By the time we arrived in Palm Harbor Saturday night and had our seafood feast (which, as Evan pointed out, could not have been less kosher), Ronnie had already been cooking for Passover for a full day. She was expecting 31 guests for Monday night’s Seder and you do not throw together a dinner for 31 over night, or even over two nights. There was serious work involved.
With our husbands off for a day of golf, we headed to the bustling kosher butcher in St. Pete early Sunday morning and then back home to cook. And cook. And cook. Can’t think when I’ve had more fun and learned more.
Quick history lesson: Passover is the holiday that celebrates the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Eygpt. They left for their new life in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to wait for yeast to rise, so they ate unleavened bread. Today Passover is marked by the clearing of the house (either literally or symbolically) of all yeasted bread and grain products except matzo (a flat cracker bread), and by a dinner (Seder) celebrating the Exodus on the first night (or two nights) of the weeklong holiday. Since no yeasted bread appears on the menu, matzo can make an appearance at the Seder in several guises -- soup dumplings (matzo balls), sweet or savory puddings (kugels), and desert (matzoh brittle, among others.)
During the Seder, the story of the Exodus is told in the form of the Haggadah – a script of readings and responses that narrate the story and the rituals associated with it. There are different Haggadahs that include varying perspectives and levels of detail. (There is even a 30 minute Haggadah for those celebrating in a hurry.) Ronnie and Evan use one that is more academic than most. I am ashamed to say that the upshot of our lengthy discussion about this was a tune I could not get out of my heretical brain. I was silently singing “In Haggadah da vita, baby” for days. Geez. What a bad guest.
Anyway, before we arrived, Ronnie had already made the chicken broth for the matzo ball soup, and boiled innumerable eggs to serve with salt water (to symbolize spring and rebirth.) So we began by making a flanken tsimmes. Flanken is a fatty cut of beef, akin to shortribs, and tsimmes is a sweet mélange of vegetables to which Ronnie adds beef following the practice of her ex-mother-in-law. Because making the dish is such a production, its name has come to be synonymous with making a big fuss. Ronnie describes it all beautifully here, so I won’t add anything to her account except to say that it was fabulous – that “Aha meat moment” I had been waiting for. Incredibly succulent, falling-off-the-bone meat, sweetened with honey, sugar, and maple syrup but with all the natural saltiness of the beef. Wow. A new adventure in braising (that would be, what IV?) (Just as an aside, if you make Ronnie’s recipe, beware. It serves 30.)
Once we got the flanken in the oven (which required the peeling of many, many carrots and sweet potatoes on my part), we worked on the Haroset – a fruit, nut and wine mixture that is eaten to signify the mortar used to build the pyramids. We made two kinds – Sephardic and Ashkenazic – and the differences, while real, escape me. One had all kinds of dried fruits in it along with apples and nuts; the other was mostly apples, nuts, wine and spices. All I know is, between the two, it required the peeling of many, many apples on my part.
The tedium of all that peeling was soothing in an odd way. Sitting, peeling, talking to Ronnie about what we were doing, what it meant to her and her family, interspersing it all with a little gossip and stories about people we knew and had known for years -- it was an experience new to me, yet strangely familiar (maybe a quirk of genetic memory?) Around the world and through the ages women have sat together in the kitchen making tamales, meatballs, matzo balls, eggrolls, or other labor intensive, time-honored foods. I’d had a taste of this as a little girl in the kitchen of my Lebanese grandmother, stuffing grape leaves and making meat pies, but this communal, traditional female experience hadn’t much come my way as an adult and I loved it.
Midafternoon we worked on setting the tables (four of them) with beautiful family china, wine goblets Ronnie and Evan have collected over the years, a variety of silver. Just setting formal tables for 31 takes hours, leaving us not-that-long to make the matzo balls, our last task of the day.
How do you make matzo balls? The prevailing joke goes “first you catch a matzo,” but really it’s just matzo meal (ground up matzos), spices, egg, oil and a tiny bit of club soda to keep it all fluffy. (There is an apparent debate in the matzo ball world about whether matzo balls should be soft and tender inside, or dense and hockey-puck-like. We were soft-siders.) The matzo mixture is rolled into golf-ball sized spheres and poached in water, whereupon they get bigger and fatter. Then they are set aside – the next day they would be added to Ronnie’s chicken soup (rich and delicious and thickened with pureed carrot and parsnip) with egg noodles (literally egg since no wheat was allowed – just thin egg omelets rolled up and sliced into “noodles.”) I’d never had matzo balls before (don’t ask me how I avoided this growing up on Long Island. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I am a picky eater?) Anyway, the joke was on me. They were fantastic.
That pretty well accounted for Sunday. We ate really excellent pizza for dinner and crashed.
Monday started early. I was in charge of roasting vegetables, which at last was something I knew how to do.Broccoli and cauliflower, browned but still slightly crunchy, dressed with a bit of chardonnay vinegar and olive oil, could be made early in the day and served at room temp, freeing up the oven for later. New potatoes could be roasted in chicken fat skimmed from the soup and made ahead as well (and heated up right before serving.) Thirty odd plates were garnished with lettuce and roasted carrots, and refrigerated, waiting for a last minute addition of gefilte fish.
Gefilte fish. The kind we had came out of jars, specially ordered from the butcher. Ronnie had thought about making her own, but couldn’t come by the fresh pike and carp that are required for what are essentially fish meatballs – just ground up fish and spices and (of course) matzo meal. Along with matzo balls, gefilte fish was something else I had managed to avoid in a childhood full of Jewish friends. Truthfully, I was sure I would hate it even as an adult, but I found that, liberally doused with fresh horseradish (grated at the last minute, by Ronnie, to keep it pungent), it was really wonderful. Maybe anything is wonderful with enough horseradish, but I doubt it. This stuff was good.
While I was fussing with lettuce and plates, Ronnie was roasting fat kosher chickens (totally different from the non kosher variety, by the way. Kosher chickens aren’t raised much more humanely than other chickens, but they are essentially brined in processing and they are juicy and flavorful beyond what eaters of commercial chickens can imagine.)
Finishing touches to the tables, gorgeous flowers from Ronnie’s friends. Evan’s mom came bearing desserts -- a nut cake (no flour) for Evan’s birthday (that same day) and matzo brittle (which is amazingly good – matzo layered with chocolate, caramel and nuts.) As the guests arrived, more desserts did too – a fruit filled pavlova and more matzo brittle and a really tasty molded Jell-O salad.
By 6:30 we were sitting down, all 31 of us. Evan had taped a long time line on the wall, and he spent a few minutes putting the Exodus into historical context before beginning the readings. We ate parsley with salt water, to signify spring, haroset to signify the mortar, horseradish to signify bitter herbs. With words and song they told the story of a long ago flight to freedom, and the modern day responsibility to avoid the chains of our own making. Among the guests was the Cantor from Ronnie’s and Evan’s synagogue and she sang, along with her two small daughters. Beautiful, beautiful Hebrew words, not a one of which I could understand.
Celebrating the holiday of another’s tradition was not unlike listening to those pure, lovely voices singing in a language so foreign to my own. I could sense and respect the powerful emotions, experience the community and camaraderie in the room, eat the delicious food, feel welcomed by all, and still be on the outside, looking in. I am not Jewish, in fact with my Arabic roots, I suppose some would say I am really, really not Jewish. But for this one lovely day, I truly wished I were.