Matza may be the symbolic food of Passover but the potato is the star.
For many observant Jews it is one of the few foods that can be eaten during the week of Passover when leavened products become taboo (bread, pasta, crackers and any other food containing grains). Those following Ashkenazi tradition also refrain from eating kitniot, a prohibition of legumes such chickpeas, beans, fava beans and lentils as well as rice and corn.Wild fennel growing in Israel, the Jerusalem Hills region
Taking advantage of the potato’s elevated status during the holiday season the board of potato growers in Israel decided to host a festival in honor of this much loved tuber. “Come with your entire family” the website urges “with fun activities for all ages” including competitions, harvesting and an extensive display of potato varieties.
While Passover rituals have been conducted from antiquity, many of the food restrictions are a relatively new development. Potatoes are endemic to the Andes and didn’t exist in Europe until the Spaniards introduced them in the 16th century. Without this staple, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe probably had a very different level of stringency regarding kitniot.Potato fields in the northern Negev Israel
Today potatoes are an important agricultural crop, with 150,000 dunam (37,065 acres) grown throughout the country, half of which is reserved for export. Agricultural breeding projects have helped to acclimatize this high altitude plant to the Middle East with fifty new species tested every year in experimental plots. However, I have yet to see Idaho’s famous Russet potato, the most difficult culinary transition Americans have to endure.Typical white potato in Ramle Market, Israel
The golden spud is a ubiquitous ingredient in traditional and modern kitchens and have become integral part of Israeli cuisine. A favorite way of eating them are as French fries, perched on top falafel or shawarma sandwiches. More elegant establishments might use a food mill to churn out perfectly fluffy mashed potatoes (I chucked my mill years ago- an annoying gadget-and am happy with a lumpy mash). In the last fifteen years there has also been a strong French influence in Israeli cooking with many European trained chefs inspiring a new culinary genre.
On that note I would like to share a French dauphinois recipe (scalloped potatoes originally from the Dauphiné region of France) for the April in Paris monthly mingle hosted by Jamie Schler of Life’s a Feast.
Potato and fennel dauphinois
(scalloped potatoes with fennel)
I once tried using béchamel sauce instead of cream and the results were less than satisfactory. The potatoes in Israel are sometimes water logged, especially after a good rainy winter and I suspect part of the reason why the dish was not a huge success. Here I used cream and milk instead, much better suited to the local potatoes.
6-7 potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly (you might need more or less depending on the size of the potato and baking dish being used)
3 large fennel bulbs, washed and sliced thinly (note, sometimes they need to be washed after slicing to thoroughly clean them)
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
½ cup or more of milk if needed
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
½ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly ground grated nutmeg
100 grams of kashkaval or parmesan cheese, grated (sometimes I use an aged goat cheese as well)
Clay pot of 25 cm diameter or another oven proof dish
Preheat the oven to 165°C. In a small pot add the heavy cream and salt and heat on low until the salt is dissolved. Add the remainder of the spices. Layer the potatoes and fennel, slightly overlapping in one or two layers. Cover the potatoes with the cream and add enough milk so that it comes to about ¾ of the way up the sides. Too much and the potatoes will be swimming. Place the lid on the baking dish or cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes or until tender when poked with a fork. Cover with the the grated cheese and continue to bake until golden brown and bubbly.