Festival Meals

Jewish festival meals take a very long time to prepare. To illustrate, I was on my feet, in the kitchen cooking for 16 hours straight this past Sunday evening. It’s my own fault, in part, because I should have been cooking and freezing throughout March so there wouldn’t be a last-minute crush. However, the bronchitis and coughing took so much out of me, I didn’t have the time or desire to cook other than preparing dinners here in The Zone.

What I cooked on Sunday sounds like the list from Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar:

  • two Spinach and Vegetable Kugels
  • two Apple Matzah Kugels
  • one Ashkenazi Charoset
  • one Sephardi Charoset
  • one Orange Cake
  • one extra batch of chicken stock (nearly 2 gallons)
  • 18 hard-boiled eggs
  • one batch of Fruit Compote in Red Wine
  • Tzimmes

Some explanations of what things are and why we eat them at Passover; the Passover Haggadah (story and prayerbook read at the Passover table) commands Jews to eat certain foods at this time of year. A kugel is a souffle- or pudding-like dish. It is often made with noodles or potatoes. At Passover time, kugels made with matzah farfel (bits) or matzah meal and fruits or vegetables are popular side dishes. Charoset is a mixture of fruits, nuts and wine and is required by the Haggadah. Traditional Ashkenazi Charoset calls for sweet apples, chopped walnuts, cinnamon and sweet wine. I hate it. I made my version with Granny Smith apples, walnuts, cinnamon and dry red wine. Sephardi (Mediterranean and Asian) Charoset is a mixture of dried fruits, walnuts, cinnamon, honey and wine. My Sephardi Charoset was a big hit!

Jews do not use any leavening at Passover, so cakes are always made with lots of eggs and sugar plus ground walnuts or almonds and other flavors. Passover desserts are notoriously dry, so fruit compotes are also popular to add flavor and moisture. We eat hard-boiled eggs at Passover to symbolize re-birth and fertility, but we dip them in salt water to remind us of our ancestors’ plight in Egypt. As the Haggadah says, “Once we were slaves. Now we are free.”

Although not prescribed in the Haggadah, chicken soup is an essential part of the Seder meal for many Jews, especially those of Ashkenazi [Eastern European] heritage. –The New York Times Passover Cookbook (Linda Amster, ed.)

If it’s Passover in my house, there is homemade chicken soup. I use big, fat chickens, fresh herbs and spices, fresh vegetables, and I cook it all day. I strain the soup and chill it, then I de-fat it so there are no greasy globules floating on the top. All that is left is goldene yoich, a rich golden broth. No matzah ball mix around here either; I make them all from scratch. I make them light and fluffy – the way I like them – not leaden and heavy like WineGuy likes them. And, finally a comment on tzimmes. As I learned shortly after my marriage, tzimmes means different things to Jews depending on their country of origin.

In my family, tzimmes is a long-stewed mixture of carrots, raisins and brown sugar, a Polish tradition. In WineGuy’s family, tzimmes is a mixture of short ribs, sweet potatoes and prunes cooked dead, a Lithuanian tradition. A funny tzimmes story: shortly after we were married the In-Laws came to visit us. MIL was so excited to bring her boy a big pot of homemade tzimmes. She walked in and announced, “I brought tzimmes!” I was so excited; I could already taste those carrots and raisins. When I opened the pot, I croaked, “What the hell is this crap? This isn’t tzimmes. Where are the carrots? Where are the raisins?” WineGuy gently rebuked reminded me, “This is the we make tzimmes in my family.” I smiled graciously and removed my foot from my mouth and vowed never to cook that gut-busting stuff in my kitchen. As an aside, MIL and FIL arrived here this weekend bearing tzimmes. It went right in the freezer; WineGuy can eat it sometime when I’m not around. He doesn’t have the heart to tell his mother he doesn’t really like it. Touché!

This is what I served for our first Passover seder of 2007 (reviews):

Hard-Boiled Eggs with Salt Water: the water was too salty
Gefilte Fish with Sliced Carrots, served on a bed of lettuce (prepared according to my family’s recipe)
Matzah Ball Soup: homemade stock and matzah balls made with schmaltz, from scratch: needed more seasoning
Braised Brisket, trimmed and de-fatted, with jus: moist and delicious
Spinach Vegetable Kugel: not great and stricken from the recipe file
Roasted Asparagus: great
Orange Cake, dusted with confectioner’s suger: a surprise hit
Fruit Compote in Red Wine: another winner

In addition to cooking all that food and setting the table and having to endure Florida BIL and his insipid common-law wife (another story completely) — “We don’t like your Passover wine, We want the [disgustingly sweet Manischewitz] wine we brought.” And, “Why didn’t you serve the sliced bananas and papaya we brought from our garden?” As well as her matzah farfel stuffing that was wrong in so many ways: greasy, swimming in butter (not appropriate with a meat meal), and cooked dead. I also washed all the dishes: fine china, crystal, silverware, pots, pans, everything. Why? Because it was also the night of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Game, which WineGuy wanted to watch. After starting around 9:00 a.m. that day, I finally sat down around 10:30 p.m. in time to watch the second half of the game. I took two Advil as a nightcap.

The next morning I crawled out of bed and into the kitchen to make breakfast for everyone. I made 5 matzah brei (rhymes with “dry”). A matzah brei is a “pancake” made with scrambled eggs and softened, crumbled matzah. You eat it savory (salt, pepper, butter) or sweet (cinnamon, sugar, syrup, butter). SIL and BIL arrived over an hour later, and we finally sat down to breakfast. My FIL, the laziest Jewish man you’ve ever met, wandered in another hour later and headed straight to our pool. He would eat later. Thankyouverymuch for making me serve twice, clean up twice, and cater to your old ass. In the meantime, I was scrambling to baste my turkey and tend to dinner for the second seder.

Here is what I served for the second Passover seder of 2007:

Hard-Boiled Eggs with Salt Water: the water was only a little salty today
Gefilte Fish with Sliced Carrots, served on a bed of lettuce
Matzah Ball Soup
Roast Turkey: moist and delicious, including the white meat
Apple Matzah Kugel: delicious and popular all around
Roasted Balsamic Vegetables: great flavor, except for the endive, now struck from the recipe
Orange Cake
Passover Brownies: dried out nasty things sent by WineGuy’s religious brother
Coconut Macaroons, by Manischewitz: boring and leaden, but traditional

I’d had enough cooking and didn’t feel like baking for the second night. People hated those store-bought brownies and were looking for more of my Orange Cake. Yay! Afterwards, we all cleared the table, and WineGuy did the dishes. FIL actually offered to help: I gave him a dishtowel and a chair and said, “Howdja like to dry some dishes?” He did a very nice job. MIL helped, too, although she is forbidden to touch the crystal. She drops things. ‘Nuff said.

This morning, I took my time getting into the kitchen because I knew I didn’t have to cook much today. I made one fresh matzah brei for my in-laws and warmed up yesterday’s for the kids. My in-laws left in the late morning, and I’ve been here with the boys. They helped me put away the good dishes and break down the dining room table. They wiped the kitchen table and vacuumed the floor, so I let them go on the computer. Now, they’re watching TV, which allows me to catch up with my blog-faithful.

To my Jewish friends and readers: I wish you a Happy and Kosher Passover.
To my Christian friends and readers: I wish you a blessed Easter.
To all: May Spring come soon to your corner of the world and with it the promise of new beginnings.

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6 thoughts on “Festival Meals

  1. Wow, I am impressed! What a wonderful job you’re doing with this blog! You are definately proving that you have all of the skills to succeed as a writer yourself. Seriously.

    I thought of celebrating a form of Passover for my family, so they are familiar with it, but Hubby said it was waaaaaay too much work if it wasn’t required by your religion. But still, without all of the kosher preparations, it would still be interesting. Maybe tomorrow.

    We’re planning a simple Easter celebration, duck x 2 for our crowd. I still have to plan the rest of the dinner.

    BTW, when you get your first review written, after everything slows down, I’d love to see it. Let me know!

    Happy Passover!

    Love, Mary

  2. my goodness – I’m exhausted just reading this, but you’ve got my tastebuds going 🙂

    the FIL BIL MIL stories made me laugh, sigh and groan in recognition of my relatives at Christmas

    we’re taking a break – four whole days off work and away from the building site – staying in a nice apartment at the Port in Melbourne thanks to a friend’s generosity

    a blessed Easter indeed !

  3. That’s an impressive amount of cooking! I think I would have collapsed from exhaustion after the first day.

    Thank you for explaining everything. I’m fascinated by the various traditions. That’s quite a difference in the tzimmes.

    All this talk of food has, as usual, made me hungry. I’m fairly certain I gain weight whenever I visit your blog and you’re writing about food. You cook up some yummy sounding stuff. 🙂

  4. I had a hunch that you would serve something other than that Manischewitz wine.

    When I lived in Urbana there was a group that I regularly spent Passover with. I would always bring the gefilte because (a) I didn’t have to cook kosher and (b) my cats *LOVED* it so I always saved them out a piece.

  5. Thanks for sharing this! So fascinating to learn the backgrounds and food central to the celebrations – and to find out about the differences in traditions! Sounds like your family was well fed and cared for by you as always.

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