Like many Ashkenazim, I love a good piece of matzo spackled with Breakstone’s butter and a drizzle of honey. I make a mean matzo ball, and even a serviceable matzo lasagna. But at Passover, after a week’s worth of eating the unleavened cracker boards—and experiencing their effect on the digestive system—it’s easy to understand why Deuteronomy 16:3 referred to matzo as “The Bread of Affliction.” While pizza crusts, muffins, cereal, and bagels made from a variety of other kosher-for-Passover flours have hit the market, most of them are dreadful. An alternative was overdue.
Enter quinoa. Like the new kid in town rolling up in a shiny convertible, this grain-that’s-not-a-grain is becoming the belle of the Passover ball.
“It had gotten to the point where if I looked at one more potato, I thought I was going to scream,” says Laura Frankel, the Chicago-based kosher chef currently working on behalf of Wolfgang Puck Catering at Spertus Café in downtown Chicago.
Frankel began using quinoa a few years ago while doing private Passover catering in New York. Her employer glanced at her suspiciously and then furtively called a rabbinic authority for reassurance. “She thought I had brought something forbidden into her home,” says Frankel. Now Frankel regularly makes quinoa fritters, salads, soups and stuffings. (I like to use it in stuffed cabbage instead of rice, and replace pastina with quinoa in a warm bowl of chicken soup.)
How did quinoa, most often associated with the health-food aisle, begin its rise from obscurity to Passover-kitchen staple?
“People were desperate for something filling that was approved,” said Rabbi Zvi Goldberg of the Orthodox kosher-certifying agency Star-K. In 1999, a consumer contacted Star-K’s Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann, and asked him to investigate whether quinoa—which was first imported to this country in the 1980s—would pass muster on Passover, when any leavened wheat product (such as bread and pasta) and anything containing even a trace of corn, beans, or rice are forbidden by Jewish law. Heinemann discovered that quinoa—which hails originally from the Andes mountains but is now grown in the United States—is actually a member of the beet family. It is gluten-free and incredibly healthy, loaded with fiber, protein, and essential amino acids. Because quinoa is not a grain and had no religious precedent, Heinemann knew he was onto something.
So tests were undertaken to see if quinoa would rise under ideal conditions; instead, it decayed. This sealed the deal, and Star-K issued a statement in support of this “new” Passover food. (Like most things Jewish, there is controversy; not all rabbis agree with R’ Heinemann.) For real sticklers, kosher-for-Passover-certified quinoa can be found at Trader Joe’s and under the Ancient Harvest brand.