By Larry Gordon
It’s not something that I get involved in. My old job was either to carry the suitcases out to the car or waiting taxi, or to bring the heavy boxes in from the supermarket for several weeks prior to yom tov. The project which requires my active noninvolvement is the food preparation for the holiday.
Before getting down to the details of the planning for the upcoming holiday, we were discussing which is more tedious and time-consuming—going away to a hotel or to family or staying home and doing the grunt work.
So I was saying that even though there was always something nice about going to first-class hotels with upscale cuisine for yom tov, the shopping for clothes, the tailoring, and more than anything else the suitcases spread on the floor for weeks was a little much. Though we were probably somewhere between Miami Beach and the Catskills for Pesach for more than 25 years, there is something intriguing and even nostalgic about the preparation at home. And that is just an observation as a bystander to the “turning the house over” activity that takes place at this time of year.
OK, so the biggest nightmare was about eight years ago. That was a five-hour plane delay at 5:00 a.m. on a Monday morning at Tampa Airport for a JetBlue flight to JFK with nine people—including two under the age of one. There were many good and enjoyable times, but when asked, it is that specific experience that jumps out at me time and again.
There were other nightmarish-type experiences, but yom tov is coming up so let’s dwell on the good and positive things in our lives. First there is the long-anticipated taste of the shemurah matzah that is not supposed to have any real taste but somehow in its crisp dullness manages to eke out a minimal amount of flavor for us. My personal preference is burnt matzah. I’m pleased that most of our family for the most part shuns those brittle, crunchy pieces that I find to be one of the most tasteful elements involved in celebrating and enjoying the chag.
The focus of Pesach is the freedom that we achieved as we emerged as a Jewish nation ultimately defining our essence at Sinai as we were branded G‑d’s people when we accepted the Torah. This experience was no simple freedom along the lines of now you are confined and now you are not. While we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, the shift that was the result of our exodus was that of assuming the roles of servants to G‑d. So on the surface anyway, we exchanged one form of servitude for another.
But that is not really so. We are not free radicals roaming the universe, seeming purposeless. Despite the similarity in the descriptions of our state of being, our slavery to Pharaoh bears no resemblance at all to our servitude to Hashem. A relationship with the infinite and eternal G‑d is the gateway to true freedom.
The cynics and would-be comedians have described the observance of our holidays with a recurring theme that essentially goes like this: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
So let’s do that. A culinary indulgence is a vital factor and ingredient in our ability to celebrate our holidays properly. The door in my office at home opens up into what has become known over the last few years as our Pesach kitchen. Through these glass doors, I can see large, almost industrial size, pots being hoisted over a hardworking flame. The other day, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of this odd-looking double-serrated knife being used to symmetrically slice a roast. I’ve seen vegetables lowered into a pot of soup and then removed with surgical precision via some kind of netting.
In the past, I would take the time to track down some hotel caterers to find out what they were cooking up for yom tov to accommodate their thousand or so guests. In previous years, there was the matter of Batya’s Kitchen brought to the kosher-consuming public by the inimitable Batya Kahn in Brooklyn. A year or two ago, I toured her kitchen and explored the various dishes and food combinations she was sending out to her customer base around the world.
But this year as I write these words and just glance over through the glass door to my right, I am able to see a lot of hubbub taking place with measuring cups, pans, and trays—oven doors opening and closing and the fires on the stovetop raging. Over yom tov, adults and children combined, we will be 14 people at most of the meals. There is no question that if you just try to navigate the aisles at Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst, Aron’s Kissena Farms in Queens, or KRM in Brooklyn, you quickly become aware that beyond the words of the Haggadah and the effort to relive the past at the Seder, food is the focus of the chag.
So that said, what is my wife, Esta, cooking? What will be served over these first important days, and what will we be eating? I beseeched her to sit with me for ten minutes the other day so that I could share her carefully thought-out and prepared menu with the world. The matzah and the fine wines along with some grape juice for relief are fairly standard. We feature at our table a variety of regular and whole-wheat matzah with the favorite coming from the Chareidim Bakery on New Utrecht Avenue in Boro Park. If you think they only produce matzah over there, you would be mistaken; they also produce a great deal of money.
And now a word about the wine. We are going to start with the red and will probably stick with those for the arba kosos and just try the whites during the meal. The children and some of the adults will in all likelihood switch to grape juice after the first cup so as to remain sober and awake if at all possible.
So here is my list. We will start with a Barkan Cabernet Sauvignon from the Galil in Northern Israel. This wine is a deep ruby-red color with a spicy berry aroma that is especially good for a meat meal, but also a wine that sets the tone for a night of celebratory drinking. I’m also looking forward to trying the Merlot Galilee from the Binyamina Reserve. This is a dry red wine that one needs to acquire a taste for in order to enjoy. It’s not that simple.
I received a gift recently of a bottle Umbria Rose on the Monte Olivio label. This wine is half Merlot and half Cabernet. It looks red but lighter than the other wines we will be imbibing and attempting to enjoy. On the lighter side, I have a few Rashi wines that are only about 5% alcohol content, a delicious Riesling and Chenin Blanc to round out the drinking schedule.
And now for the main event: the food. I am told that since the first night of Pesach is Shabbos, we will be sticking close to a traditional menu with yom tov enhancements. For starters on Friday night, the world will be serving gefilte fish. The first course will be followed by a traditional chicken soup with special Pesach noodles made in a painstaking and laborious fashion about 15 feet away from where I am writing these words.
The first night’s main course here will be turkey leg or cranberry chicken, accompanied by tzimmes and potato kugel. Following dinner, there will be an apple-crisp dessert along with a choice of homemade compote. We will then open the door to greet Eliyahu HaNavi, recite the rest of the Haggadah, but not before consuming the Afikoman, which as you know is representative of the Korban Pesach.
Next day, the morning will feature some of those great-tasting Pesach jelly cookies with a cup of coffee. Somehow I think someone is going to sneak in a cheesecake that will lighten up the day—though that’s all it’s going to lighten.
Lunch starts with Kiddush and matzah without all the Haggadah, followed by a spinach salad with carefully prepared and seasoned homemade vinaigrette. You have to remember it’s still Shabbos so the cuisine will be sticking close to tradition. The menu here says following the salad is a salmon topped with avocado.
The main course will, G‑d willing, be sweet-and-sour corned beef and stuffed capon, served with Esta’s special Pesach cholent featuring meat, potatoes, and kishke. Not only is this scrumptious, but after digesting this food combination you are pretty much assured of a three-hour afternoon nap, if you can call it that. The Shabbos/yom tov day dessert will be a rich chocolate truffle along with a mango sorbet.
The Saturday-night Seder starts late, so good luck with the kids. You may have to play with the plastic frogs with the adults. The meal starts with tri-color fish, followed by leek soup with a non-gebrochts Pesach kneidel.
The main course on night #2 is a duck leg and stuffed cabbage with ratatouille joined by a quinoa with mushroom dish. Dessert is brownie a la mode and a piping hot nana tea. Then once again it is the Afikoman, two cups of wine (see above), then good night.
Next day is Sunday and we should have hit our yom tov stride by then while just breezing along. The aroma is wafting through my office as we write, smells like fried onions that will end up covering a potato blintz with mushroom sauce combined with those onions. Main course is minute steak and meatballs served with a broccoli-cauliflower kugel, carrot muffins, then chocolate mousse for dessert. And for the kids (and cranky and picky adults) we have schnitzel, turkey burgers, and brisket served around the clock if need be.
Now that’s a yom tov. Family, friends, grandkids, a first-class culinary expert at the helm (my wife) with hopefully some help to clean up as we begin to nod off and get some rest so that we are alert, ready, and raring to go for the next meal.
Chag sameach to all.
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