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The Seder Meal: A Cooking Marathon of Heroic Proportions

March 19, 2010

Editor's Note: We don't love, or usually use, the Yiddish term shiksa, which, though used affectionately in many families, has a negative original meaning. We do love Tori Avey, though--a serious cook and a meticulous collector of Jewish culinary secrets and recipes. She has chosen to reclaim the word shiksa. Does that work for you? Tell us about it, and share your seder making tips.

I've been cooking our family Passover seder meal for almost a decade, but this year will be my first time cooking it as a Jewish woman. Not long after I met my Israeli-born fiancé, my nickname became "The Shiksa In The Kitchen." Until a few days ago, I was a gentile woman who passionately loved Jewish food. On Ta'anit Esther, I stepped into the mikveh and made the whole thing official. I became a Jew.

Having a gentile background hasn't stopped me from fully embracing the seder experience; I've been cooking enormous seders for years. In the spirit of Passover, we open our home to friends, family, and acquaintances that have nowhere else to go. Sometimes we end up with fifty guests or more. It's exhausting, but we always make it work. Why? Because Passover is a time to connect with G_d, with tradition, with our sense of compassion. It's a time for family, friends, and sharing a blessed meal with the people we care about.

Let's be honest--it's also a cooking marathon of heroic proportions! Preparing a delicious, unleavened meal for fifty is not an easy task. You might be wondering, how does one Shiksa feed all of those hungry Jewish guests? The simple answer is, by jumping right in and being unafraid to make mistakes. My first few seders were not exactly elegant. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn't at the seder table. Over the years, slowly and surely, I became more confident in my cooking skills. I've learned people's likes, dislikes, and expectations. As time went on, I actually looked forward to cooking the seder. It's a fun challenge, an opportunity to show off the new kosher dishes I've learned over the past year. It's also a lot easier when you know what to expect.

For those of you who are looking for a little seder guidance, I've compiled a list of helpful tips that will help you plan your Passover feast.

 

  • Find out the kosher preferences of your guests before you begin planning the meal. While not every family keeps kosher, some Jews become stricter about it on holidays. Don't be afraid to ask; your guests will appreciate the time you took to consider their preferences. If it's your first time preparing a kosher meal, check out my kosher primer.
  • This one might seem obvious, but just in case anybody reading this is brand new to the seder experience--do not serve any leavened bread products (known as chametz) at the Seder table. The definition of what is considered chametz varies among cultures; if you're unclear about which products are forbidden, ask a friend or family member who is familiar with keeping kosher for Passover.
  • Consider mixing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish fare at the Seder table. This practice, known as Ashkephardic cooking, has become increasingly popular over the past few decades. Ashkenazi food is by far the most traditional here in America, but a full Ashkenazi meal can be pretty heavy. Throwing some Sephardic dishes into the mix allows you to provide lighter, Mediterranean-style alternatives for more health-conscious guests.
  • Prepare certain dishes a day in advance, like casseroles and desserts. Most kugel recipes can be assembled and refrigerated prior to cooking, so all you have to do is put them in the oven before your meal. You can also prepare the brisket a day ahead of time; many people feel that the flavor of brisket is enhanced after marinating in the refrigerator. Planning ahead will make the day of the Seder a lot less stressful.
  • Never host a seder without a delicious brisket as the centerpiece, unless you have a very health-conscious or vegetarian family. I learned that one the hard way. One year, I tried to make a lighter Seder with chicken and fish? let's just say it didn't go over very well. Ever since, brisket has been the centerpiece of our Passover meal.
  • Make sure you have somebody fluent in Hebrew to read the Haggadah and lead the prayers. Reciting the Haggadah is a very important part of the Passover meal; reading it out loud helps to keep Jewish history alive for future generations. If you have people at the table who are unfamiliar with the Passover story, ask your prayer leader to explain the meaning of each passage as you go along.
  • If there are kids at your seder, don't forget to include some special touches to keep them engaged during the Haggadah reading. In our family, I bring out a special set of colorful goblets for the Seder meal; each glass is a different color, so the kids are always wondering which glass they'll get. I also enlist the help of a younger child to set the cup for Elijah. And of course, don't forget to hide the afikoman, a piece of matzah wrapped in decorative cloth. When the kids look bored or tired, enlist their help to find the afikoman. Some families like to reward the child who finds it first; we prefer to let the kids know that when it's found, they will all be rewarded with something special (candy or prizes). This makes the hunt a team effort.
  • When in doubt, make more food. Passover is a time to indulge in all kinds of delicious flavors, without worrying too much about the waistline. Better to err on the side of caution and make extra food ? you can always send leftovers home with guests, or feed your own family for the next few days. Goodness knows you won't feel like cooking after the seder is over!
  • One final tip--make sure you have a fabulous pot of matzah ball soup on hand. Nothing says Passover like matzah balls. If you don't have a great recipe, try my Shiksa Matzah Ball Soup. It's always a hit at our seder table!

 

Now that I'm officially a Jewish cook, I can't help but wonder if my Passover meal will taste different--more spiritual, somehow. I believe that food carries energy with it; the most delicious meals are cooked from the heart. One thing is certain, this year's seder will be much more meaningful. We'll be celebrating my induction into the Jewish faith. Nothing could make me feel happier or more fulfilled.

SHIKSA MATZAH BALL SOUP

Ingredients
1 or 2 whole chickens, 4-5 pounds total, including neck and liver
4 celery stalks with leaves, chopped into thirds
4 whole carrots, chopped into thirds; or 1 1/2 cups of baby carrots
1 large brown onion rinsed and halved, outer skin intact
5 sprigs of fresh curly-leafed parsley
1 tbsp whole black peppercorns
½ tbsp whole cloves
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs of fresh dill
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Lemon juice (optional)

 

You will also need:

Matzah ball mix (I prefer Manischewitz)
Vegetable oil
Eggs

Note: Check package to determine how many eggs and the amount of oil you will need for 10-12 matzah balls. If making a larger pot of soup, prepare two packages of matzah ball mix, for about 20 matzah balls.

Serves 8-12, depending on the size of your stock pot.Kosher Key: Kosher for Passover if kosher chicken meat is used-- must be soaked, salted and prepared according to laws of kashrut.

Rinse the chicken, place in a tall stockpot along with the neck and liver. Cover the chicken with water, reserving about 3 inches of space at the top of the pot. Bring to a slow boil. As the chicken cooks, skim foam from the surface. Add celery, carrots, onion, parsley, peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves, and 5 sprigs of the dill to the pot. Add one tablespoon of salt, stir till all the vegetables are moistened. Cover pot, reduce heat to medium, and allow pot to simmer for two hours. Mince the remaining 5 sprigs of dill and set aside.

After two hours, allow the soup to cool for twenty minutes. While soup is cooling, prepare the matzah ball mix according to package directions and place in refrigerator.

Take larger chicken pieces out of the broth and set them on a plate. Discard the vegetables and chicken neck/liver. Strain the broth with a mesh strainer to remove all the small chicken bits, veggies and herbs. Pull meat from the chicken in bite-sized pieces and return to the broth. Add the minced dill to the stockpot and return the soup to a slow boil. Taste the broth. Add more salt, if desired--be sure to add slowly, don't over-salt!

Remove prepared matzah ball mix from refrigerator. Form mixture into 1-inch balls and place gently into the boiling soup. Don't make the balls too big, they'll expand a lot in the broth. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until matzah balls have fully expanded.

When soup is finished, stir gently to separate any dill that might have gathered on the matzah balls. Serve garnished with a sprig of dill or a slice of lemon. If you don't plan on serving the whole pot of soup at one sitting, make sure you remove the matzah balls from the broth and refrigerate them in a separate container; if you don't, they'll turn mushy.

Shiksa Hint: To make straining easier, tie up all the stock ingredients in cheesecloth before covering with water. When the stock is finished, just remove the cheesecloth and unwrap the chicken. You can also cook the stock in a steel multi-pot with a mesh strainer insert (fine-mesh strainers with large holes will let the spices seep through). After cooking the chicken and vegetables, remove the strainer slowly. Both of these methods will allow you to skip straining the broth into another pot!

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Of the culture of Jews with family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. "Dessert" in Greek, it refers to the matzah that is hidden at the beginning of the Passover seder and which, customarily, children look for and ransom back to the adults before the conclusion. Hebrew for "telling," the text that outlines the order of the Passover seder. There are many, many versions of this book, which dates back almost 2,000 years. Because we are commanded to expand upon the story, the Haggadah contains ancient interpretations, as well as stage directions and explanations, for the Passover meal. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "leavened," foods that are not kosher for Passover, such as bread and wheat-based products. It refers to products that are both made from one of five types of grain and have been combined with water and left to stand raw (rise) for longer than eighteen minutes. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew word for an unleavened bread, traditionally eaten during the holiday of Passover. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Yiddish word for a savory or sweet pudding made from either noodles, potatoes or matzah. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Tori Avey writes a popular Jewish cooking blog, The Shiksa In the Kitchen. She is also a food columnist for the Jewish Journal. Tori is currently working on her debut cookbook, "The Shiksa In The Kitchen." Find out more about her at www.theshiksa.com.

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