There are many Jewish holidays throughout the year and each one has its special dishes – sweet things at Rosh Hashana for a good year ahead, fried foods at Chanukah to remind us about a miracle at the temple so long ago (but that’s another story for another time), dairy meals at Shavuot, the Spring Harvest…etc.. But the Passover Seder is really the only ritual meal that Jews eat – bitter herbs in salt water, hard boiled eggs (the cycle of life), a roasted shank bone, haroset (symbolic paste made of nuts, dried fruits, and some liquid to get it to be the consistency of mortar used by the Pharaoh’s slaves to build the Pyramids). Every family has their own traditions about what constitutes bitter herbs – we use parsley and horseradish root even though it’s not a herb. And even haroset varies greatly around the world, using local nuts and dried fruits. Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Kitchenhas 7 kinds! Yemenite, Russian, Persian, Ashkenazai, Surinam, Venetian, and Egyptian. Ours is kind of a mix of many versions I’ve tried over the years – if I like something, I add it! But, naturally I digress - back to the ritual meal. If you’ve seen the movie The Ten Commandments, you know the story. We speak of slavery and freedom and, especially when J & E are at the table- sing songs about the odyssey. All that before we get to eat the real meal!
For me the best part of Jewish holidays is the preparation....figuring out which recipes to make with all your cookbooks scattered around you and little bits of paper book marking potential recipes....organizing the serving platters (this one for the fish - no, then what will I put the kugel in?...), inviting guests, and of course…the cooking. Like me, my daughter likes to do as much as she can the day of the Seder…we’re not big on freezing and defrosting. So by the time I arrived to help in the kitchen (my fabulous son-in-law E picked us up at the airport), she and her friend Jason had already cooked up a storm. J had made gefilte fish (poached fish cakes) a couple of days before so the house wouldn’t smell fishy and the chicken soup the day before (it always tastes better the next day and provides the opportunity to skim off any fat that is now congealed).
When we walked in the door the house at noon the house already smelled wonderful. The matzo stuffed roast lamb, studded with rosemary and garlic was slightly underdone and ready for slicing – underdone so the warm up would make it perfect at dinner time. The stuffed chickens – J called it Sephardic (Jews from the Middle East, as opposed to Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe like our family did) and I called it curry scented – because it was! -were ready to be carved. The carrot tzimmis (compote), a classic in our home was ready. It’s a sweet compote of carrots, dried apricots and raisins baked in the oven and the secret ingredient is ginger marmalade. A huge dish of matzo stuffing kugel was ready as well. After all, the stuffing in the chickens wouldn’t be enough to for everyone – at least that’s always our concern. Although I've yet to have anyone leave the table hungry.
You’d think our cooking chores would be done, but you’d be wrong. First of all, J had to wait for me to bring the Nyafat – an all vegetable replacement for chicken fat that has a distinct flavor we love in the potato kugel and the matzo balls for the chicken soup. Really it’s sort of like Crisco in texture, but we buy the onion flavored variety so it’s used in savory rather than sweet dishes. Still left to cook – potato kugel, matzo balls, chopped liver (a favorite of E’s family and one of mine too), salad to go along with the chopped liver and gefilte fish course, haroset and hard boiled eggs for the ritual part of the meal.
And, of course – pots, pans and dishes, dishes and more dishes to clean up in the process!!!
Another element of hosting a Passover Seder (or any large dinner gathering) in our family, and I think many others, is the borrowing of extra dishes, cups, more chairs, perhaps a table and an extra coffee maker. I still remember going to my grandparents as a kid and the "table" ran from almost the front door of the apartment right through to the window at the far end of the living room - different heights and widths along the way and covered in a variety of cloths. Finally the table is set, the guests have arrived and it’s time to start the feast. So here’s the menu for the real meal, in case you’re interested.
Gefilte Fish and Horseradish sauce
Chopped Beef Liver (made with lots of caramelized onions to make it silky)
Mesclun Salad with Strawberries & Grapes and Balsamic Vinaigrette (similar to what we had but without the nuts)
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
Rosemary & Garlic-studded Roast Lamb with Matzo Stuffing (the recipe is one I make without the stuffing, but pretty good just the same)
Sephardic Curry Scented Stuffed Chickens
Mushroom Farfel Kugel
Carrot Tsimmis (scroll down to the bottom for the recipe)
Broccoli – oops it was forgotten in the microwave and never made it to the table. Don't worry it became a part of the brunch menu.
Assorted Passover candies and chocolates
Aviva’s matzo toffee crisps
The only thing missing at the table was S – J’s sister who’s in Chile. She did call and she was there in spirit, but we wished she could have been there in person.
Related links: Food and Drink recipes