I feel like I never eat so well, or at least so creatively, as the weeks leading to Pesach. Between cleaning out the pantry, the fridge and the freezer, there are many permutations of meals to prepare with the random ingredients found on hand.
Growing up, my mom always had a stash of “just in case” foods prepared in the freezer. A cheesecake, a deli roll, soups, meatballs, and really anything she might have set aside as a way of being organized should an unexpected guest show up. Come the weeks before Pesach, one by one, my mom would take them out of the freezer.
More than anything, what we looked forward to was her famous plum torte. There was always at least one of those — our favorite cake my mother prepared each late August and September when those special purple plums are fleetingly in season. Sometimes we lucked out with a few of those left over.
Those delicious prepared freezer foods were usually served for Shabbat ha-Gadol, along with new freshly baked yeasty pastries and challahs in an effort to use up whatever flour was left.
During the week, however, it was a random mash-up of let’s invent a new recipe based on the ingredients we need to use up prior to Pesach. You never knew what was coming, and it was fun.
In that spirit, I’ve been running a gingerbread cake bakery and pasta factory here these past couple of weeks.
That snowflake-shaped pasta I thought was so adorable and was thrilled to spy a hashgacha on? I can now vouch that they are tasty with a variety of sauces, be it tomato garlic sauce, salsa rosa, olive oil, lemon and herbs.
And that papardelle I was so excited to find in the supermarket? I combined it with a variety of open cheeses I have on hand that need to be used before the sell-by date and before Pesach. It was my version of Quattro Formaggi, because instead of four cheeses it was more like Cinque (that’s five in Italian) Formaggi. It was delicious. You should try it sometime. You might not fit into your Seder dress, but that’s a different story.
Although beans are not chametz, but only kitniyot, I incorporate them into the rotation too, because it’s also about clearing the pantry and making space for the incoming Pesach groceries.
Why I had a 29-ounce can of black beans, instead of the usual 14.5 ounce, your guess is as good as mine. In a Manhattan studio pantry closet a can that size is taking up serious real estate space. What to do? I search around and come up with some tortillas plus an open bag of frozen corn. There’s a half a container of sour cream. I still have a drop of cheese left because I wanted to keep the papardelle at Cinque Formaggi (somehow Sei Formaggi just wouldn’t have the same ring to it) and viola! Quesadillas for dinner.
I roasted the corn, combined it with the beans and cheese and sandwiched it between the crisped-up tortillas that I wrapped in foil, served it with fresh lime and the sour cream. And then found an avocado that was just on the cusp of going bad, but still good, at the bottom of the fruit bowl. I was even able to salvage a few sprigs of cilantro from a bunch of herbs that was also already on its way out.
When was the last time I made quesadillas? Maybe once or twice in my life? And maybe 10 years ago? But here I am with a full on pre-Pesach quesadilla dinner, condiments included.
I won’t bore you with the details of my stockpiling. Let’s just say, my friends know that if a blizzard hits, a real blizzard, that is, not these New York City snowfalls with which the weather forecasters keep toying with my emotions that don’t turn out to be the blizzards as promised, they know where to go.
Instead of thinking of myself as a food hoarder, I prefer to tell myself how organized I am with highly evolved planning skills.
All joking aside, I like doing major grocery shoppings for non-perishables only a few times a year, leaving me with more limited perishables to pick up on an as needed basis. When you live in a Manhattan apartment you have to allocate your space!
What makes me laugh with this pre-Pesach food situation is when I find a minor ingredient I need to use up, then that leads me to cooking an elaborate meal; kind of defeating the purpose, but it’s all part of the fun.
For example, I needed to get rid of those canned crunchy onions. The next thing I know I am buying a small brisket for pulled beef over mashed potatoes, with the garnish being those crunchy onions! Or, take the baguettes I found in the freezer. What will I do with them? Of course now I am buying mozzarella for a caprese salad.
While normally I am happy with my simple default dinners of a hot piping pizza or spaghetti, come the weeks leading to Pesach and the culinary variety on my dinner plate is endless. I live in a tight-knit apartment building, so there are always neighbors and friends to come by or to send over the overflow food to.
This is all part of the irony, of course, as Pesach commemorates the leave-taking of the Jews from Egypt while in a hurry, symbolized by the matzah we eat. Meanwhile in some way or another we prepare for this holiday, whose essence is speed, for maybe a month.
But it feels good to get rid of chametz, that puffy excess in our lives. It feels good to streamline and purge. Honestly, it does.
Whatever is left unused I hope to donate to a food pantry. I still ought to pause and think twice before I buy that snowflake pasta again next year.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News