Countdown to a Passover dinner
MY 98-year-old mother calls my Passover seder a big production.
She’s right. For me, the seder is the hardest event of the year to prepare for.
By the time the 40-plus guests arrive at my home in Washington on the evening of April 6, I will let out a deep sigh of relief.
I have been the host of this Passover meal for about three decades. I’ve mixed recipes that we’ve eaten for years with new ones, like eggs that are covered in sand and baked overnight. The main course and desserts are on a buffet table. I prepare at least five variations of haroseth, a mixture of sweet fruit and nuts that symbolises the mortar used for buildings in Egypt. For the vegetarians at my table I make a vegetarian broth with matzo balls.
My seder survival tactics boil down to a few basics. Make a list. Follow it. Always accept help when offered. And remember to create your own family traditions. With my nine-day Passover countdown plan, you can give a stress-free seder for five or 50. And you can enjoy yourself.
HERE’S THE PASSOVER COUNTDOWN Nine Days Ahead (Wednesday) Start spring-cleaning your house if you haven’t done it yet.
Get organised. Make a list of what you need for the table and take inventory of silver, china and tablecloths. If you don’t have enough, borrow, buy or rent more.
Determine how many people are coming, and assign them dishes or jobs. People want to help.
Write out your menu and the ingredients needed for the seder plate (matzo, bitter herbs, haroseth, egg, greens and a roasted lamb shank bone).
Eight Days Ahead (Thursday) Call your butcher, if you are to order the meat.
Order your fish for gefilte fish.
Go online to buy your Passover props if you don’t already have them.
Make a tentative seating plan.
Seven Days ahead (Friday) If doing the seder for the first time, you may want to test any unknown recipes by making them for Sabbath dinner.
Six Days Ahead (Saturday) Do nothing. This is the day of rest. You will need it.
Five Days Ahead (Sunday) Clean your kitchen. I do a spring-cleaning of shelves, drawers and all surfaces.
Other people go as far as covering all of their counters or even having two different kitchens.
Buy your ingredients for chicken soup and brisket. Make them and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare your matzo ball mix and refrigerate overnight.
Four Days Ahead (Monday) Skim the fat off the brisket. Cut the brisket on the bias and freeze it in a casserole that you can bring to the table.
Skim the fat off the chicken soup; save it for the matzo balls. Then freeze the broth.
Make your matzo balls and freeze them on a cookie sheet. Then toss them into a freezer bag.
Three Days Ahead (Tuesday) Make your haroseth.
Make a compote if you are serving one and refrigerate.
Roast the shank bone for the seder plate.
I put it on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, set on broil so it burns. Freeze it in the foil.
Make your horseradish sauce, either from store-bought horseradish or from the roots in your garden. Make sure you wear goggles and gloves when grinding fresh horseradish.
Two Days Ahead (Wednesday) Remove anything that contains yeast, flour, leavening or legume products, depending on your custom. I leave these items in bins covered in tape, put them in the garage or give them away.
Make desserts, freezing or refrigerating as needed.
Finish your grocery shopping.
Set the table.
Finish your seating chart and write out place cards.
One Day Ahead (Thursday) Make gefilte fish.
Boil asparagus, make salad dressing, wash and dry lettuce for salads, blanch vegetables.
Start defrosting brisket and soup.
Make cooked vegetable dishes.
Bake your eggs overnight.
Day of the Seder (Friday) Assemble your seder plate.
Peel all the eggs except one, letting them rest in salted water. Light a match under the unshelled egg to make it look as if it is burned, a symbol of the destroyed temple.
Pile matzo on plates and put three in a matzo cover, break one in half and hide the other piece, the afikomen.
Make last-minute dishes like chremsel.
Start reheating brisket and soup.
Get dressed, take a deep breath, greet your guests and enjoy.
PEAR HAROSETH WITH PECANS AND FIGS TIME: 10 minutes, plus 1 hour’s refrigeration INGREDIENTS: 1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped 1 cup dried figs, finely chopped 2 cups finely diced just-ripe unpeeled pears 1/2 cup peeled, finely diced, crisp and slightly tart apple 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 3 tablespoons honey Zest and juice of half a lemon.
METHOD: 1. In a glass or ceramic bowl, lightly toss the pecans, figs, pears and apple.
2. Add the cinnamon, honey, lemon zest and juice. Toss lightly to blend well. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
YIELD: About 4 cups.
HORSERADISH AND BEET TARTARE TIME : 1 hour 15 minutes, plus chilling INGREDIENTS: 2 pounds (about 3 large) beets, trimmed but not peeled 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme 4 ounces (about 1 cup) peeled and roughly chopped fresh horseradish root 2 tablespoons white vinegar 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice.
METHOD: 1. Heat oven to 375 degrees.
Place about one inch water in a small roasting pan or baking dish. Rub the beets with one tablespoon olive oil, then add them to the pan. Break up the sprigs of thyme and sprinkle them over the beets.
2. Bake the beets until tender in the centre when tested with a knife, about one hour. Remove from water, allow to cool, then peel and cut into large chunks.
3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the horseradish and vinegar. Process until finely chopped; do not puree. Add the beets and remaining olive oil. Pulse until beets are coarsely chopped; do not puree.
Transfer to a bowl and add the salt, pepper and lemon juice to taste.
4. Cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Adjust seasonings as needed. If desired, serve with gefilte fish.
YIELD: About 4 cups.
MY MATZO BALLS TIME: 1 hour 15 minutes, plus 3 hours’ or overnight refrigeration INGREDIENTS: 4 large eggs 1/4 cup schmaltz (rendered chicken fat), coconut oil or vegetable oil (kosher for Passover) 1/4 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock 1 cup matzo meal 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, dill or cilantro 1 teaspoon salt, more for cooking Black pepper.
METHOD: 1. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, schmaltz, stock, matzo meal, nutmeg, ginger and parsley. Season with one teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper.
Gently mix with a whisk or spoon. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, about three hours or overnight.
2. To shape and cook the matzo balls, fill a wide, deep pan with lightly salted water and bring to a boil. With wet hands, take some of the mix and mold it into the size and shape of a Ping-Pong ball. Gently drop it into the boiling water, repeating until all the mix is used.
3. Cover the pan, reduce heat to a lively simmer and cook matzo balls about 50 minutes for al dente, longer for light. If desired, the cooked matzo balls can be transferred to chicken or vegetable soup and served immediately. Alternatively, they may be placed on a baking sheet and frozen, then transferred to a freezer bag and kept frozen until a few hours before serving; reheat in chicken or vegetable soup or broth.
YIELD: About 15 matzo balls.
MY MATZO CHREMSEL TIME: 1/2 hour, plus 1/2 hour’s refrigeration INGREDIENTS: 3 plain unsalted matzos, broken into bite-size pieces, soaked in cold water for one minute and gently squeezed dry 2 tablespoons dried currants 2 tablespoons almonds, coarsely chopped 2 tablespoons dried apricots or prunes, coarsely chopped 3 large eggs, separated 1/4 cup matzo meal 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup granulated sugar, more for sprinkling if desired 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon Zest and juice of one lemon Vegetable oil (kosher for Passover), for frying Confectioners’ sugar (kosher for Passover), for sprinkling if desired.
METHOD: 1. In a medium bowl, combine the matzo, currants, almonds, apricots, egg yolks, matzo meal, salt, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, cinnamon, lemon zest and juice. Mix lightly and set aside.
2. Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, mix egg whites just until stiff peaks form; do not overbeat. Fold into the matzo mixture. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
3. Set aside a plate lined with paper towels. Fill a wok or saute pan with two inches vegetable oil. Place over medium- high heat and bring to 375 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
Working in batches, carefully spoon the batter, one heaping tablespoon at a time, into the hot oil, without crowding the pan. Fry until golden and crisp, 30 seconds to one minute a side. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.
4. Serve warm, if possible, sprinkled with the granulated sugar or confectioners’ sugar. If desired, chremsel may be reheated in a 350-degree oven just before serving.
YIELD: 12 to 15 chremsel.