The very notion of inviting guests for Pesach instills terror in many. The dishes, the chaos, the dishes, the food, the noise -- and did I mention the amount of dishes? And for others, they glide through the holiday with barely a feather ruffled. For both the holiday challenged and the holiday pro, here are 10 tips to help you sail through the Chag (festival) and keep both your sanity and smile intact.
1. Consider the style of your dinner.
Do you sit on the floor on pillows wearing authentic ancient garb or do you wear your best dress-up clothing? Is the table set with china or do you do disposables?
How formal or informal you set the table and dress sets the tone for the whole event. Make sure you are consistent and do tell your guests. (I have been to a Seder where everyone dressed like they were ready to flee, complete with backpacks loaded with favorite treasures and running clothes, and Seders where everyone sat on the floor wearing robes in a makeshift tent.)
Plan your food to be in the spirit of the event. Formal table settings and formal clothes dictate that the menu will be formal as well.
2. Plan to serve some menu items that are hot and some at room temperature or cold
Unless you have a very large kitchen and staff to run it, you will need to have dishes that can be pre-plated and ready to go, while other fussier dishes can be labored over while guests eat. This only makes sense. If every menu item is fussy and requires a lot of attention, you will be stressed and guests will sense it.
3. Introduce a few new items to the menu while having at least 1 or 2 familiar dishes
Try a new soup, salad, or side while still serving everyone's favorite entree or dessert. Creating new favorites is fun and exciting, but paying respect to a family heirloom recipe keeps memories alive. I like to mix it up and play with new produce while generally keeping my proteins familiar.
4. Take advantage of menu items that can be prepared ahead of time
Go ahead and make the soup and freeze it. Roast a week's worth of beets and keep them marinating in the fridge. Brisket gets better after a few days as do most braised dishes.
5. Get the family involved
There are tasks that can be performed by most members of the household. Allowing everyone to do some prep work gets them excited and they will take pride in the meal.
6. Make lists
When I am planning a large intricate meal, I make lists. In fact, my lists have lists! I have ingredients lists and prep lists for each day leading up to the dinner. I find I stay calmer knowing I have a plan, and then I make sure to stick to it.
7. Plan your menu to be seasonal and use your ingredients in multiple ways
Keep all your ingredients in the same season. Seasonal ingredients are typically better priced and always taste better. If strawberries are in season where you live, add strawberries to your salad one night and to a dessert on another night. Sauteed mushrooms are a delicious garnish for braised chicken one night and a great add-in for a kugel on another. Make your ingredients multitask and your food will be exciting and creative.
8. Imagine the food and the way it will look cooked
Have a road map in your head of the way food will look and taste. Make sure the size of all the dishes will look good together and that there is textural interest. A giant baked potato next to petit meatballs doesn't look balanced and doesn't have any textural change. A scaled down baked fingerling potato topped with crispy shallots next to the same meatballs looks better and has some textural change.
9. Make sure the flavors flow in your menu.
A well-written restaurant menu is a work of art. A chef that can write a seamless menu is a sought-after person indeed. The trick to writing a menu where flavors flow and do not distract or clash is to keep food and flavors within the same genre. If you are going Moroccan with your entree, stay with those flavor profiles for the whole menu. Avoid clashing flavors like adding other dishes with heavy red wine sauces which are not typical of Moroccan food. You get the idea -- pair your flavors in the same ethnic profiles and your meal will be harmonious.
10. Have fun at your own party.
Your guests can sense when you are not having fun. To throw a great Seder, you need to enjoy it as well. If something doesn't go well in the kitchen, platter the food and garnish as best as you can and smile. Only you knew what it was supposed to taste like.
And, don't forget the cocktails! Nothing kicks a party off like a mini, or not-so-mini, cocktail!
Here is a recipe for a no-cook appetizer to wow your guests!
My Seder first course is a riot of color and texture, with zero cooking! Thinly sliced baby carrots, beets, radishes, and spring onions, arranged on a platter with sushi-quality tuna. Baby lettuces and edible flower petals garnish (go ahead and pull them apart) with veggies and fish. No vinaigrette needed, just some gorgeous extra virgin olive oil a sprinkle of black salt and freshly grated horseradish for punch. It's spring on a platter, baby!
Chef's tip: Storing thinly sliced beets, radishes, and carrots in ice water (see below) will keep the veggies crispy and will keep them from bleeding on the platter. Be sure to dry them off before platter-ing.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: None
- 3 RAW baby red beets, sliced razor thin on a mandolin and placed in ice water
- 3 RAW baby candy stripe beets, sliced razor thin on a mandolin and placed in ice water
- 3 RAW baby golden beets, sliced razor thin on a mandolin and placed in ice water
- 2 medium watermelon radishes, sliced razor thin on a mandolin and placed in ice water
- 6 red radishes, cut into matchsticks and placed in ice water
- 3 large spring onions, sliced thin and placed in ice water
- 3 cups variety baby lettuces, or larger lettuces with torn leaves
- 6 multi-colored baby carrots, sliced razor thin lengthwise and store in ice water
- 1 ½ pounds sushi-quality tuna, sliced very thin (firm up tuna in freezer for 15 minutes for easier slicing)
- Best quality extra virgin olive oil
- Garnish: baby herbs, edible flower petals, black lava salt, freshly grated horseradish
- Arrange beets, radishes, onions, lettuces, carrots and tuna on a large platter. Chill before serving.
- Drizzle with olive oil and arrange herbs, petals, salt and horseradish on veggies and tuna. serve!
Caramel Blood Oranges, or "Aranci Caramellizzati"
Simple and sophisticated. Do not let your fear of caramelizing sugar stop you from trying this dessert. The sugar part is easy. Don't walk away and let it simmer until medium brown. You got this!
- ½ cup fresh squeezed orange juice (blood orange or favorite variety)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 scraped vanilla bean
- Pinch of Kosher or sea salt
- 6 oranges (Blood oranges, or favorite variety; or even grapefruit), peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
- ½ cup roasted and coarsely chopped shelled pistachios
Simmer orange juice, sugar, cinnamon stick, anise, peppercorns, and vanilla bean in a small saucepan over medium heat until medium amber brown (325 degrees F).
While the sugar is simmering, layer oranges in a 9 x13 casserole or other oven-proof dish.
When the caramel reaches medium amber, carefully pour over the orange slices.
Cover and chill for at least 2 hours. The hot caramel sauce will help the oranges release their juices and mix to create a delicious and elegant dessert.
Garnish with chopped pistachios.
Laura Frankel is a kosher chef and Director of Catering at The Standard Club. Previously she was the Culinary Director for Jamie Geller's Test Kitchens and Kosher Network International. Frankel is the author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons and Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes (Agate Publishing). Her third book is forthcoming.. She is the founder of Shallots Restaurants in Chicago, Skokie, and New York, and served as Executive Chef for Wolfgang Puck.