And you thought that planning the Thanksgiving meal was a challenge! Passover dinner presents an obstacle course for the cook, full of oddball requirements and unbreakable rules.

Depending on the length of your seder, everything needs to be almost ready anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours before the meal is served.

Even non-kosher cooks generally refrain from mixing meat and milk for Passover, and then there are the specific must-haves (chicken soup, gefilte fish) and must-nots (hametz, or breadstuffs) to either include or eschew. Add to this the general challenge of serving a large number of closely related guests, and you can end up with what amounts to an 11th plague.

Here is some general advice, organized by course:

Soup: In all likelihood, you're serving chicken soup with matzo balls,  which, luckily, takes very well to delay. If the seder is going to take more than 30 minutes, however, you're better off holding the various components separately and then combining at service. Before you sit down to the seder, turn the soup down to the barest simmer and cover. You have cooked the matzo balls separately; now keep them warm by putting them in a colander and placing the colander in a covered pot that has an inch or so of simmering water on the bottom. Chop up all your herbs (dill, parsley) ahead of time and keep refrigerated, covered by a damp towel. When it's time to serve, turn the soup up briefly, then ladle it into bowls with matzo balls and top with herbs.

Gefilte fish: A blessing for the cook. If your refrigerator is large enough, you can plate the gefilte fish before the seder. If your seder is short enough (say, under an hour), you can plate the gefilte fish and leave it on the counter covered loosely with plastic wrap.

Main dish: Pot roast is ideal because it can be held in a warm oven almost indefinitely. You'll want to cook it the night before and refrigerate. The morning of the seder, scrape off any fat that rises to the top (if you wish), and remove roast from liquid. If you'd like a thicker sauce, reduce the liquid by simmering in a saucepan. Meanwhile, slice the meat across the grain. Place in a baking dish and pour the now-reduced sauce over it. Cover tightly with foil and reheat in a 350 degree oven. Once the meat is hot, turn oven down to 250. Any braised dish (be it red meat or chicken) can be treated similarly: make ahead, reheat at 350, hold at 250. A roast turkey can be taken out of the oven, tented tightly with foil and kept warm for about an hour; roast chickens for about 30 minutes.

Vegetable: Because the side dishes (kugel, potatoes) are likely to be baked, it's nice to have a freshly sauteed vegetable. Whether you're doing green beans, asparagus, broccoli or carrots, follow this scheme: Hours before the meal, parboil the vegetables in plenty of salted water and, when they're just tender, drain immediately and plunge into ice water. Keep changing the water until the vegetables are cool. Drain and pat them dry and refrigerate. Before you sit down to the seder, saute some garlic in a large skillet until it just starts to color. Take the vegetables out of the fridge so they can come to room temperature. When you're ready to serve, remove the garlic from the skillet, heat the oil and add the vegetables, tossing until they are hot and just starting to brown in spots.

Side dishes: Kugel, roast potatoes and the like can all be timed so they cook during the seder. Otherwise, keep them in a warm oven tightly covered with foil so that moisture doesn't evaporate.

Dessert: Passover cakes and/or cookies require no additional preparation and are the perfect ending to the meal. There's really no fruit in season yet, but you can perk up some West Coast (or imported) strawberries by hulling them, cutting into halves or quarters (depending on the size) and tossing them with a spoonful  of sugar a few hours before you plan to serve. Refrigerate until it's time for dessert.

Dates to remember: This year, the first night of Passover and the first seder are observed on Monday night, April 14. A second seder is celebrated on the next evening."



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