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Post-Kiddush: our leftovers are better than yours

Round spare spanakopita just for us after the big kiddush

Round spare pinwheel-style spanakopita just for us at home. The big ones for the brunch had three pounds of spinach apiece (and were cut in small diamonds), but they still went together pretty fast–except for squeezing all that spinach dry…

This weekend I did it again–I made the kiddush, or in common speech a lunch buffet, for my congregation’s Saturday morning service. My husband kind of volunteered us for this week and because he doesn’t cook, most or all of the cooking, shopping, chopping and schlepping landed on my shoulders.

Last time he volunteered us, it was for our anniversary, and  I was ready to skip ahead to the divorce until I got over it, because it’s a lot of work to cook for 60 or so people who like to eat. And kibbitz. Especially when the 60 suddenly turns into 80-plus and having to use the synagogue kitchen with the more complicated and confusing rules on only a week’s notice. As they did this time…..

Soooo….a two-day hell of shopping and then marathon cooking-and-juggling in my little galley kitchen. The microwave got a serious workout. So did the food processor and the oven. Sometimes all at once. And it was raining hard for three days, so bringing things over to the synagogue kitchen as I went got a little tricky. I triple-wrapped the chocolate cake and stuck it in a USPS Priority Mail box so it wouldn’t get left out in the rain. Same idea for the spanakopita trays.

A few hints about cooking big and real for a synagogue brunch, learned the hard way by moi and passed on for your edification and safety (and sanity):

1. You can buy a 6-lb can  of chickpeas for massive half-gallon batches of hummus (Mid-East brand, maybe Goya as well). Cost? about $5. But–as I found out, and I’m glad no one was filming the process–industrial-sized can equals industrial-strength steel. A dinky hand-operated can opener is no match for such an item. I got just far enough to be able to pry open a kind of spout but there were tears and long-fluent-repetitive-all-throughout-the-house swearing sessions involved.


2. If you have a good corner greengrocer, you can buy quantities of eggplant for cheap–eleven or twelve eggplants made for a large tray of roast eggplant and onion slices (with garlic slivers and za’atar sprigs and olive oil) plus a large vat of baba ghanouj. Only the five eggplants I nuked for the baba ghanouj didn’t feel like cooperating fully when it was time to peel them. Might have been easier to peel first, then nuke, since it was all going into the food processor eventually. Next time…

3. Whole smoked whitefish for whitefish salad comes two ways–cold-smoked or hot-smoked. What’s the difference? I asked the counter guy at my favorite Armenian grocery. “Cold-smoked is a little less hard,” he said. So I bought it, thinking he meant the hot-smoked was tough as shoeleather and twice as chewy. I was wrong. Cold-smoked actually means the fish is smoked raw, like lox, only a little drier and tougher. But you don’t necessarily want to put it in whitefish salad that way. Man, it still had the scales on too. I couldn’t get it off the bones for love or money, and there were a lot of bones.

However, the microwave came to the rescue. I cut the fish in half and removed the head–my grandmother would have known what to do with the head but she wasn’t here to advise me, so I threw it out, I’m sorry to admit. I put the pieces on a microwaveable plate, drizzled a bit of water on to steam it, and put another plate on top as a lid. Three or so minutes later, the fish was fully cooked, the scales had curled up and the skin had started peeling away from the flesh. I still had to be very careful adding it to the food processor, checking each bit for stray pin bones, but at least I could manage it.

For 80 people though, one whitefish will not really go very far, and it’s both expensive and raucously salty. I microwaved a couple of fresh-frozen tilapia fillets between plates and used the cooked fish in the whitefish salad. Then what? a little chopped onion, dill, lemon juice and a 32-oz. container of half-the-fat labaneh, like sour cream, and blended everything until it was smooth. It was still fairly pourable when I went to chill it, but the next morning, it had stiffened up so much I added another 15 oz container of yogurt before serving it. The flavor was absolutely delicious but still pretty strong on salt and smoke–I shudder to think what it would have been like straight up. And to my great surprise everyone loved it, even the two people who kvetched that there wasn’t enough salt in the grape leaves (brined!), the spanakopita (with feta! a lot of feta!) or the tabbouleh… don’t even ask..that should be point #4, someone will always kvetch.

4. Back to the stuffed grape leaves then, because that’s perhaps the most important point. If you can get a big can of dolmas at your local Arab or Armenian or Greek or Turkish market, do it. Don’t roll them yourself in large quantity unless you have a bevy of helpers, because they go much too fast to be worth so much hard labor. They were delicious but whattapain. Only do them for yourself in small quantities like 15-20, where you can roll them, quit rolling after 5-10 minutes, and nuke them to perfection in 5 minutes in a drizzle of water, lemon juice and olive oil. When you have more than that, somehow they don’t nuke as well all in one batch and the rice doesn’t cook properly or evenly. Dammit. I had to go back and nuke them in small batches after two tries. Not worth it. Cans. Cans, I tell you!

5. Spanakopita is really pretty and easier than you’d think to do as big round trays. (see my mini-version above, just for my family, using only one pound of spinach and a few ounces of feta). For this brunch I made two big pizza trays of spanakopita. Laying out the fillo was easy–oil and fold the sheets in half like a book, lay 8 or so of them out in a quick pinwheel to cover the pan bottom. Pat the filling on, then lay 8 or 9 more folded sheets on top and tuck all the outside edges under the rim. Then use a sharp paring knife to cut the tray into diamonds about an inch and a half wide by two inches long, and dab oil on top and bake at 350 F until brown. Easy. Beautiful.

But. For two party trays, fifty small pieces or so, I had to squeeze SIX POUNDS OF SPINACH TO DRYNESS. That’s a lot of spinach and a pain in the tush. If you have a very clean thin cotton kitchen cloth, better than cheesecloth, I’m sure it goes a lot faster and more efficiently. Next time? Ha. I could have made twice as much and still never gotten a bite. That’s why I saved the leftover fillo and got another pound of spinach just for us.

And there’s one more caveat: I know most people use their microwaves for two things (other than popcorn and Lean Cuisine): reheating coffee and melting butter. I decided to melt a stick of butter in the microwave, as I have often done before when preparing to layer fillo dough. SHOULD have been a snap, right? But not all butter is made the same.

Usually I use Trader Joe’s unsalted butter. This time I’d done a marathon shop and threw in a stick of Kroger’s.

It EXPLODED. That’s right. There was enough water in that butter stick, or perhaps an air pocket? who knows– that it overheated in less than a minute and blew a hole through the stick. And was dripping greasily from the roof of the microwave. So there’s another ten minutes of unplugging the microwave, wiping, washing, drying and repeating, praying the grease hasn’t made its way into the seams of the cooking chamber. Daring to plug it back in and try again–this time with a lid–and boom (slightly muffled)–it exploded again with the next stick, only this time it was covered at least and didn’t get to make a mess. Jeeeez.

5. Bagels: well, it depends where you are. There are NO real bagels in California (it’s been documented officially by my sister, a marketing maven who knows her stuff). And they cost about a dollar apiece at the major chains. So I decided to skip it for economic and quality reasons and serve pita, challah, and Trader Joe’s Boule Mich’ sourdough half-loaves instead, because the sourdough is the closest thing I’ve ever found to old-style kornbroyt and it tastes serious and chewy. And it’s $3.69 a loaf for about 20 good slices. And — surprise! nobody kvetched.

6. Ganache for the Sacher torte—it solidified overnight in the fridge and I was panicking that morning because how would I get it on the cake? My husband looked over my shoulder and said, “Maybe you could microwave it a little.” Out of the mouths of husbands! A minute later, lo and behold, there was some perfectly spread ganache. I love that man, even though he doesn’t cook. And we had a little of the cake and about a third of the ganache left over, which is just the way I like it. Not ten days worth of monster cake, as in the party after my daughter’s bat mitzvah last June…

Takeaway: It was a pain, but I got compliments (I also managed to lure my cat off the roof after midnight while the cake was still baking, but that’s another story for another time. Also, Saturday night, rescued our fish from a tank that started losing its seals and leaked halfway over the study floor before we could bail it out…not the way to recover from a cooking marathon!) But we got us some fabulous leftovers.

Oy. Never again…until next year, anyhow.


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