Monday, April 7, 2014


My husband is a secular Jew.  He has ties to the culture, but hasn't been in a temple since we went to Jack Kirby's funeral or maybe the bar mitzvah for a friend's child. We do light a menorah for Hanukkah (even though we once almost set fire to the house that way) and we've gone to friends' houses to celebrate Passover on occasion. We never did a Seder at our house until two years ago, when one of our "adopted" daughters decided we should do it.

It was so successful, her parents decided to come out and celebrate with us last year. Janis Ian happened to be in town, so we invited her to come as well. This year, it looks like we are doing a second night seder because everyone's schedule makes first night impossible and Janis said she'd be back in town and hoped we'd be doing Passover again. How could I possibly refuse?

The name is taken by another blog (quite a good one, I might add), but I'm basically a shiksa in the kitchen. This is not the food of my people, but it is the food of many of my friends from college and, back at Hofstra, I got my first experience with lox, whitefish, bagels, and matzoh. It wasn't until Len and I got married and a fellow Hofstra alumna invited us to Seder that I experienced the madness of cooking for dozens of people with severe restrictions on ingredients: no leavening, no dairy because meat was being served, no grains. What were they thinking? Plus there are a few things that are rather awful, like gefilte fish from a jar.

My own Seder had some interesting problems. Sara's mother Amy is allergic to onions, but the brisket recipe Sara insisted we had to make is flavored with dried onions. Not only that, but onions figure prominently in many of the recipes I made last year. My friend Liz is a pescatarian. Janis is allergic to eggs. My son is allergic to oranges, which is used to flavor a number of recipes I looked at. Wine for cooking? Not when a guest is a recovering alcoholic.

But who should let such things stop them. I now own half a shelf of books devoted to Jewish cooking, many of which are Jewish holiday cooking. And the Internet is a wonderful way to find appropriate recipes.

I've replaced awful jarred gefilte fish with a fabulous, light recipe from Wolfgang Puck. I did braised lamb shanks last year in addition to the beef brisket (and saved the extra bones so I've got it in the freezer for this year's Seder plate if I need it.) I make a mean matzo ball soup that's a big hit, and I even made a vegetarian version of it last year when our friend Liz said she wanted to come.
Sara, the initiator of our Seder, is on the right in the photo above, her mother Amy is in the middle, and her friend Emily is on the left. Sara said she'd help cook the first year, but then didn't get to the house until hours after the brisket needed to be in the oven (fortunately, I had the brisket and the rest of the ingredients--dried onions and cranberry sauce--so it was ready at the appropriate time.)
The Seder table needs some specialized dishes, so I got the Seder plate, on the left, the first year, and the matzo plate the second year. Sara's parents gave us the Elijah and Miriam cups above the matzo plate. Maybe I will buy the afikomen pocket this year or maybe I will just sew one myself. I've got about a week to get it done.

The Haggadah that Sara provided is one that she used when she was a child. Sara has no intention of growing up, so that's the one we've used. Michael pulled out a hand puppet to use as Pharaoh, and the whole thing had Janis in hysterics.
So Janis announced that she and Len should write a new Haggadah for Passover. I fully expect that she and Len should be very busy with that RIGHT NOW. Perhaps she can write some new music while she's at it, so we don't sing prayers to the music of "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain" or "Clementine" this year.

Desserts are a big challenge for Passover with the dairy leavening restrictions. But Zoe Francois' wonderful blog Zoe Bakes has two fabulous desserts for Passover.
My son has made this flourless chocolate torte from Zoe's recipes for three years in a row. It was a huge hit when we took it to friends' seder where the males are all dairy intolerant, because it is made with non-dairy margarine and "creamer." Decadent.
The other dessert that we got from Zoe's website is chocolate-caramel matzo. They are rather addictive. My son is working down in Orange County these days and the 65 miles means he's probably not going to be home for a Tuesday night Passover. Fortunately, both of these desserts can be prepped ahead of time, though it may be me making them this year.

I am not sure how many people will be at Seder this year. It's rather like Thanksgiving in that the number of people can vary greatly, and also like the November dinner, there's always room for someone else at the table. I do not ever expect to have the 40-50 people my friend Joann often has. That's just too many for it to be fun.

On Saturday, because my son came home from Orange County (where he now works) sick, I made a pot of chicken soup and decided to give a try at making schmaltz and gribenes. I found directions from the Shiksa in the Kitchen. I had two chickens, which actually seemed rather fatty in parts, so I was off to a good start. I stripped the chickens of their skin and as much of the fatty deposits as I could get off before throwing the pieces into the stock pot.
 To the best of my ability, I cut the skin up into small pieces and threw the mass of everything into a non-stick skillet on medium low and watched the fat melt into oil, which I continually strained into a jar. It was a slow process.
When I finally got as much of the fat rendered as I thought I would get, I threw in some sliced onions and raised the heat to let the onions cook and everything brown and crisp. I also added some salt and pepper.
Gribenes, or Kosher Bacon
Once I was done, my husband said that it was like being at his grandparents, but he could not tell me what the gribenes was for, other than giving ones self a heart attack. But he sure loved the taste. We called Harlan Ellison, figuring an older Jew might know the answer. We were wrong, but Harlan got half of the gribenes I made when we dropped by to pick up his wife for the theatre later that evening. I hope he enjoyed it.

I have been told that some people put gribenes in the middle of their matzoh balls, as a lovely surprise. Sounds like a bit too much work, and it would lack the appeal of the freshly-made crisp cracklings.