Passover Seder on a Budget
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 while following time-honored traditions that celebrate the journey from slavery to freedom.
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The word "seder" means order, so there is a set way that the rituals unfold. Within that order, though, is opportunity for individualization. If you're hosting and must stick to a budget, rest assured that a meaningful cheap Passover seder is well within reach. The following tips can make this night no different from other nights in terms of saving money.
There are several items that no seder can be without, even a cheap Passover seder. The haggadah is the text that tells the Exodus story and lays out the order of the seder. A seder plate holds the foods that symbolize different parts of the story. Matzoh, perhaps the most iconic symbol of all, is the unleavened bread that commemorates the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. Greens of some kind represent the coming of spring. A roasted lamb shank honors the paschal lamb sacrifice made on the eve of the flight. Bitter herbs recall the bitterness of slavery. Charoset, a blend of fruits, nuts, and wine, signifies the mortar the slaves used to make bricks. A roasted egg connotes the renewal of spring as well as sacrifice in the days of the Second Temple. Wine and a large meal round out the seder.
Although it's possible to spend a fortune on the necessary ingredients, it's equally possible to produce a cheap Passover seder. For example, some haggadot (plural of haggadah) are beautifully illustrated heirlooms, but many families use the free haggadah booklets distributed by companies like Maxwell House and Manischewitz. Other freebies let you personalize the hagaddah or download and print copies of a slightly altered text that is relevant for you and your guests -- options range from traditional to contemporary and inclusive. A beautiful seder plate can last a lifetime but also can set you back a pretty penny. To stick with your cheap Passover seder theme, use a tray or platter (young children can decorate the plate with construction paper) and place the symbolic foods in ramekins or custard cups or mold little cups out of tin foil.
Purchasing the symbolic foods won't upset plans for a cheap Passover seder, either. Bread products are eschewed during the eight-day holiday, so buying matzoh in bulk is a real bargain -- but not if you use matzoh for the seder only, in which case limit yourself to just one box. Many butchers will give away a lamb shank bone for free, but a chicken bone will suffice. (A roasted beet is the usual substitute at vegetarian seders.) Parsley is commonly used as the symbolic green, but celery leaves are also acceptable. Horseradish typically serves as the bitter herb, and a small jar of the grated root is enough to last all year. (Sephardic Jews use romaine lettuce instead.) Charoset is considered by many families to be the star of the holiday service and can be prepared in a myriad of ways. Ashkenazi charoset contains apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and a little wine or grape juice; Sephardic charoset is heavy on the dried fruits and contains almonds, which cost more than walnuts.
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Dinner is consumed shortly before the end of the seder service. The menu varies by family and generally reflects its Ashkenazi or Sephardic heritage. Gefilte fish is a staple of the Ashkenazi 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. Gefilte fish is probably the one traditional food item that takes you out of the cheap Passover seder zone: A sampling of grocery stores found that the average price for a single jar of Manischewitz gefilte fish is $5.99, or $1 for each piece; ironically, buying in bulk at Walmart would cost even more - the equivalent of about $1.60 for each piece.
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 The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, where you'll also find a recipe for matzoh balls. (Cheap Passover seder tip: For the matzoh balls, use a mild vegetable oil or skim the fat off the soup rather than buying chicken fat. For the soup, pick up a family-pack of chicken legs, wings, and thighs rather than a whole chicken.) Brisket is often served as the entree and is a relatively budget-friendly cut of meat. 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.
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.