Passover has always been my favorite holiday. As a kid, I always looked forward to the annual Passover Seder. I loved eating those pancakes made from matzo, coconut macaroons, charoset candy fruit slices and jelly rings. While I have to try and maintain a gluten-free lifestyle today, most Passover foods are still safe for me to eat (although those Passover candies probably aren’t safe for anyone – gluten or not). It’s the one holiday where I can show up for the family feast and almost feel like a normal person. Yehuda even makes a tasty gluten free matzo that I can substitute for the regular stuff. Since it’s mostly made of potato, it resembles the flavor of potato chips. When my niece and nephew were really young they unanimously decided that they liked the gluten free version of matzo better than the usual. They both kept clamoring, “gooten fwee, gooten fwee!” How about that?
Aside from the feast, something about the rituals associated with Passover are appealing to me. I can’t really explain why that is, as I’m not a religious person. I suppose there’s a certain level of nostalgia that I associate with Passover that makes me feel connected to my family and to my cultural identify. Or maybe it’s simply that for me, I associate Passover with the coming of spring.
This year I was once again looking forward to the family Seder. However, it didn’t come at exactly a good time. Just a couple of months ago I bought a fixer-upper house and invited my boyfriend (a carpenter) to move in with me. Being the entrepreneurial type, I thought that my boyfriend could use this opportunity to leave his dead-end job and kick start his own contracting business, something he had been wanting to do for some time. And while getting his own business started he could document our home remodeling projects to build his portfolio. And then we could sell the house, make some money together and live happily ever after. And yada yada… But here’s the catch (as if my moronic belief that I could somehow seamlessly force a happy ending into existence wasn’t enough of a catch): my boyfriend has a 13-year-old daughter. He used to have her two nights a week and every other weekend – something I thought would work while she and I adjusted to one another. But right before we all moved in together my boyfriend agreed to change the custody schedule and we now have her every other week: Monday to Monday. She’s generally a good kid but as with all teenage girls, she is going through some growing pain. So moving in with me, with whom she has to share space and attention – not to mention suddenly abide by a set of house rules — hasn’t been easy for either of us. Throughout this whole adjustment period I’ve also had to come to terms with yet ANOTHER medical setback. I hurt my ankle some time ago and I had just learned that I would need six weeks off my feet completely and possible surgery if that respite didn’t do the job. I have been trying to figure out how to fit six weeks away from my office into my insanely busy work schedule. Add to that my concern about making sure I can still be available for the kid who is now my roommate, even though I’ve been told to limit movement. I was definitely freaked out about it all.
Two nights before my family Seder I contacted my broker and told her I made a mistake and I need to put the house back on the market. The next day I called my mother and said that perhaps I should skip the family Seder this year. I said that if someone asked me how things are going in the new house that I might break down in tears. “I don’t think you’ll want me around if that happens,” I said. My mother replied, “You’re right. If that’s how you’ll behave then I would rather you not come.” Decision made. No favorite holiday for me this year. Until…
My boyfriend and I talked things over and have agreed to do a better job of keeping the lines of communication open. I think he was so concerned about how his daughter would adjust to me that it simply didn’t occur to him that I might also have a difficult time adjusting to her. It seems silly but I guess my boyfriend just figured that I’m an adult and understood what I was getting into, which of course I did not. I have been living alone for ages. Now suddenly I’m living with a partner and a sweet but sometimes surly teen. I don’t think that’s something one can prepare for, no matter the age or level of self-awareness. Both my boyfriend and I just made an assumption that the other would make compromises and in reality, neither of us made any. Hopefully now we’ll be able to work things out.
And with my heart mostly on the mend, I really regretted missing the Seder. So in my wisdom I decided that maybe it wouldn’t be too late to host one of my own. I coined it, “The Later Seder.” (I was so shocked to learn that this isn’t a “thing” that I went and registered laterseder.com. What I will do with it is yet to be known.) I actually planned this belated Seder with the hope that my boyfriend’s daughter would want to be involved. She’s a vegetarian so I asked for her input when it came to choosing menu alternatives. I even tried to be playful, purchasing a Cadbury egg and bone shaped dog biscuit for the Seder plate. In the end, the teen decided to skip out on the festivities and stay with a friend so I went with a more traditional Seder plate, but the menu was still a crowd pleaser. And really, since the daughter was my motivation for planning this event, I still have her to thank. If laterseder.com does become a thing, maybe I’ll share that thing with her. But for now, I’ll share what we prepared and how, and how we went a bit wrong in a few places:
GLUTEN FREE GEFILTE FISH STICKS
Following the usual round of appetizers, consisting of matzo (and GF matzo) cracker, hummus and grapes, we served a preparation of gefilte fish sticks. You heard it right. My Scandanavian boyfriend tried gefilte fish for the first time when he came to my parents’ Seder last year. What he may not have realized is that my parents make a fine gefilte. Theirs is more of a fish mouse than what comes from a jar. If that sounds gross to you, you obviously have not eaten full-on gefilte that comes drenched in fish jelly. Mmm mmn. So when I told my boyfriend about my later Seder plans he begged me to try and doctor up the gefilte. “Can we make it into fish sticks and fry it up?” he said. “Not a bad idea,” I replied. I then went off to Google to do some research. I came upon a recipe and decided we could work with it. Here it is: http://www.joyofkosher.com/recipes/crunchy-baked-gefilte-fish-with-dipping-sauce/
During a recent visit back to BROOKLYN (I rarely say the name of my hometown quietly and without raising a fist to the air), I searched high and low for gefilte in a jar that was a bit better in quality than the average jar of Manischewtiz. And I found it at the Union Market. I actually don’t like the Union Market. During my baking business days I interacted with some of the buyers and found them to be snotty and out of touch. But after failing at a few other destinations I noted that this particular brand of jarred gefilte only contained fish, vinegar and salt (though the mystery jelly was somehow still present). The store also had the jar of Gold’s horseradish that I needed. What? Was I not supposed to buy it? Knowing my chances of finding something in Philly (I had already looked and came up empty), I swallowed my pride, grabbed the various jars and paid up.
On the morning of my later Seder, I emptied the gefilte into a strainer and rinsed them out in cold water to remove any traces of that jelly stuff. I then cut the gefiltes in half, dipped them in egg, and then we rubbed them in a mixture of Kosher for Passover, gluten free Cajun bread crumbs (thank you, Wegmans!), brown sugar, and gluten free corn flakes. (The corn flakes are not Kosher for Passover. A gluten free person wanting to maintain a strict Passover diet could either do away with the corn flakes altogether or use some of the crumbled GF matzo. For those who do not need to be gluten free, some matzo meal might do the trick. Also, since I used the GF corn flakes there was no sweetener in the crust. Hence I added some brown sugar. The Kellogg’s brand has barley malt added, so if you’re using that it probably isn’t necessary to add the sugar.)
Once “breaded,” we covered a baking sheet with parchment paper and placed all of the gefilte sticks on the sheet. We baked the sticks for 20 minutes and served them with the traditional horseradish. They were the talk of the town. Even my boyfriend said he was able to “get them down” without choking. That sounds like an endorsement to me. So if you’re interested in having a later Seder, I definitely recommend you make this part of your menu.
MATZO BALL SOUP
I went off the wagon here. This is NOT gluten free. Next year I’m going to try and make the matzo balls using gluten free matzo meal. But since this was my first Seder I was afraid to tempt fate. We followed the recipe as stated on the package of regular Manischewitz matzo meal. I also wasn’t thrilled with the use of vegetable broth (if I had known my boyfriend’s daughter was going to ditch I would have gone with the chicken stock.) I’ll keep looking for a suitable vegetarian soup broth option. But as for the making of the matzo balls themselves, here’s where it gets exciting: Growing up my maternal grandmother used to make matzo balls that we had to eat with a knife and a fork. To this day, I have never seen a matzo ball that matches hers in terms of its heartiness. Most matzo balls are fluffy and fall apart if you just gently tap them with your fork. “Meh,” I say. That’s not a real set of balls. (I just had to. I’m sorry.) For my entire life there’s not a holiday feast where somebody in my family doesn’t mention grandma’s balls. Yet, despite these repeated references nobody has been able to reproduce them. Well, I did. And I did it without even trying. “How?” you might ask. Well, apparently the trick is that you have to be completely obsessive. Luckily that’s a quality that comes naturally to me. (It’s really unlucky but let’s not go there today.) I kneaded and kneaded those balls until they were solidly smooth and perfectly round. We dropped them in boiling water and when they were done they required a firm hand to tear them apart. I immediately called my father to tell him I had discovered the secret to grandma’s matzo balls. I think my father was secretly horrified because he kept telling me that the way to make matzo balls fluffier was to roll them loosely and to even add some seltzer water to the mix. I was only horrified to learn that I got my obsessive tendencies from my grandmother. All these years I blamed my mother. Sorry, mama.
After searching high and low for a kosher deli near our home in Philly, I ultimately resorted to picking up about 5 pounds of Kosher for Passover brisket from Trader Joe’s. We prepared it using the following recipe, but doubled the ingredients since we doubled the meat: http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/recipe-collections-favorites/passover-recipes-seder/slow-cooker-brisket-potatoes.
We don’t have a slow cooker so we marinated the brisket overnight, then placed it in a dutch oven with the sauce, potatoes and carrots, and slowly baked it for eight hours. It was amazing, honestly. I have to give this one to my boyfriend. I was convinced it would be an epic failure, mainly because I would never have the patience to leave something in the oven for eight hours. Whereas my boyfriend kept insisting that this would be the simplest menu item we would offer.
Here’s a simple way I can illustrate how boyfriend and I approach the world differently. I love HGTV. I could sit there all day and watch Hilary Farr turn a house that the owners were ready to leave into something they love. (I not-so-secretly want Hilary to work the same magic in my home.) My boyfriend, on the other hand, loves to watch This Old House. Can you imagine this? Each season is dedicated to JUST ONE HOUSE. I find this painfully slow and prefer the instant gratification (albeit fiction) offered by HGTV. My boyfriend feels that the format of This Old House still falls short of providing enough detail.
Well, although I’m more of a get-stuff-done kind of girl, I’m thrilled I have someone on my team who has the patience to cook a mighty fine brisket. Were it up to me, I would have been forced to order beef and broccoli from the local Chinese place (NOT kosher for Passover!).
For our vegetable side, we served haricot verts (also purchased from Trader Joe’s) steamed and tossed with toasted slivered almonds, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. I think the veggies could have used a bit more seasoning, but by the time we got around to making them we should have been done with dinner. Next time we’ll make them the day before and just heat them up. (Please don’t tell.)
To make our potato kugel, we simply sliced up potatoes and onions in the Cuisinart, added eggs, oil, salt and pepper to taste, and put it in the oven for two hours. We served it on the plate with a dollop of applesauce. The only hiccup here was that, so soon after my recent move, I realized I no longer had (or at least I couldn’t find) a 9 x 13” baking pan. At 11:41 PM my boyfriend and I raced to the nearby Pathmark to find a pan that would suit our needs. Since the store closes at midnight, we had 19 minutes to execute our mission. One would think that’s more than enough time to grab a pan but we ended up cutting it really close.
You see, I find it difficult to maintain my focus in a grocery store. In this case, I couldn’t decide if I should I get the ceramic pan and serve the dish from the pan, or if I should get the disposable tin pan and transfer the kugel slices to the dinner plates. It took me ten minutes to decide to go with the regular Teflon (not my usual choice but with only 11 minutes left on the clock it seemed like the best decision I could make).
We thought we would get out of the store with ten full minutes remaining, but my boyfriend made the mistake of pointing out that all of the items in the Passover section were deeply discounted. (Another beauty of hosting a later Seder is that the packages of macaroons, jelly rings and matzo – GF and regular – can all be purchased for about a buck apiece. And I needed this price break after dropping nearly $100 on the five pounds of Kosher brisket.) So with just three minutes left on the clock I raced to the self-checkout with much more than just a baking pan. Other than that diversion, the making of the kugel was smooth sailing.
As an alternative to the brisket, we marinated large Portobello mushroom caps in balsamic vinegar, sherry, vegetable broth, honey, thyme, minced garlic and onion for two hours. At this point, we were way behind schedule. Otherwise, I think it would have been better to marinate the mushrooms for another two hours. We then threw the shrooms on the grill and voila! We served it with Wegmans steak sauce.
Charoset has always been one of my favorites so I was super excited to make it. Unfortunately, although this traditional mixture of red wine, diced almonds, walnuts, cinnamon and brown sugar was delicious, I have now learned NOT to use the Cuisinart to mix everything together. The apples ended up being a bit over processed and the dish simply didn’t look as appealing as it tasted. (My boyfriend used this revelation as an opportunity to teach me about the risks of taking shortcuts in life.) My version of Charsoet, however, probably did resemble the mortar the Jews used when they were slaves in Egypt. So if it’s religious symbolism you’re going for, bring out the food processor and go to town.
I used to own a baking company so I would love to say that I whipped up an amazing dessert. But that just didn’t happen. Out came a platter of fruit, candy, macaroons and cookies, all purchased from Wegman’s. (Thank goodness there’s a Wegman’s so close to my place of work!)
All in all, I would consider the first Later Seder to be a complete success! The preparations for the feast did exacerbate my ankle injury quite a bit. I took great lengths to conceal my immense pain while I was helping to put food on our guests’ plates. And after the clean-up I was totally out of commission. I think I might skip the six weeks in a boot and just go right for the surgery. But I’d like to believe the event was well worth it. I may not have honored the true Jewish tradition but I still found tremendous meaning in the Seder. I realized that even though I missed time with my family, the friends who attended my later Seder are the family I chose. I feel so lucky to have them in my life. I was also reminded of two valuable lessons: 1) Patience is a virtue; and 2) It’s never too late. And now it’s time to put those lessons into practice. I think I’ll go see what my boyfriend is up to.