Pesach is a time that lends itself to extremes. Whether through ruthlessly removing from our physical environs anything that might have once possibly shared airspace with chometz, or through removing ourselves from normal home life into the lap of exotic five-star luxury, Pesach just seems to push us to the edge.
I had my first ‘extreme’ Pesach some twenty-something years ago when as a bochur, a friend of mine invited me to join him spending the entire chag as personal guests of a Chassidic rebbe and his family in the small upper-state New York community they were just beginning to form. The ambitious drive out there was nothing compared to the light-year journey from my comfort zone, where matzos were square, knaidelach de-rigueur and seder wine so sweet and thick ‘you-could-cut-it-with-a-knife’, to the land of ‘matzos mitzvah’, ‘no gebrochs’ and ‘moost’ (home-pressed grape juice).
Upon arrival, we were warmly welcomed and invited into the rebbe’s house for a bite to eat and my friend and I, who were then both ‘extremely’ health-food conscious, looked on in polite horror as the rebbetzin stood frying what appeared to be a coop’s worth of chicken skins. She explained that they didn’t use commercially made oil (or anything else) on Pesach and she had to render enough schmaltz to last the entire eight days. We walked to our accommodations next door, wondering how our intestinal tracts would ever survive a week of the meat and starch heavy ‘Carpathian Diet’, when, like cavalry storming over the hill, two of the rebbe’s teenaged sons came barreling our way with a hand truck piled high with cartons of the greenest, most luxuriant romaine lettuce we’d ever seen. There’d be roughage after all!
Of course we were more than happy to fulfill their enthusiastic invitation to help out in the erev Pesach preparations by stripping the lettuce from its stems. We lovingly piled the fanlike leaves into a large tub at our feet, tossing the bare, de-leafed center stalks into one of the emptied cardboard boxes. The boys returned twenty minutes later, just as we were finishing. “Now we’ll just toss away the p’soilos (unusable stuff),” one of them said. I bent to hand him the box of stems, just barely registering his quizzical look, as he scooped up the tub of leaves from in front of my feet and heaved them into the dumpster before I even had time to gasp. “We only eat the stalks for morror,” he smiled at my unarticulated astonishment. “The leaves have bugs,” he added simply (this was way before the day of bug-free lettuce) and scurried off. Despite the culture shock, that ‘extreme’ Pesach proved to be extremely enjoyable and set the tone for me to this day.
Food prep-wise, Pesach can stretch one’s cooking skills to the ‘extreme’, as well. It presents us (especially Ashkenazim, and all the more so non-gebrochs-ers) with a far more limited palette from which to choose. But limited palettes needn’t mean limited palates, and I find our avoidance of prepared and processed foods (no, we’re not as strict as the aforementioned rebbitzen—we use oil and a couple of other things—but we’re close) makes a person draw upon wellsprings of creativity that they never knew they had.
One year, back when our kids were young and wondering why they weren’t getting some of the store-bought Pesach treats their friends were, we bought a small, table-standing home cotton candy (or ‘yum-bum-bum’, as they call it here. A great word!) machine, that used only one simple ingredient—sugar—to spin out flossy treats that sated the kids’ sweet tooths (teeth?), and kept our older ones’ hands busy making them the entire chol ha-moed. Homemade potato (sweet potato, beet, etc.) chips required nothing more than skewering the potatoes on a fork and ‘peeling’ them (after they were already officially peeled) directly into a skillet of hot oil until only a stub remained.
I perhaps overreached once, trying to make our own homemade cola. I’d heard that the basis for cola flavor was caramel, lemon and vanilla. So I cooked (caramelized) sugar until dark brown, made it into a syrup with water and more sugar, added some fresh squeezed and strained lemon juice and an infusion made from fresh, whole vanilla beans. I then poured some of this heimishe ‘coke syrup’ into bottles of soda water. The result? Well…I liked it. But my kids were more than happy to wait out a week for the ‘real thing’.
Our cooking ‘hardware’ on Pesach is almost as limited as our ingredient ‘software’. A rickety tabletop four-burner gas range sits atop the foil-covered, fold-down cover of our year-round stovetop. It can sit there quite comfortably, in fact, because it’s much smaller, which certainly stretches one’s pot arranging/balancing skills to the max. The ‘star’ of our modest collection of Pesach cookware, is what’s called in Israel a ‘wonder pot’.
That rather whimsical name describes a Dutch oven, or if you will, a sort of flat-bottomed bundt pan that sits on a base directly on the gas flame, whose heat arises through the middle ‘chimney’ to a raised cover-all lid and then back down into the food below to theoretically ‘bake’ it from below and above. If it sounds complicated – it is – but it somehow makes the most scrumptious pot of moist, no liquid added chicken (which almost forgives the fact that it’s a monster to clean). Rounding out our modest appliance ensemble, is a largish toaster oven. Big, it is not, but you’d be amazed at how many potato kugels you can bake in there at once with a little creative oven rack arrangement and disposable aluminum pans you can ‘squish to fit’.
Speaking of potato kugel, one year we took creative simplicity to a new level. On erev Pesach I’d foolishly tried to grate horseradish with our cheapo, mini food processor that I’d bought the day before to replace our old semi-cheapo model that after several years of loyal, if uninspired service had given up the ghost. Perhaps a more prudent soul would have taken the hint, when the new appliance’s motor sounded like a kiddie toy, but I plunged ahead, and within seconds the score was horseradish: one, food processor (or the mangled remains thereof): zero. No food processor and the looming prospect of a potato kugel-less chag brought me close to despair. Sure, our bubbies hand-grated, but I am not on that madreiga. Then it occurred to me—we had a hand held stick blender. So I cubed some potatoes, dumped them into a large, tall plastic pitcher, together with oil, salt and eggs, and chomped it all up with the hand blender into an amalgamated mush (er, batter). It was pretty good.
In its more conventional usages, the hand blender has been has been a Pesach staple in our home for years. Here’s a family favorite that’s ‘extremely’ easy and ‘extremely’ good:
PESACH ‘NO FAIL’ MAYONNAISE
3 eggs (one of them, yolk separated out).
Approx. 1 cup oil (we use walnut oil on Pesach, but olive oil’s good too.)
2 cloves garlic
Tablespoon lemon juice
Tablespoon sugar (or equivalent sweetener).
Crack eggs. Add the two whole eggs and one yolk into a tall container. (The blending cup that comes with some hand blenders is idea, but the tall, ‘one liter’ round storage containers work fine.) Hand blend, ‘teasing’ the mixture up the sides of the container until it stops growing in volume.
Add the garlic, salt, sugar, and lemon juice and blend again thoroughly. Then, while running the hand blender, its blade positioned in the upper third of the mixture—just below the surface—pour the oil, in a thick drizzle, right over the blender’s stem, toward the blade.
Add oil just until you see a little ‘oil slick’ appear on the top (this indicates that no more will emulsify). Hand blend for another few seconds, with an ‘in and out’ motion from the bottom of the container to the top, to bring the whole mixture to a unified consistency. Chill (not required, but it thickens the mayo and makes it tastier), and serve.
[Hand blender cleaning tip: Fill a container with warm water and a good dash of dish soap. When finished using blender, run it in the soapy water for ten seconds. Even greasy, gunky residue will disappear like magic and save you the unpleasant (and possibly dangerous) job of having to hand clean around the sharp, hard to get at blades.]