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During the week of April 22nd through the 30th, while many Creole establishments around New Orleans are riding the seasonal high that comes with spring’s seafood bounty, Alon Shaya of Besh Restaurant Group’s Shaya will be observing a different kind of season.
Alongside the pillowy, wood-fired pita bread he’s become famous for, Alon will be firing up mountains of matzo, a traditional Jewish unleavened bread, for his celebrated Seder menu at his namesake Israeli restaurant. Seder plates are traditionally served during Passover, the commemoration of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.
Sensing a demand for Jewish cuisine in New Orleans, the chef, who earned his chops turning out unforgettable Italian food at New Orleans’ Domenica, began serving the Seder menu several years ago at the stylish eatery. Other Israeli influences began to make their mark on the menu, much to the delight of diners.
Those precursors at Domenica eventually led Alon to realize his dream of opening his own restaurant that pays tribute to his Jewish heritage and the heritage of all the immigrants who flocked to Israel seeking refuge following World War II.
Since the 2014 opening of wildly popular Shaya, the talented chef has been busy cooking up menus for all of the Jewish holidays, as well as accepting multiple awards, including being named Best Chef South by the James Beard Foundation.
Alon, born in Israel, now claims New Orleans, Louisiana, as his home, and it is here in the Crescent City that he has built a warm and welcoming space that reflects the ongoing evolution of Israeli food, while celebrating the abundance found in Louisiana.
On the menu, you’ll find Israeli delicacies with a distinctly local twist. For example, one can try traditional Kibbeh Nayah, a tartare made with beef and lamb raised in Picayune, Mississippi. You’ll find Gulf Red Snapper in the restaurant’s Chraime, a dish favored by Israeli Jews of North African origin, and Alon’s popular curried fried cauliflower features cilantro grown in Amite, Louisiana.
The cuisine of Israel bears the influence of the legions of cultures that have made the country their home over the years. Polish, Greek, Yemenite, and Moroccan flavors are just a few of the influences that show up across the different plates at Shaya.
“Israel, as everyone knows, is a very different country from others in the Middle East,” says Alon. “It’s Mediterranean, sure, but it also draws heavily from Eastern European, African, and Persian Gulf cultures. That’s why Israeli food is so different from other Middle Eastern cuisines.”
The Passover menu at Shaya reflects a traditional Jewish Seder plate, with updates for the fine-dining enthusiast. The restaurant’s impeccable wood-fired matzo is the vehicle for all parts of the meal.
“No one wants to eat symbolic Seder foods like parsley and salt water at a nice restaurant,” says Alon. “So we’re making tabouleh, where we’re using the parsley as a salad and bringing that ingredient forward. We’re using smoked lamb ribs in place of the traditional lamb shank.”
Alon draws influence from the Passover meals his mother served while he was growing up. She’d usually have some kind of chicken or brisket as the main course. Because Jews who keep kosher don’t mix meat and dairy, Alon’s mother would make a matzo cake layered with red wine and chocolate ganache for dessert. “It was amazing,” says Alon.
Always the gracious host, Alon welcomes Jews and Gentiles alike to experience the Seder meal at his restaurant on Magazine Street. He’s always quick to share his culture with those eager to learn, so we didn’t have to ask twice to get him to share some of his signature Passover recipes with us.
When making the matzo ball soup, Alon says, “You always want to create your matzo ball mix, and then once you roll it into balls, put them into simmering stock right away so they start to cook. If you don’t, they start to tighten up and become really dense.”
Charoset, another item on the menu, is a simple jam made with apples, hazelnuts, dates, and figs. Alon’s recipe is reminiscent of his mother’s Bulgarian version, which features a dessert wine to add sweetness and flavor.
Alon says, “This is a recipe that you can use year-round, not just at Passover. You can add it to a cheese board, smear it on bread, serve it with roasted lamb, or serve it with anything; it’s really good.”
Whether or not you celebrate Passover, try a few of these elevated dishes in a Seder menu of your own. We’re sure you’ll love them.
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- 2 (3-pound) whole chickens, giblets discarded
- 1 large onion, peeled and halved
- 1 large carrot, peeled and halved
- 2 stalks celery, cut in thirds
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 whole star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 heads broccoli, cut into florets (about 4 cups)
- 4½ tablespoons hawayej* or curry powder
- Matzo Balls (recipe follows)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
- Garnish: chopped green onion, olive oil
- Remove excess fat, breast meat, legs, and thighs from chickens and set aside. Place chickens in a large stock pot, and add enough water to cover the chicken by 1 inch. Cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes. Skim off any foam and fat.
- Add onion, carrot, celery, salt, star anise, cinnamon, garlic, and bay leaves, and cook, partially covered, for 2 hours more. Strain broth through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding solids. Return broth to pot, and add broccoli, chicken legs and thighs, hawayej, and Matzo Balls; cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes.
- When ready to serve, remove chicken legs and thighs, and pull apart the meat, discarding skin and bones. In a large sauté pan, heat oil over medium heat; add chicken breast, skin side down, and cook until the skin has become crispy and golden, about 8 minutes. Turn chicken, and cook 4 to 6 minutes more. Remove from pan, and let rest for 5 minutes. Dice, and return the leg, thigh, and breast meat to the broth. Add additional salt, to taste, and lemon juice. After the soup is plated, sprinkle on green onion, and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, if desired.
- *Hawayej is a ground spice mixture.
- 1 cup matzo meal*
- 3 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- ½ cup duck fat, melted*
- In a large bowl, combine matzo meal, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder. Add egg and duck fat, and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour. Roll into golf ball-sized balls.
- *Matzo meal is a finely ground matzo bread. Chicken fat may be substituted for duck fat.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional, if needed
- 1 cup water
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Preheat oven to 500°.
- Flour 2 large rimmed baking sheets. In a large bowl, combine flour and 1 cup water. Knead until dough forms a ball, adding flour if dough becomes too sticky.
- Divide dough, and spread on prepared pans, and prick the surface with a fork. Lightly brush the dough with water, and sprinkle with salt. Bake until golden and crisp, about 6 minutes. Add salt to taste. Break into about 24 crackers.
- ⅓ cup sugar
- ⅓ cup rice wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup Moscato d’Asti wine
- ⅓ cup onions, ½-inch diced
- 3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and ½-inch diced (about 3¾ cups)
- ¼ cup honey
- 1 cup dried figs, ½-inch diced
- 1 cup dates, ½-inch diced
- ¼ cup apricot preserves
- Zest and juice of ½ lemon
- Zest and juice of ½ orange
- ½ cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
- ½ cup pistachios, toasted and chopped
- ⅛ teaspoon of kosher salt
- Pinch ground allspice
- Pinch ground cardamom
- Pinch ground cinnamon
- In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, vinegar, wine, onion, apple, and honey, and cook over a medium-low heat, stirring gently, until the onion becomes translucent. Remove from the heat, and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine figs, dates, preserves, zests, and juice. In the work bowl of a food processor, add fig mixture, and pulse twice, or until roughly chopped.
- In a large bowl, combine onion mixture, date mixture, and remaining ingredients. Serve at room temperature.
- Charoset may be prepared and refrigerated up to 1 week in advance.