Passover isn't a secular holiday, but it is at least partially defined by traditions that are older than the flight of the Hebrews from Egypt. Passover commemorates making do in the scarcity of late winter (symbolized by matzoh, just about the most spartan bread you can make), the coming of spring's bounty (represented by lamb, new herbs and green vegetables), and the very serious ritual of spring cleaning (one of the mandates of Passover is to rid the house of just about everything that's been lying around all winter).
It's the commemoration of freedom, however, that makes Passover a true celebration that everyone can relate to. In many households it has become a semi-secular holiday, celebrating the rights of oppressed people all over the world. Whether your seder is highly traditional or a more informal gathering of friends, there's no reason that the food shouldn't be first-rate.
Most of us who grew up going to seders remember the food not for its deliciousness but for its consistency. Year in and year out, there was the matzoh ball soup, the gefilte fish, the unremarkable meat course, and of course the matzoh. The high point, at my relatives' seders, was the charoset, the once exotic and still wonderful combination of apples, walnuts and wine.
With the possible exceptions of charoset and matzoh, all of the traditional seder foods can be improved upon. By integrating some Sephardic cuisine and approaching the meal with a more open mind, even a strict interpretation of the seder becomes a celebration not only of freedom but of food. To me, the best menu combines what was traditional for me as a child with some of the things I've learned in my adult life.
The foodStart the meal with something substantial, for the tradition of starving through the reading of the Haggadah is not something everyone appreciates. Some marinated olives may help, but if you can whip up some hummus with canned chickpeas (the process takes maybe ten minutes), you can serve it with crudités or, if you're willing to get a jump on things, some matzoh.In the course of the seder, you'll have plenty of room to improve matters. For example, if you're going to dip parsley in salt water and eat a bitter vegetable (usually horseradish, but lettuce is almost as traditional), why not top the second with the first, add a little oil and lemon juice, and enjoy a salad while things move along? And you're going to want a roasted egg on the table, because you must, for it symbolizes rebirth, but you can also make a terrific dish of griddled eggs browned with onion and sprinkled with parsley. Both of these ideas turn mandatory parts of the seder into components of a real meal.
It is almost mandatory to serve matzoh ball soup as a first course, but it doesn't need to be watery, and the matzoh balls don't need to be leaden. Make a good stock earlier in the week (or the month and freeze it), and make the matzoh balls from scratch. A key to lightness is to shape them gently. If you like them really light, separate the eggs and beat the whites, then fold them in just before shaping.
At this point you're ready to dig into something substantial. Again, I like to draw upon tradition and inspiration. Three common components of the Passover meal, parsley, horseradish and lamb, can be combined, extending them beyond their symbolic role, into an integral part of the main course. Almost any lamb stew you make is going to be a good one, but this is special. With cooked horseradish (it becomes mild and subtle but remains flavorful) and a parsley purée, the stew is incredible. Shoulder (trimmed of some, but not all of its fat) makes the best lamb stew. The stew is delicious served on its own, but you can serve it over polenta or any other kosher whole grain for something more filling.
Along with it, I serve roasted asparagus. There's no better sign of spring and no better (or simpler) side dish. It's good served hot, or at room temperature. If you start with thin spears you don't need to peel them, but it's worth taking off the tough outer layer of thicker spears.
For dessert, you can stay kosher and serve something classy, original, and seasonal: homemade Jell-O, an updated but old-fashioned combination of citrus fruits and juices.
All of these dishes are complemented perfectly by a dry red wine. The meal would easily stand up to a decent Bordeaux, Barolo, or something from the Côtes du Rhône. But remember, this is a celebration. It's not inappropriate to begin with Champagne, and there's probably no better accompaniment to matzoh ball soup than a dry sherry (a splash in the soup won't hurt, either).
If you're keeping kosher, there are plenty of kosher-certified wines to choose from that happen to be tasty, too.
Food writer Mark Bittman is the author of several cookbooks, including "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" and "Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking." His award-winning "How to Cook Everything" is currently in its 15th printing.