Thursday, April 9, 2009

Passover Seder Part II

I think if I was ever in a position to have a last meal request, it would be one of Nancy and Bob's Seders.

In my previous post, I walked you through Nancy's Seder table, explaining little tidbits about what various items were. In the post you are reading right now, my intention is to talk about the food. After convening at the table, Nancy led us through the Haggadah, explaining the reason for Passover and for the Passover meal. During this process, you do eat small bites of symbolic foods (like the parsley dipped in salted water and the ceremonial matzoh spread with charosis and either onion or horseradish and eaten like a sandwich).

The ceremonial part of the Seder is as interesting to me as the wonderful food. Again, not being Jewish myself, I find it fascinating to share the heritage and traditions of others. Plus, invariably, Nancy always manages to assemble the greatest group of guests. Our conversations ranged from food to beer to technology to traveling in Europe. It really just ran the gamut.

This post will pick up after most of the ceremonial portion of the Seder has already concluded.

Unfortunately, Kathy Breychek, Nancy's source for farm fresh eggs is no longer in the egg-selling business. Fortunately, Nancy was able to source her eggs from another local farm (which I will post when I get it from her). Eggs are an important part of the meal as we eat them both hard-cooked and as an ingredient in many of the other dishes.

First up, a shot of the hard-steamed eggs with a bit of the salted water from the ceremony:

This was rich and creamy and tender; everything you'd want out of a good, farm-fresh egg. Nancy actually steams these instead of boiling them, a trick she learned from Alton Brown on the Food Network show Good Eats!

After the egg (which is eaten towards the end of the ceremony), it is generally open season on everything else on the table. On my plate I have gathered one of Nancy's gefilte fish balls (more oblong than round) towards the back left of the plate, some of the carrot that was cooked in the fish fumet, a bit of freshly grated and prepared horseradish (thanks to Bob and his garden) right in the front and center, and some matzoh with charosis on it on the plate to the back right.

The horseradish is generally eaten with the chilled gefilte fish. It is an amazing symbiotic relationship, each on its own delicious, but eaten together it takes you to a higher culinary destination. Because Nancy uses all fresh fish to make her gefilte fish, it has none of the sliminess or fishy odor or taste that you would think. It's actually very mild. Which makes the pairing of the fish with the horseradish seem like rather an odd combination, but it works magically.

As I said in my previous post, I could eat the charosis on matzoh all the time and be completely happy. It is a nicely sweetened (but not too sweet) blend of nuts, apples, wine, honey and spices and works well to offset the spicyness of the horseradish. Nancy grinds hers more finely than others do, so it does have sort of a spackle or mortar-like quality to it. I'd even go so far as to call it a "spread" in its consistency.

One thing you quickly learn about surviving a Seder meal is the concept of moderation. With food this good, your initial reaction is to fill up on gefilte fish, horseradish, matzoh and charosis. Pacing yourself is key as there are still three more courses to come.

Next up? The ever popular Jewish penicillin, also known as matzoh ball soup. Nancy's soup base is unique in that it is a cross between a soup (which has less gelatin/collagen in it) and a stock. Besides the chicken carcasses for her soup base, she also uses chicken feet. This is what gives the resulting soup base it's silky and unctuous quality to it.

Not to be outdone, the matzoh balls were smooth and silky and light. She was worried they weren't quite right, but I thought they were marvellous. Of course, there were more matzoh balls and soup for anyone who wanted it, but we were about to embark onto the third and most substantial course, so no one went beyond one bowl.

First up, the sweet kugel with apricots. It is baked in a casserole dish and contains matzoh meal, eggs, apricots, and the secret ingredient: Vietnames cinnamon from Heather's Heat & Flavor. The Vietnamese cinnamon gives it this amazing heady spicy quality that you just can't get with the cinnamon you find at the grocery store. Here is a shot of the entire casserole:

Honestly, this was probably enough kugel to feed about 15-20 people. We only managed to finish about 1/4 of it.

Next up is the savory potato kugel. Bob prefers to grate his potatoes very finely so that the resulting kugel has a more pudding-like texture. Other preparations I've seen grate the potato more coarsely, but this gives you more of a "hashed browns" effect. Bob also adds a bit of fresh chili pepper (again from his garden) to give the kugel a nice capricious spice.

And while I forgot to get a shot of the plate of brisket, here is a shot of my plate all loaded up:

Tender and sweet asparagus to the left sauteed in some olive oil and dressed with basic salt and pepper, potato kugel at the top, sweet kugel at the right, and the brisket and onions at the bottom of the plate.

Let's talk about the brisket for a moment. Prepared by Bob, this was so tender and moist that a knife wasn't even required to cut it. It simply melted in your mouth. Adding interest to the flavor, Bob used some more of his chili peppers from his garden. Not so much that it came across as "spicy", but more as an interesting back note. The onions were tender from hours of cooking as well. Truly an outstanding plate of food.

And if that wasn't enough food, there was one last course, a dessert course. Now traditionally there are various sweets that would normally show up on a Seder table such as macaroons and honey cake. This year one the guests prepared what is called a "sham torte". It is a baked meringue based dish that is most closely related to the ubiquitous pavlova from Down Under. The sweetened meringue base is covered with whipped cream, fresh berries, and a basil infused syrup.

And my individually sized portion:

It was lovely, a nice mix of sweet, fruit, crispy and creamy. And the best part of all? It was EXTREMELY light. Not so much in the sense of calories, but in the sense you could eat a piece at the end of a heavy meal without too much difficultly. Kind of that whole "There's always room for Jell-O" mantra.

Just as spontaneously as we had all come together, we dispersed just as quickly. Hugs and handshakes and many "Thank you's" were to be had and only a moment after that I was back out in the cold evening air under a full moon ready to relive the past 3 1/2 hours on my drive home.

I'm hoping Nancy updates her blog with posts about this years prep-work after she takes a much deserved rest. It truly is fascinating to see how at the same time this food can be so simple and yet the flavors be so complex. If you'd like to see what went into last year's Seder meal, here are some of her posts from last year.

A huge thank you to both Nancy and Bob for their generosity and hospitality. I very much look forward to repeating the experience again.


Nancy Heller said...

Thank you for this great post, Tom. One correction though, to give credit where it is due - Bob also made the potato kugel. And he left out the matzoh meal in the one you ate - I knew something about it was wrong (but no one else seems to have caught on).

We were very glad to have you!

chsphoto said...

Hi Tom,

Lovely thoughts about a wonderful evening?

Thanks for describing the experience for the rest of us.

As always, a truly memorable experience, which is exactly the point!


Nancy Heller said...

Tom - my mom said to tell you that she thought the combination of our two blogs was simply amazing and ought to be published somewhere (yes, she's a little biased).

Nancy Heller said...

Tom - my mom said to tell you that she thought the combination of our two blogs was simply amazing and ought to be published somewhere (yes, she's a little biased).

Tino said...

Nancy -- Works for me! :)