How to Prepare a Seder
For those with the (matzo) balls to host your own Passover meal
Seders are tricky. This is no typical dinner party. In fact, the seder is rife with plagues--from cooking unfamiliar foods for a lot of people to hard-to-predict timing (is this the year your husband will decide every child should have a chance to sing The Four Questions and your chicken will dry out, or is this the year everyone rushes through the hagaddah because they're hungry and the soup is still cold?) Here's an organizer to make your seder do-able.
The Week Before
If you have a separate dining room, set the table now. Don't worry about ironing a tablecloth (who irons anymore?) If it's wrinkled, simply spritz it with water from a spritzy bottle. The weight of the water will flatten the wrinkles.
Make it fun. Be creative. Suspend sheets from the ceiling over the table to create a "tent"--pretend you are Moses in the desert (maybe throw in some inflatable palm trees and stuffed donkeys to complete the look). Scatter "plague" toys around the table--sunglasses for "darkness", toy frogs for "frogs", sticker dots for "boils", ping pong balls for hail (really the only tricky one is the last one--maybe ignore that one.) Hang blue and green crepe paper streamers from a doorway. Tape "fish" you've cut from construction paper to the streamers. When you get to the part when the Israelites cross the sea, have the children run through the streamers.
Or, be super creative. Have your seder in a different room from the dining room. Throw tons of pillows on the floor and have your guests "recline" while you read the hagaddah. Have plates of veggies and bowls of dip around the room to snack on (no rule says you can't eat during the hagaddah reading). Then go to the dining room when it's time to eat dinner.
Figure out your menu early. Bon Appetit magazine always has amazing Passover menu ideas (you can also find the recipes on epicurious.com). Make your soup and matzo balls the weekend before. While you're at it, make lots of extras. After you cook them, let them cool on a cookie sheet. Once cool, put them in the freezer until they are frozen. Then, place all the matzo balls you'll need for the seder in a big Ziploc baggie and put it back in the freezer. Place the extras in smaller baggies (one or two per bag). Use these extras during Passover or after (whenever you feel the sniffles coming on). Just heat up a can of soup and plop 'em in frozen (they'll defrost in the hot broth).
Make the soup broth early and freeze it. It can be messy to make and depending on the recipe, it can be a two day process in order to skim the fat. Making it early means you'll have less mess (and stress) the day of the seder.
Now is also a good time to get a shank bone for the seder plate. If you have a kosher butcher or grocery store nearby, just ask them for a shank bone (they'll give you one for free). If you're a vegetarian or don't have access to a butcher, you can use a beet because it "bleeds."
Buy lots of wine, matzah, and eggs (why does every Passover recipe start with "take 12 eggs"?) If you plan to "keep Passover", check all labels--not every box of matzah is "kosher for Passover" and I've been to some well-meaning supermarkets that place non-kosher chicken soup in the Passover food aisle. Don't forget to buy a horseradish root for the seder plate (you can use ground up horseradish, but I like the look of the root).
Two Days Ahead
Chicken pieces make a great entrée. No carving or slicing. I make a yummy lemon ginger chicken with roasted root vegetables. I'll cook everything a day or two before the seder. This gives me time to clean the mess. Then I layer the veggies in a huge aluminum foil roaster and place the chicken pieces on top. I cover with foil wrap. This way, I have only one container to warm up for the seder and better still, can throw it away for clean up!
I also make a wonderful gefilte fish casserole. So easy and worth the effort. You can use the kind in a can, or for those fish-adventurous chefs, make your own. Just mash the gefilte fish and add onion, carrot, mayo, lemon juice, margarine, eggs, salt and pepper. Pour into a casserole dish, sprinkle paprika on top, and bake. To serve, slice the casserole into squares (like brownies).
You can also make and freeze dessert now. A flourless chocolate torte is amazing. Just add strawberries.
Day Before the Seder
Make your charoset. This is a fun activity for the kids. You can make the traditional apple, nut, wine/grape juice mix, but I'd also recommend a Sephardic variation. Put dates in a pot and just cover with water. Simmer until soft. Mash them in a cuisinart until it looks like a thick paste. Right before serving, scoop the dates into a bowl, pour sweet wine on top, and add crushed walnuts. Make enough so you have extra to use as a spread on matzah.
Make the hard boiled eggs. Enough for each guest and the seder plate.
The Day of the Seder
If you've been following along, the day of the seder you'll have very little to do. In the morning, prepare the seder plate. Take the egg with tongs and burn the shell a little bit over a fire (I use my gas stove for this). Do the same with the shank bone. Place charoset, parsley, egg, shankbone, and horseradish root on the plate. (If you have an extra space, you are using a Sephardic style seder plate. This space is for a second bitter herb, for example, romaine lettuce.)
Move the soup into the refrigerator to defrost (just the soup, keep the matzo balls frozen).
Make dishes of salad and place a piece of the gefilte fish casserole or plain gefilte fish on each salad plate.
An hour or two before the seder: Begin to warm up soup on the stove.
When seder starts: Turn on the chicken in the oven and dump the frozen matzo balls into the soup. Place fresh asparagus on a broiler pan but do not put in broiler.
When everyone is eating the Hillel sandwich: Put an egg in a little bowl and add water and salt. Make one for each guest. Begin laddeling the soup--one matzo ball per guest.
When everyone is eating gefilte fish: Drizzle asparagus with olive oil and put in broiler (remove in 10 minutes when slightly charred).
Serve dinner as follows:
Egg and salt water
Matzo ball soup
Gefilte fish and salad
Chicken with roasted root vegetables and grilled asparagus
Dessert (you can even make this super easy and just serve macaroons and fresh fruit).
See? Not so scary! Make it simple, stick with recipes you're comfortable with, and plan ahead. You'll do great! (I'm so proud!)
Looking for more recipes? Here's where you can find all of our favorite Passover-friendly foods. Yum!