This past week marked my first time preparing the Passover seder and only my second time celebrating Passover. Bold move, right? Well, I grew up Catholic in the South, so my exposure to Passover was limited until I met my now-fiancé. I knew it was a long and important feast, celebrated in the spring, but the meaning and the details were an unknown.
Our first Passover together, we ordered the meal in from a local restaurant and read through the Haggadah. I learned the story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. I was taught the meaning of maror and the salt water. I discovered that the mysterious dish that is gefilte fish really isn’t bad with enough horseradish, and haroset and matzah is a delicious combination.
However, since I enjoy cooking and bringing loved ones together over a homemade meal, this year, I knew that the best way to celebrate my second Passover would be to dive in, develop a menu and cook it myself.
I had a grasp on the symbolic items that go on the seder plate, but when it came to what the actual meal would involve, I didn’t have the slightest idea where to start. What, besides the rituals, made it different from dinner any other night? Was there certain meat I should cook? Were there particular courses that were required? I was starting from square one, and that meant doing the obvious—googling “easy Passover seder recipes.”
Despite hosting many dinner parties over the years, the thought of pulling together such an important meal was even more intimidating than I anticipated. Fortunately, the pieces of the meal began to fall into place as I scrolled through pages of recipes and suggested menus. Matzah ball soup was non-negotiable. If we’re going to cook meat, it should probably be a slow-cooked brisket. There should be a salad to lighten things up and a dish involving fruit. Then, we would top it all off with a decadent dessert.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned when cooking for an occasion, it’s that simple and familiar are often best, as a relaxed cook makes for happy guests. With that in mind, I selected recipes that fit within the rough outline I had developed for our Passover meal. I looked for dishes that I knew I could cook confidently. A doctored version of grocery store mix for matzah ball soup. Sweet-and-sour slow cooker brisket. Classic Waldorf salad. A deliciously fresh citrus salad. Not too sweet, yet incredibly rich olive oil dark chocolate mousse. Each recipe was new to me, which made them special for the holiday, but the ingredient lists were short and the steps easy.
When the day arrived, I had the recipes ready, groceries organized, a timeline of how long each dish would take and a detailed schedule of the order in which they should be prepared. In the morning, the brisket went into the slow cooker. That afternoon, I set the table to have one less thing to worry about while I cooked.
Then, the evening came, and I prepared the salads, the soup and the dessert. I delegated the preparation of the seder plate to my fiancé as I chopped, diced, boiled, stirred and simmered. And surprisingly, I found myself incredibly calm as I ran down my checklist of dishes to make and steps to take. Any insecurity I thought I might have about cooking my first Passover slipped away, and as I cut up apples and poured in red wine for the haroset, I felt a connection to these recipes and traditions that I am now adopting as my own.