As if cooking for Passover weren’t demanding enough, now many of us are doing our best to eat fresh, local and seasonal, too. Spring is in the air as the holiday approaches, but after this year’s brutal winter, spring vegetables are barely rooted in the ground.
The date for Passover slides around depending on the lunar calendar. The holiday can fall anywhere from late March to late April, making for big differences in what’s in season. This year, wouldn’t you know it, Passover comes early. The holiday begins the evening of April 3 with the first seder, the traditional holiday meal that welcomes the eight-day observance.
Even though nothing says spring like bright green spears of asparagus on the table, I have decided to resist those California imports this Passover and go to local sources for advice. So I seek out some Jewish farmers to find out what the people of the land are putting on their Passover tables.
My first conversation starts off discouragingly. “Coming out of our freezing February and early March, farms will be a little slow to wake up this spring,” says Tanya Tolchin, who with husband Scott Hertzberg owns Jug Bay Market Garden, a seven-acre organic vegetable farm in Upper Marlboro, Md. The farm sells vegetables and herbs at a nearby farmers market and through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program on Capitol Hill.
Like other regional farmers, they are two to four weeks behind their typical planting schedule. As soon as the ground finally showed signs of thawing, the second week of March, Hertzberg was getting ready to plant. Green onions were at the top of the list. Because the onions can be harvested after about four weeks of growth, young ones are nearly always ready for Passover, along with radishes that can be pulled when they are smaller and, some say, sweeter. Parsley overwinters along with other herbs in the farm’s unheated hoop house.
These early spring arrivals gave Tolchin the idea of creating a colorful side dish for Passover with tender green onions, radishes and parsley as the stars rather than in their usual supporting roles in recipes.
As Hertzberg prepares the ground for planting, Tolchin gets excited about some of the weeds that are being dug up. Many of them are edible, she explains, and although Jug Bay doesn’t sell them, others do, and they can be found in some year-round farmers markets. Chickweed got its name from being planted in the chicken yard as a natural feed. Tolchin uses it fresh in salads or steamed with lemon juice and tamari sauce. Sorrel, another edible weed growing wild around the farm later in the season, is popular among Eastern European Jews who prepare schav, a cold sorrel soup for hot weather.
Edible weeds and roots are also on Mike Tabor’s mind. Tabor and his wife, Esther Siegel, own the 60-acre Licking Creek Bend Farm, which he says grew out of a “diaspora kibbutz started by a bunch of hippies” in 1972 in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains. The farm is Certified Naturally Grown (a program tailored to small-scale farms that has standards similar to organic certification but requires less paperwork), and Tabor, 72, who is considered a legend among younger farmers like Hertzberg, rotates his fields each year. He grows vegetables, fruits and flowers sold at two food co-ops and five farmers markets and to two universities.
Tabor talks enthusiastically about the edible weeds and roots, such as horseradish, being dug up as the farm gets ready for planting. They are perfect bitter herbs for the ceremonial seder plate. Later in the season, he’ll sell lots of purslane, another edible weed that’s high in omega-3 fatty acids. Just remember, Tabor points out, that “even a tomato is a weed in a cornfield. A weed is just what’s in a field that you don’t want there.”
There’s no getting around the fact that much of the fresh and local produce available now isn’t so different from what was around at Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and, well, during the last snowstorm: onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, various squashes and apples. For her seder, Siegel likes to roast chunks of sweet potatoes and squash, then drizzle them with a mixture of maple syrup (yes, a spring product) and Dijon or honey mustard. Another of the couple’s Passover favorites is a crunchy-soft apple crisp for dessert.
And what about those onions? “We plant thousands,” Tabor says, “so it’s one of the first things we wholesale and have at the farmers markets.”
As bad as we think our winter was, I decided I had to check out the local, seasonal food situation farther north, like in Massachusetts, where more than 108 inches of snow fell this winter. Through it all, Winter Moon Roots in Hadley, 100 miles west of Boston, provided organic carrots, beets, parsnips, turnips and radishes.
Winter Moon sells only from December through March. Owner Michael Docter plants, grows and harvests from spring into the fall, then stores the produce using his own low-carbon-footprint system. He sells about 23,000 pounds of root vegetables a year, mostly to local co-ops, markets (six every Saturday morning) and restaurants in the area and in Boston. Many of the local deliveries are done using bicycle trailers (at least when the streets are clear of snow).
Parsnips, Docter explains, are one of the few crops that can winter over in the ground. The cold turns the starch in the vegetable to sugar, making spring-dug parsnips “sweet and spectacular.” Combined with celeriac (celery root) grown by a renter on his farm, the parsnips create what Docter considers the perfect spring soup.
Okay, so I’m feeling good about local produce ideas for Passover, but what about poultry and meat? Farmers providing locally grown, organic and kosher poultry and meat are mighty scarce. And then, I remember KOL Foods.
Founded in 2007 by Devora Kimelman-Block, KOL Foods has grass-fed beef from Virginia and lamb from the Alleghenies, turkeys from Pennsylvania and free-range chickens and ducks from Groff’s Content Farm in Rocky Ridge, Md. There are sausages, hot dogs, broths and even lamb shank bones for the seder plate.
KOL Foods has the meat processed at a kosher slaughterhouse in Baltimore, the chickens and ducks in Scranton, Pa.
There is a demand for good local, kosher meat: The company ordered 4,000 chickens from Groff’s last year and is requesting 6,000 this year, says Julie Bolton, who owns the farm with her husband, Bob.
KOL Foods products are ordered online and shipped anywhere on dry ice. The company also offers buying clubs, convenient and more economical clusters of deliveries by freezer trucks. Orders for the last club in the D.C. area close on March 25 at 5 p.m.
I’m convinced. Passover has been a processed-and-packaged-food paradise for too long! This year, I’m putting on my (warm) coat and heading to some of the year-round farmers markets to forage for fresh, local and seasonal foods, grateful that I don’t have to wander in a desert for 40 years before eating from the abundance of the land around me.
Barocas, the founding director of the Jewish Food Experience, is a filmmaker, writer and cooking teacher who lives in Washington. On Twitter: @shbarocas. She will answer questions about Passover cooking at Wednesday’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.