romano or the bilingual Puerto Rican Cookery by Carmen Aboy Valldejuli.
For the first course, I usually serve a green salad with a sweet and sour vinaigrette made with passion fruit juice or guava juice. I find this to be a refreshing dish in a night of usually heavy fare.
For the main course, I will often buy perfectly roasted chicken from one of the many kosher butchers we are lucky to have in Brooklyn. I then complement the chicken with mojo, a garlicky sauce, and other Puerto Rican side dishes. This ensures that I do not spend the entire day working and, most importantly, that I enjoy the meal as much as everyone else! I also add something green, usually asparagus, since they are in season at this time of the year. You can sauté them in olive oil with a little garlic and salt — yum!
* 12 cloves of garlic
* pinch of kosher salt
* 1cup of good quality virgin olive oil
* 2 tablespoons of white vinegar
* chopped cilantro to taste
Using a mortar and pestle, smash the garlic and the kosher salt until you form a thick paste. Add the olive oil, vinegar and chopped cilantro and stir. Serve it in the same mortar that you made it in, and let people spoon what they want over their chicken. You can adjust the taste of the mojo by changing the amount of garlic that you use. Use less garlic for a milder taste.
* 6 yellow plantains, ripe but not mushy. (They should be yellow all over with very little or no black spots. If you can’t find them, buy green plantains and let them ripen inside a brown bag on your countertop for a few days until they turn yellow.)
* kosher salt
* olive oil
* 3 cups of sugar
* 3 cups of water
* 1 cup red wine (use a wine that you like to drink)
Peel plantains and soak in salted water for about 30 minutes. Heat up the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the drained plantains and sauté until browned lightly. Pour the sugar over the plantains and add the water to the pan. Stir carefully and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat to medium, and cook for 20 minutes. Uncover the pan and add the wine. Cook uncovered until a thick syrup forms. Serve on a deep platter so that guests can spoon extra syrup over their plantains.
You can make this dish ahead of time, but you should remove the pan from the heat one minute after adding the wine. Transfer the plantains with syrup to a deep baking dish. The syrup will thicken as it cools. Reheat for 20 minutes in a 300-degree oven, turning the plantains once, and serve.
* 3 cups of sugar
* 12 eggs
* zest of 2 oranges, finely chopped
* 2 cups fresh orange juice
Melt 1 cup of sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Swirl pan to stir and cook until the sugar turns into a caramel-colored syrup. Pour caramel into a 9″ round metal cake pan (not spring-form) and swirl pan to coat bottom and sides. You can also pour the caramel into 12 individual custard cups and swirl to cover sides. This may seem like more work, but it looks impressive and the little flans are easy to unmold. In a bowl, whisk the eggs with the remaining 2 cups of sugar. Add zest and orange juice and stir. Do not over mix. If you have too many bubbles from whisking the eggs, let the mixture rest a bit. Pour mixture into prepared mold(s). Place mold(s) inside a larger baking pan and pour hot water into the pan until it comes halfway up the flan mold(s). Cover and bake at 350-degrees for 40 minutes for cups and 1 hour for pan. You can check for doneness by inserting a knife in the middle. If it’s clean, the flan is done! Remove the mold(s) from the baking pan and cool. Cover and refrigerate until needed, at least 2-3 hours. You can easily make these a full day ahead. To unmold, run a knife around the edge of the mold(s) and invert onto plate(s). Spoon caramel over top. To serve the large flan, slice into individual wedges and spoon caramel over each slice.