IT'S HARD ENOUGH to get the family together at holidays, and harder still to keep tradition alive in the 1980s. Perhaps that is why -- in this age of fast food and the breakdown of the nuclear family -- planning Passover produces a genuine feeling of accomplishment. Though Passover's rewards are many, it is an eight-day ritual that requires titanic preparation and energy.
Most difficult is the transformation of the kitchen. Conservative and Orthodox families often have separate sets of dishes, cutlery and cooking utensils for Passover, kept carefully packed away the rest of the year. Others may have certain of their utensils made kosher. Dishes, pots and silverware can be converted for Passover use by being scalded in boiling water. Metal pans can be passed through fire and broilers heated red-hot. Some homes have double sets of burners and covers for Passover use.
According to Exodus, all leavening must be removed from the Jewish home and only unleavened bread eaten for eight days as a reminder of the Jews' hasty flight from Egypt. In addition, tradition dictates that all of the kitchen surfaces must be covered with aluminum foil or another such wrap, and the freezer and refrigerator must be defrosted, thoroughly cleaned and lined.
After the kitchen is readied, it is a mad scramble to prepare the seder plate, the symbolic foods eaten before the seder meal begins.
A bitter herb (usually fresh horseradish) is grated as a reminder of the bitterness of enslavement in Egypt. Haroset, a blend of sweet fruits and nuts, represents the mortar used by Jewish slaves in building for their masters. A lamb bone is roasted as a reminder of the paschal sacrifice, and an egg is roasted to symbolize the mourning for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
For the cook, Passover presents a spectacular logistics problem: On other holidays, gefilte fish and matzo ball soup can be prepared and frozen in advance. But for Passover, the meal can be prepared only on the day of or the day prior to the festival. Matzo tortes, krimsel (deep-fried fritters), macaroons and popovers must be baked the day of or one or two days before the beginning of the festival. And the more strictly one adheres to the dietary laws, the more difficult the problem. In addition, the meal is often enormous, to accommodate the hungry people who have been sitting through a long Haggadah -- the reading of the story of the Exodus.
The observance of Passover rites, as well as the meals themselves, varies greatly in the Jewish community. Some merely celebrate a seder and introduce matzo into their homes; some remove chometz (leavening) from their homes but do not prepare, or "kasher," their kitchens for Passover.
Others kosher their homes and buy prepared foods for the seder meal. And still others ask invited guests to share with the cooking or order prepared food from local caterers, with requests for homemade gefilte fish and flourless desserts ever on the rise.
But no matter what form the seder takes, Passover is a landmark for counting time within the Jewish year. It is, to Jews, the real springtime, and so springtime foods like asparagus and strawberries must be present on the table.
And finally, during the Haggadah reading, the eight days of work melt away. What remain are the emotional rewards that come from preserving a tradition that is 2,000 year old. MATZO-STUFFED BREAST OF VEAL Serves 6 to 8
1 5-pound breast or shoulder of veal with pocket
2 cloves garlic or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 sliced carrot
2 diced onions
2 stalks finely diced celery
4 tablespoons chicken fat or pareve margarine
3 tablespoons matzo meal
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup cooked and chopped chestnuts
1 cup sliced porcini or other mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Paprika to taste
Water or kosher-for-Passover white wine for basting Preheat oven to 450 degrees and grease a roasting pan. Rub the shoulder or breast with garlic or insert slivers of garlic into the meat. Sprinkle ginger in the pocket. Place the carrot and half the onion in the roasting pan.
Soak the matzot in warm water and squeeze dry when soft. Saute' the remaining onion and celery in 2 tablespoons of the chicken fat or margarine. When the onion is golden, combine with the matzo and the remaining stuffing ingredients.
When the stuffing is cool enough to manage, stuff the veal. Place any remaining stuffing under the veal in the roasting pan. Sew up the pocket of the veal or truss closed. Rub the veal with the remaining chicken fat or margarine if the meat is not very fatty.
Place in the roasting pan, reduce heat to 300 degrees and place in oven, cooking 30 minutes to the pound, occasionally basting with pan juices, adding water or white wine if necessary.