Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Different Night: The Menu

When we decided on the spur of the moment, a few days before Passover, to host a seder for eight at our house, I said to myself, "Self, this seder thing is going to be easy.  And your food is going to be awesome.  You are such a balabusta."  I then pinched myself in the ass and told myself that I was looking hot that day, even though I'm pretty sure I hadn't showered or brushed my teeth.

I was, of course, being totally delusional.

Hosting a seder is NOT easy.

First of all, the shopping is ridiculous: I and every other semi-observant Jew in Boston converged on the Butcherie, the kosher market in Brookline, the Friday morning before Passover (like many businesses catering to Jews in Brookline, the Butcherie closes for shabbat, so you gotta get there before 3pm on Friday or else you are screwed).  It was a clusterfuck.  I threw two bottles of Gold's horseradish, a giant 5-pack box of matza, and three frozen gefilte fish into my basket; elbowed little old Hassidic ladies out of the way to get to the cash register; and decided I was going to do the rest of my shopping at (the only slightly less crowded) Trader Joe's.

Second, the non-food-related preparations are in and of themselves time consuming: How is it possible that we seemed to be missing at least one of every kind of dish, bowl, and flatware in the house?  I had to make two trips to Crate and Barrel in one day.  Not to mention cleaning the house, purging all of the bread and leavened products ("chametz") from our kitchen, and putting together the readings for the actual storytelling portion of the seder.

Third, I put in a solid day and a half in the kitchen, and a good half day before that researching recipes.  Since I knew I wanted to serve chicken as the main course for the non-vegetarians, the rest of the items had to be parve (meaning non-dairy), because it's against the rules of kashrut (keeping kosher) to mix milk and meat.  (We don't totally follow this in our day-to-day life, but we wanted to be respectful to our more observant guests.)  Also, I wanted to make sure that all the food could be made before the guests arrived, so that I could help lead the seder.  I planned a menu of items that I thought could be served room temperature or easily and quickly reheated:

For our first course, I made a pretty darn good vegetarian "chicken soup" with matzoh balls by roasting parsnips, onions, carrots, and celery to use as the "base" of my homemade vegetable stock, then giving the stock a "chickeny" taste with the addition of some Knorr's "chicken" bouillion cubes.  I then made my sister-in-law's secret family matzoh ball recipe.

Our second course was salad and gefilte fish.  Because I can't deal with the aesthetics of gefilte fish (I swear it looks like pickled socks), my husband helped with prepping the fish course.  By the way, the gefilte fish that you see at the supermarket in a jar is especially nasty; it is suspended in a viscous "liquid" that is about as appetizing as eating boogers.  We get instead frozen gefilte fish.  You poach it for 90 minutes in a bath of carrots, onions, and peppercorns; refridgerate it for a few hours; then slice and serve with green onions, tomatoes, and horseradish.

The frozen gefilte fish looks like this.

The Barefoot Contessa (bless her and her fool-proof recipes) inspired almost all the sides: dill potatoes (I subbed in margarine for butter, which was not nearly as good), orange honey glazed carrotsroasted asparagus (which I drizzled with truffle oil), and potato kugel.

Most of the sides, prepped and ready for reheating.

For the main courses, I stuck with the always delicious Zuni Cafe Chicken.  For our vegetarian guests, who didn't have to stick with a non-dairy menu, I made Ina Garten's gorgeous Vegetable Tian.

The full dinner buffet, half-devoured.
We ended the dinner with a fruit salad with mint and honey and an amazing flourless chocolate cake made by my friend David.

The vestiges of dinner.  All that remains is an extra slice of chocolate cake.  Now in my stomach.

Theoretically, dinner should have been awesome.  In reality, with the exception of the matzoh ball soup, the tian, and David's flourless chocolate cake, it was just meh.

The problem was that while all of the dishes were delicious coming off the stove or out of the oven, they were all ruined by what ruins the best of us: time and temperature.  The asparagus got overdone when it was reheated, the carrots were somehow underdone and not particularly yummy at room temp, and the potatoes were not nearly as tasty when made with margarine.  The chicken, which is so fantastic out of the oven, lost its special combo of crispy skin and succulent, juicy meat at room temp.

Keeping food warm and delicious when the eating time is unpredictable has consistently been my downfall.  I really need to learn the techniques caterers use.  Anyone have any advice to share?  Please?


Woman with a Whisk April 2, 2010 at 11:46 AM  

Ah, I think this is the plight of all Seders. The problem is that you want to participate in the Seder, rather than getting the food ready, so it's sitting around for an hour before you eat. That's why my family seders take 10 minutes -- though I don't think this would work for you though. =(

Your menu sounds fantastic though! Love the fruit salad with flourless chocolate cake for dessert.

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