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The Seder's Just the Start

By Tina Wasserman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page F01

The eight days of Passover begin at sundown this Saturday, and I am ready. I tore down the wall between my living room and dining room to accommodate all my Seder guests.

During that ceremonial holiday meal -- when Jews recount the story of their exodus from slavery more than 3,500 years ago -- we are commanded to "let all who are hungry come and eat." I've listened, limiting my guest count to a mere 40. Any more and I'd have to mount a fish-eye mirror on the ceiling so some of my guests could see around the corner.

Not-so-basic chicken salad. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

_____Recipe Box_____
Post-Seder Recipes
Tips and Tradition for the Seder Meals

One tradition I started many years ago was having my guests sign their names in indelible ink on a large polyester-cotton tablecloth. After the cloth was washed and rid of wine stains, I embroidered over the signatures. Each Seder is represented by a different color, and every year returning guests look for their names and new guests eagerly await their turn to sign.

Here are some tips I shared at a recent temple Passover workshop:

• Each place setting should be set with a dinner plate topped with a salad-size plate topped with a small dessert bowl sometimes called a nappy. The little bowl should contain some salt water and the plate underneath it should have a piece of parsley or other green herb, a slice of fresh horseradish or whatever your family uses for bitter herbs, and a tablespoon of charoset, an apple-nut-wine mixture. You should have a big bowl or two of charoset on the table to eat with matzoh during the meal, but having a sample of the necessary foods at each place setting saves a great deal of time during the actual Seder ceremony.

• If you normally start the meal with some hard-boiled egg (symbolic of spring and spiritual renewal), slice the egg with an egg slicer and place it in the bowl with the salt water. Slicing the egg is a perfect way to camouflage a roughly peeled egg.

The best way to avoid difficulty peeling eggs is to buy Grade A -- not AA eggs -- or just buy your eggs a week or two in advance. The egg white will separate more easily from the shell membrane when peeled and won't lose chunks of white with the shell.

• Matzoh balls made in advance can be refrigerated in water or bouillon. They may also be individually frozen (with no liquid) on a cookie sheet and then placed in a freezer bag. Make sure you remove air from the bag to prevent ice crystals from forming. The best way to remove air from freezer bags is to insert a straw into the partially sealed bag and suck out all the air. Seal tightly just as you pull the straw out, and your food will remain fresher longer.

• If you make chicken soup or matzoh ball soup, cook with cut-up chicken instead of a whole chicken, which requires too much water if you add "water to cover."

-- Tina Wasserman

But all the house cleaning, schlepping and cooking for the Seders on the first two nights do not fully prepare the Jewish cook for the remaining six days. And even diehard brisket fans don't look forward to consecutive reheating of Seder leftovers.

So what's a person to do?

The kosher food industry thinks it has the answers lined up on store shelves. There are more than 19,000 certified items for Passover, and at least 500 new products hit the market last month.

The major difference between foods eaten during Passover and those eaten the rest of the year is leavening. During Passover, in order to remember the haste with which the Jews left Egypt, some observant Jews abstain from any foods that contain leavening agents such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda. Products containing corn, oats, wheat, barley and spelt (a type of wheat) are also prohibited because they can ferment when moistened. Because of these restrictions, matzoh meal, matzoh cake meal (which is more finely ground) and potato starch are substituted for flour in baked goods. Some Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, Jews use potatoes as their primary starch and filler for Passover, while some Sephardic Jews from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries may eat rice for their substitute.

Many everyday foods are rendered "kosher for Passover" because the corn syrup or cornstarch has been removed and replaced with cane sugar and/or potato starch. Thus there are an astounding number of products now appearing on Passover shelves that resemble daily staples -- such as mayonnaise, ketchup and cereals -- all manufactured solely for consumption during the holiday. Most often, the non-Passover-friendly items removed from pantries in preparation for the holiday are donated to local food banks and charities.

"The [Passover] products are not cutting edge in terms of food -- just convenience," according to Menachem Lubinsky, a kosher-food expert who is editor of Kosher Today, a weekly online journal. Examples of this year's selections are lines of low-carb cheeses and grape juice, and gluten-free pastas.

From an industry point of view, "Passover is almost a seven-week holiday," he says, counting the time from when Passover products are shipped through their turn on store shelves.

Thirty years ago, kosher-for-Passover provisions were rare in Dallas, where I live. Back then, I visited my best friend, Jill, in Washington just before the holiday. She took me to Katz's (now called Koshermart) in Rockville. I flew home with a kosher turkey, two soup chickens and some chocolate-covered matzohs in a borrowed suitcase.

It's a good thing security was different in those days; I'd never get out of Reagan National Airport today with a 17-pound frozen mass in my luggage. And it's a far cry from the late 1940s, when the only products Manischewitz was offering were matzohs and their byproducts, meal and cake meal.

It was not until 1954, when that company opened a factory in New Jersey to produce soups and other goods for Passover, that American cooks had any options. Now the company that produces Manischewitz, Horowitz-Margareten and Goodman's sells nine varieties of flavored matzohs.

Today, Manischewitz has about 60 percent of the U.S. matzoh market, while Streit's accounts for 25 percent. The rest "is everybody else," according to Lubinsky. That group includes a growing share of Israeli-made matzohs, often priced quite competitively.

Passover is supposed to remind Jews of the sacrifices their ancestors had to make, wandering for 40 years in search of the promised land. Ironically, many cooks who don't spend more than five hours a year making chocolate chip cookies will spend hours wandering the supermarket aisles, trying to decide how many Passover coffeecake or blueberry muffin mixes they will need to buy for their families.

To me, Jewish cooks have become preoccupied with creating non-leavened cakes that mimic the leavened kinds rather than thinking about why we are forbidden the leavened ones.

There is even kosher-for-Passover baking powder, present in most Passover baking mixes. I have asked rabbis in New York, Philadelphia and Dallas why this is allowed, and they say it is because it is a chemical, it doesn't ferment, and potato starch -- not cornstarch -- is used as its base.

To tell you the truth, the kosher-for-Passover prepared foods and mixes puzzle me. With the exception of gefilte fish and macaroons, which are enigmatically more popular than homemade, all the other mixes could easily be re-created in your own home with hardly any more ingredients. Why use a boxed spongecake mix when you have to provide the six or eight eggs anyway? And if you are providing the eggs, oil and water, what's left in the $2 box of matzoh ball mix? Matzoh meal, baking powder and seasonings.

Now, I must admit I have a few boxes of that at home, and the reason is convenience, as Lubinsky suggested. If I want to make stuffed matzoh balls with leftover brisket, it's much faster (15 minutes, to be exact) to whip up a batch than to start from scratch.

For those of you focusing on preparing meals for the remaining days of Passover, why not think outside the box, literally. Try a new vegetable or permitted starch instead of standard mashed potatoes. Basic products such as matzoh farfel can transform your breakfasts from daily eggs to great granola cereal.

Whatever you make, don't get stressed out and collapse after your Seder preparation. Those who are hungry will still want to come and eat long after the wine stains are washed from the tablecloth.

Dallas cooking teacher and food writer Tina Wasserman is a food columnist for Reform Judaism magazine. She last wrote for Food about cheese dishes for Hanukah.

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