Please note: Jamie Geller is a freelance kosher food writer. The Orthodox Union makes no endorsements or representations regarding kashrut certification of various products/vendors referred to in her articles, blog, or web site.
Most Jewish cookbooks and Passover articles assume that we all have very special memories of our family’s Passover Seder. They prattle about how all 50 members of your extended family will happily converge in your home, where you will be waiting with a Seder meal replete with heirloom recipes and china that’s been handed down from your Great GrandBubbie from Mezibozh, or some other unpronounceable Old World location. Moreover, your house will be spotlessly clean (after months of scrubbing) and you will have successfully sorted out your Passover dishes in all three categories: meat, dairy, and that dubious entity – pareve.
Puhleeze! What if your family is like the majority of Jews today? Grandma is from Santa Barbara, and has no treasured recipes. Every year, you decide which friend’s Seder to crash, or you go to one of those events sponsored by some well-meaning organization that serves you gefilte fish from a jar and matzah that actually tastes like it was baked 3,000 years ago.
This year, you want it to be different. You decided to create a real Seder, right in your own home. But your Blackberry is devoid of Passover 911 personnel to help you! Where do you start?
I feel your pain. In fact, the first and only Seder I actually hosted was about two years ago. You don’t just stand on a chair and sing the Four Questions. There’s a lot more to it, but I discovered that it’s not as mysterious or complicated as I first thought. The experience rendered valuable tips and strategies that I can share with you.
But first, a word from our Sponsor – the One who made all this possible. Before we get caught up in the “how,” we need to think “why.” Most people regard Passover as the festival of freedom from bondage, yet ironically view it as the ultimate holiday of restrictions. After all, the mandate not to eat “leavened” foods seems to saddle us with a lot of prohibitions: no bread, no pasta, no pizza… But to me, the opposite is true. Passover teaches us that freedom means exercising our G-d-given ability to choose. Although there is no Egyptian taskmaster standing over us, we may still be enslaved, feeling the pressures that society, fashion and the media foist on us either blatantly or through our subconscious need to be like everyone else. To be truly free, we must decide what kind of lifestyle we really want, not just be dragged along with whatever is popular.
When it comes to Passover, all those “restrictions” help us prove that we have the self-control to forego what is convenient and familiar. The idea is not to suffer through eight breadless days and then pat ourselves on the back for making it through. It’s taking a beautiful holiday and making it your own – bringing meaning to the preparations and celebrating our freedom to consciously choose a path.
Of course, creating a meaningful Seder and a memorable holiday takes planning. So let’s talk about the Seder meal, keeping in mind that its purpose is to reinforce the spiritual messages of Passover and create the kind of memories your family will cherish.
First, there is the question of what kind of menu to prepare – exotic or traditional? Personally, I’m all for innovative meals most of the time. But for Passover, I lean toward familiar Jewish fare. One of the mitzvot of the Seder is to tell your children the ancient story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. I figure that since the object is to hand down this bit of our history from generation to generation, it’s proper for the food accompanying the storytelling to have a similar intergenerational charm.
Classics are called that for a reason: they have withstood the test of time and countless taste buds for generations. There are quintessential Passover dishes that are traditional, such as matzah ball soup, as well as foods that are simply “Jewish,” like gefilte fish. These may have no underlying symbolism, meaning, or connection to Passover, but we’ve come to expect them at our Seder.
If you want to go for striking new recipes, you have my support and envy for both the search and the find – but the fussing that usually goes along with their preparation can create pressure on you when you least need it. If you want the time and peace of mind to focus on the meaning of the actual Seder and the holiday, don’t go for a recipe that will overwhelm you. Make it your business to find the best recipes you can easily handle, and these are usually the tried and true classics. Simple can be delicious and elegant. Remember – we left slavery behind, and that includes the kitchen!
Stay relaxed during the Seder too. Your guests are not food critics from the New York Times, here to write an exposé of your menu. Never apologize or critique your own food in front of others — even if it didn’t turn out the way you planned. Just sit back and enjoy the experience of your own Seder.
Spiced Gefilte Fish
Gefilte fish, “the” Jewish food for Shabbos and holiday festivities, was invented by some ingenious Jewish women many generations ago to help diners avoid tangling with bones while they ate. The word itself means “filled” in Yiddish, referring to the original practice of filling the fish’s skin with ground fish. This original recipe comes straight from my recipe tester, Joy’s father-in law, a Philly native like me. It offers an interesting, unexpected flavor.
- 1 (22-oz.) loaf frozen gefilte fish
- 1 (10-oz.) bag frozen chopped onions
- 1 (1-lb.) bag frozen, crinkle cut carrots
- 2 stalks fresh celery, chopped
- ¼ teaspoon dried dill weed (or 1 sprig fresh dill)
- ¼ teaspoon dried parsley flakes (or 2 sprigs fresh parsley)
- ¼ teaspoon celery seed
- 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
- 8 to 10 capers
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 cups water
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Line 9x5x3-inch loaf pan with onions, carrots and celery.
- Rinse frozen gefilte loaf under water to remove label and parchment wrapper and place in loaf pan.
- Sprinkle dill weed, parsley, celery seed, thyme, allspice, capers, salt and pepper evenly over fish.
- Pour water in loaf pan around sides of fish and cover with foil.
- Bake at 350°F for 2 hours and 30 minutes.
- Transfer fish and vegetables to a sealable container, cover and refrigerate until cold, at least 4 hours.
Speedy Coq Au Vin
To save her newly married son from starvation, my mother-in-law, Karen, showed up one day and tactfully suggested that she and I cook a few things together. It’s a good thing she did, too. This was the first dish we tried. Her version was a huge hit, but took triple the time that this one did. Now that I’ve adapted her recipe with my shortcuts, I don’t have to cringe every time my husband requests the dish. I’m grateful to her for this, and her many kindnesses over the years.
- 1 chicken (about 3½ lbs.) cut into 8 pieces
- 8 small white onions, peeled
- 16 small white mushrooms, cleaned
- ¾ cup dry red wine
- 1 Tablespoon fresh minced parsley
- 2 teaspoons crumbled dried thyme or 4 teaspoons fresh minced thyme
- ½ teaspoon coarse black pepper
- 2/3 cup margarine, melted
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Spray a 9×13-inch pan with non-stick cooking spray.
- Rinse chicken and pat dry. Place in prepared pan. Arrange onions and mushrooms around the chicken.
- Pour wine over chicken and vegetables. Sprinkle with parsley, thyme and pepper.
- Drizzle melted margarine over chicken.
- Tuck bay leaves into wine mixture at each side of the chicken.
- Bake, uncovered, at 375°F for 1 hour and 15 minutes
Potato Kugel Cups
This delicious potato kugel is based on my friend Lauren’s recipe and she swears by using red-skin potatoes. The cup idea comes from my husband’s best friend Adam’s mom, Geanie (what a mouthful). Hubby remembers going to their house on Saturday nights and raiding the fridge for these cups. The best part about them is that every piece is a crusty corner piece, so nobody has to fight over that coveted crunch.
- ¾ cup olive oil, divided
- 3 whole eggs
- 2 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon coarse black pepper
- 6 large Idaho potatoes
- 1 large onion, quartered
- Preheat oven to 425ºF.
- Liberally oil six (6-oz.) Pyrex glass dessert dishes or custard cups. Place custard cups in a 9×13-inch disposable pan. Place the pan of cups in the oven to heat.
- Place eggs in a small bowl and beat. Add salt and pepper, mix well and set aside.
- Fill a large bowl with cold water and, as you peel potatoes, place them in the cold water to prevent browning.
- Heat remainder of oil in a small saucepan on the stove over medium-low heat.
- Cut potatoes lengthwise into halves or quarters so they fit into food processor feed tube. Process potatoes and onions using the blade that creates thin, shoestring-like strips.
- Transfer potatoes and onions to a large bowl, add egg mixture and heated oil from stovetop, mix very well.
- Remove any large pieces of potatoes or onions that weren’t processed properly.
- Remove heated cups from the oven and spoon potato mixture evenly into hot, oiled cups.
- Bake at 425ºF for 1 hour, or until the tops look crunchy and sides look golden and browned.
- Loosen edges with a knife, unmold and serve on a platter.
Tips: To make this as a potato kugel pie, bake in a 9-inch round glass baking dish for about 1 hour or longer, depending on desired crunchiness.
Jamie Geller is the best selling author of the Quick & Kosher cookbook series (Quick & Kosher Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing and Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing, Feldheim Publishers). She is also a “mompreneur” and co-founder of the Kosher Media Network, which recently launched a social network for foodies called www.JoyofKosher.com as well as the print magazine Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.