The first time Abigail Auer attended a Passover Seder, she was eager to make a good impression and asked the hostess — also her future mother-in-law — to suggest a dish she could bring.
Auer, who is Roman Catholic, spent hours chopping and pureeing squash for a casserole.
As she spread on the bread-crumb topping, she asked her future husband and his roommate, both Jewish, "How come you can have bread crumbs, but not bread?"
"Their faces just said, 'Oh no,'" recalled Auer. Her mother-in-law, who had provided the recipe, had forgotten it included a bread-crumb topping, which the family had always left off in adherence to kosher-for-Passover laws.
When Auer's attempts to scrape off the bread crumbs failed, she left the casserole at home and brought flowers instead.
For Passover novices, an invitation to a Seder can be exciting, and a bit intimidating.
The most widely celebrated Jewish festival, Passover, which begins at sundown Saturday and is also known by its Hebrew name Pesach, commemorates the ancient Israelites' liberation from Egyptian slavery.
At a Passover Seder, a celebratory meal, the story of the Exodus is retold through readings, rituals and symbolic foods.
While some foods, such as matzo and bitter herbs, are required eating, others, including bread, are forbidden. Traditional Jews can't even store the taboo items in their homes or eat from dishes or cutlery that have touched them.
To a newcomer, the numerous rules and traditions can be overwhelming. Even veteran Seder-goers can find them confusing, particularly since the diversity of American Jews results in many different ways of celebrating.
Here's what you need to know:
All Seders include a few basic elements, such as kosher wine, matzo (unleavened bread), a Seder plate (a special plate that displays symbolic foods) and a reading of the Haggadah, the book that serves as a guide to the ceremony.
Beyond that, family traditions generally dictate.
Some families will dress formally and spend hours before the meal reading the Haggadah in Hebrew. Others are decidedly more casual, zip through the rituals in English and make the food the main event.
Many families create their own Haggadah, incorporating contemporary readings. Those who use published Haggadahs have hundreds to choose from, including books that embrace vegetarianism, feminism and other causes.
Some families conclude with dessert, while others continue into the night with singing, readings and prayers.
Early in the Seder, the youngest participant typically will ask "The Four Questions." These are:
r Why does one eat matzo? (To remember their ancestors, who fled Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise before the journey.)
r Why does one eat bitter herbs? (A reminder of the bitterness of slavery.)
r Why does one dip parsley in salt water (a symbol of the tears shed by slaves) and bitter herbs in charoseth, a sweet fruit paste (the texture evokes the mortar slaves used when making bricks)?
r Why does one lean on a pillow or recline during the meal? (To symbolize the comforts of freedom.)
Passover lasts eight days and begins with two nights of Seders. The menu varies greatly depending on a family's background. While many Ashkenazi Jews won't eat legumes, corn, rice, most other grains or products made from them, Sephardic Jews are more lenient. Ashkenazi Jews are descended from people who lived in Germany and Eastern European countries, while Sephardic Jews have roots in Spain and Portugal.
Most Jews eschew "the five species of grains" — wheat, rye, oats, barley and spelt, all of which contain gluten.
The exception is matzo, which is made from wheat, but has not been allowed to ferment. Matzo must be baked within 18 minutes of the flour being combined with water.
Legumes also are forbidden, though Sephardic and Conservative Jews consume rice and legumes.
So what is allowed? Fruit is always a safe bet, as are potatoes and other root vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, eggs, fish, dairy and meat (although, in accordance with kosher laws, meat and dairy must be served separately).
If, like most American Jews, your hosts are of Ashkenazi descent, you are likely to start the meal with chicken-matzo ball soup, as well as gefilte fish (ground fish mixed with matzo meal, eggs and seasonings).
Other Passover favorites include brisket, roast lamb and a variety of side dishes, such as potato kugel, tzimmes (sweet potatoes and carrots) and assorted casseroles bound together with eggs and matzo meal.
For dessert, expect macaroons, fruit compote, candy and cakes and tortes made with ground nuts or other kosher-for-Passover flours. Beer and most other liquors are not allowed, but wine generally flows freely throughout the Seder.
The Seder consists of 15 rituals, most of which occur before the meal is served. They include lighting candles, blessing wine, washing hands, breaking the matzo, dipping vegetables and telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Usually, one of the hosts serves as the leader, but guests take turns reading sections from the Haggadah.
Interspersed are various traditional songs. Many Seders also feature contemporary readings on the themes of slavery and liberation.
The gracious guest
r Don't show up ravenous. You're going to have to wait awhile until the real food gets served, says Micah Sachs, online managing editor of InterfaithFamily.com, a Web magazine for interfaith families exploring Jewish life.
"If you're lucky, and the hosts are compassionate, they'll include some finger foods for you to nibble on, but don't count on it," Sachs says.
r Don't touch the food on the Seder plate, a large dish that holds a shank bone, parsley, bitter herbs, a hard-boiled egg, charoseth and matzo.
"Some of it is symbolic and is never eaten," Sachs says. "Some of it is eaten, but only at proscribed times during the Seder. Follow your host's lead."
r If you bring wine or prepared food, make sure it is labeled "Kosher for Passover" or that your host approves it in advance.
"You can't go wrong with fresh fruit or kosher wine or kosher-for-Passover candy," suggests Gil Marks, author of numerous Jewish cookbooks and a forthcoming encyclopedia of Jewish food.
r If you want to bring a gift, but want to avoid the quest for kosher-for-Passover food, consider bringing flowers or a book of Jewish interest instead, says Stuart Matlins, co-author of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook."
r Watch your alcohol. During the Seder, participants traditionally drink four cups of wine. Use your judgment as to how full your cup should be each time, whether to substitute grape juice and how much, if any, additional wine to drink during the meal.
Greek Garlic Chicken
Garnish this dish with whole Kalamata olives and sprigs of fresh oregano.
2 whole chickens, cut into eighths
2 yellow onions, cut into large chunks
12 to 16 sprigs fresh oregano
8 cloves fresh garlic, halved
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup kosher white wine
2 cups pitted Kalamata olives
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Arrange the chicken pieces in single layers, skin side up, into two 9-by-13-inch baking pans. Add the onion chunks.
Slice the lemons in half lengthwise. Squeeze the lemon halves over the chicken, then cut each half into four pieces and add to the pans.
Set aside four sprigs of oregano, then strip the leaves from the rest. Scatter the leaves and the stripped sprigs over the chicken.
Scatter the garlic between the chicken parts, then season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the oil and wine. Coarsely chop about 1 1/2 cups of the olives, then sprinkle them over the chicken.
Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the chicken is fully cooked and no longer pink, or a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 180 degrees.
Transfer to a platter and garnish with remaining whole olives and reserved oregano sprigs.
Makes six to eight servings.
— From Susie Fishbein's "Passover by Design," Art Scroll Shaar Press, 2008
This low-fat recipe does best with russet potatoes, which are dry and produce a lighter, fluffier kugel. And while nice as a side, a large slice also makes a satisfying lunch.
3 pounds russet potatoes
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and cut into chunks
2/3 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons kosher-for-Passover vegetable oil
Start to finish: 2 hours (30 minutes active)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Peel and cut the potatoes into small chunks. Place them in a bowl of water and set aside.
In a very large bowl, beat the eggs. Set aside.
In a food processor, pulse the onions until finely chopped. Transfer the onions to the bowl with the eggs and mix them in. Stir in the matzo meal.
Drain the potatoes, then set a strainer over a bowl or in the sink.
In the same processor bowl (no need to clean), process the potatoes in three batches, until very finely chopped. The pieces should be smaller than a grain of rice.
As each batch of potatoes is processed, immediately scrape it into the strainer. With a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon, press out the moisture so it drains into the bowl or sink.
Immediately stir all of the pressed potatoes into the egg mixture. Season with salt and pepper.
Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to coat the bottom and sides of a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Warm the baking dish in the oven for five minutes.
Remove the baking dish from the oven and transfer the potato mixture into it. Drizzle the surface with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Bake for one hour and 15 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Let rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Serve hot or warm. The kugel can be reheated, uncovered, in the oven at 350 degrees.
Makes 12 servings.
— From Arthur Schwartz's "Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking," Ten Speed Press, 2008
Sauteed Carrots with Mint and Shallots
These simple, speedy carrots get a fresh taste from the mint. They make a great accompaniment to broiled or grilled meats or poultry.
8 medium carrots, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices on the diagonal
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large shallots, chopped (about 1/4 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Start to finish: 20 minutes
In a medium saucepan, bring several inches of lightly salted water to a simmer. Add the carrots, return to a simmer and cook until the carrots are tender but firm, about five minutes.
Drain the carrots under cold water and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute one to two minutes, or until slightly softened. Add the garlic and saute briefly.
Add the carrots, mint, and salt and pepper. Saute for about two minutes, or until the carrots are hot and slightly crispy on the surface.
Makes four servings.
— From Ronnie Fein's "Hip Kosher," Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2008