Passover is the favorite holiday of many Jewish Americans. It begins with a seder (say'-dur), the ritual-filled meal that retells and metaphorically relives the experience of the biblical exodus of Israelite slaves from Egypt. The seder is held on the first and usually second night of this eight-day festival and gathers together family and friends for a long evening of eating, discussing, and singing.
The word "seder" means order, and there is a set way that the ritual unfolds. Within that order, there is opportunity for individualization but also must-have items for the seder table: The Haggadah is the written text that tells the Exodus story and lays out the flow of the service; the seder plate holds the foods that symbolize different parts of the story; wine and a large meal round out the seder.
Some families read from beautifully illustrated heirloom Haggadot (plural of Haggadah), but many use the free booklets often found in supermarkets and distributed by companies such as Maxwell House and Manischewitz. The content can be personalized for free at Haggadot.com or downloaded and printed with texts that seems relevant to you and your guests; options range from traditional (at Chabad.org) to contemporary (see, for example, Scheinerman.net) to inclusive (try JVoices.com).
Matzoh, perhaps the most iconic Passover symbol, is the unleavened bread that commemorates the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. Bread products are taboo during the holiday, which means lots of matzoh is eaten. Buying matzoh in bulk is a real bargain; a 5-pound package (five boxes) costs around $10, compared with about $3 (and way more) for a 1-pound box. If matzoh is used for the seder only, limit the purchase to just one box.
A beautiful seder plate can last a lifetime but easily add more than $100 to the budget if you're in the market to buy one. Converting a tray or platter into a seder plate is a cheap alternative. Young children can decorate the plate with construction paper, and the symbolic foods can go into ramekins, custard cups, or small molds made of tin foil.
A roasted lamb shank honors the paschal lamb sacrifice made on the eve of the flight from bondage. Many butchers will give away a lamb shank bone at no charge. If you can't find a cooperative butcher, a chicken leg will suffice. (Tip: Roast a leg that was used to make the chicken soup being served during the meal.) A roasted beet is the usual substitute at vegetarian seders.
Fresh greens of some kind represent the coming of spring, as does a roasted egg, which also recalls sacrificial practices in the days of the Second Temple (530 BC to 70 AD). Bitter herbs are reminders of the bitterness of slavery. Parsley (about 75 cents a bunch) is commonly used on the seder plate, but celery leaves are also acceptable. Horseradish typically serves as the bitter herb, and a small jar of the grated root (about $2.50) is enough to last all year. Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors lived in Spain, North Africa, or West Asia, use romaine lettuce (about $1.50 a pound) instead.
A blend of fruits, nuts, and wine, charoset signifies the mortar the slaves used with bricks while building the pyramids. For many families, this is the star of the seder plate. Charoset can be prepared many ways. Ashkenazic (Eastern European heritage) charoset contains apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and a little sweet wine or grape juice. For a crowd of 10, ingredients will cost less than $12. Sephardic charoset is heavy on dried fruits, such as apricots, raisins, and dates, and contains almonds or a mixture of nuts. This version is richer and the ingredients are more expensive, but guests eat less of it so the cost will be about the same.
Elijah's Cup, filled with wine, sits on the seder table awaiting the arrival of the prophet who will bring news of the Messiah's impending arrival. No one drinks from the glass, but tradition holds that children watch for a sip that just might disappear when the front door is opened to welcome the mythic guest. Meanwhile, adults are expected to drink one cup of wine at various points throughout the seder, for a total of four. If fulfilled, this obligation gets expensive quickly. Consider offering grape juice instead (about $5 for 96 ounces at Target; Kosher grape juice costs at least 50 percent more); better yet, set out tiny glasses.
The festive meal is consumed shortly before the end of the seder service. The menu varies by family and generally reflects its Ashkenazic or Sephardic heritage. For the most part, though, it includes fish, soup, entree, any number of side dishes, and dessert.
Gefilte fish is a staple of the Ashkenazic table, although some people spurn it entirely. If you have lots of time, you can make your own, but most people buy a prepared product. The going price for a 24-ounce jar of Manischewitz premium gefilte fish containing six pieces is about $7 at Walmart. Costco often sells frozen 2-pound loaves from Ungar's for about the same price, but this baked version feeds way more than six people. Sephardic families might opt for salmon (about $10 a pound) baked in spiced oil. One recipe for Moroccan salmon at The Global Jewish Kitchen calls for lemon juice, chili (about $1 a pound) and bell peppers (about $2 a pound), roma tomatoes (less than $1.50 a pound), and cilantro (about $1 a bunch).
Chicken soup is another staple at Passover and is definitely cheaper and tastier when homemade. In the absence of a family recipe, try Joan Nathan's version from her cookbook "Jewish Holiday Cookbook’" ($30 on Amazon) where you'll also find a recipe for matzoh balls ($2.50 for a box of matzoh meal). For the soup, pick up a family-pack of chicken legs, wings, and thighs, which goes for about $2 a pound. (Tip: For the matzoh balls, use a mild vegetable oil or skim the fat off the soup rather than buying chicken fat.)
Brisket is often served as the main dish. This relatively budget-friendly cut of beef costs about $4 a pound; given all the other foods being served, only around 4 pounds will be needed for 10 people (expect leftovers). Brisket can be prepared way ahead of time, frozen, and reheated before guests arrive. A whole roasted chicken or a small turkey (about $1.50 a pound) are easy alternatives and cheaper than beef.
Rice is a fine side dish at Sephardic seders, but is not acceptable in Asheknazic homes. Common starches such as couscous and pasta are also Passover no-nos. That leaves potatoes, and potato kugel is a tradition in many families. For 10 servings, about 5 pounds of russet potatoes (less than $1 a pound), onions (about 50 cents a pound), and lots of eggs (about $2.50 a dozen) will be needed. Any vegetable dish is acceptable, as long as there are no grain products. Green beans (less than $2 a pound) sautéed with garlic are quick and easy and a chopped Israeli salad with cucumbers (about 50 cents a pound), roma tomatoes, parsley, and mint (less than $2 a bunch) is a refreshing contrast with the heaviness of the meal.
Baked Passover desserts require special and costly ingredients (lots of nuts and eggs, and a substitute for wheat flour), so the best strategy for a cheap Passover seder calls for a salad of fresh fruit. Make one with bananas, apples, and naval oranges. If you're feeling flush, throw in fresh berries or seedless grapes. A cooked compote using frozen strawberries, blueberries, and peaches requires heating the fruits with some butter, brown sugar, and a little ginger. If you're set on baking, there are Passover cake mixes that cost about $5 to $6 a box.
Still, don't shy from accepting guests' offers to contribute to the meal. Ask friends and family to bring wine (one of the major holiday expenses), side dishes, and desserts. Making the seder a potluck can start a new tradition.