Or, really, how to do it once and repeat it every year.
“Writing the menu is the hardest part of preparing for Yom Tov,” I have heard this sentence, or a variation of it, so, so, many times.
There is definitely some truth to this statement. Writing a menu, like all lists, gives us a feeling of satisfaction, “putting it all down,” like a brain dump. It gives us a plan of action. It’s like deciding what to pack. Putting the stuff in the suitcase is not hard. The hard part is deciding what to wear, what to take, and if you have packed enough. Or too much.
Same with a menu. Deciding what to serve, for what meal, and will the appetizer work with the main? And, is it enough? Or too much? Once you are packed, you get to relax. Same here. Once you have a menu, you can start planning your cooking schedule and you will see, it’s usually not as daunting as you thought it would be.
I used to be one of those that, as a YomTov approaches, starts cooking random items at random times. Whenever I had time I would prepare a dessert or a batch of challah, a cake, or a second batch of challah. And freeze it. And then again: a meat, a dessert, another batch of challah. And the next week, again. Another dessert another batch of challah, another roast.
Sure. My freezer filled up nicely. But, there were a few issues that I noticed with this method.
1- I was in a state of overwhelm and unrest, even though I was “getting things done.”
2- I was thinking the whole time, “I must make a menu.” That alone was a burden.
3- When I actually sat down to write a menu, let’s just say, it didn’t work out as well as I thought it would. I had some meat that needed to be saved for another time because it wasn’t enough for the meal that I was having guests. I had too much challah and too few cakes. I had made the wrong number of desserts and I should have doubled the crumbs for the coulis because I noticed I wanted to serve that three times, in different ways.
Obviously, nothing here is to be taken verbatim, this is just an example of what can (and probably will) go wrong when you cook without a plan.
I’m not saying that, if three weeks before the Chag, you have an unexpected quiet Sunday you shouldn’t put up a double batch of challah because your menu isn’t written yet. No, definitely do that. But, at some point, sit down and get the menu done. It will also help tremendously with the grocery list. Especially when you want to cash in on some sales or order your meat early.
So, I have you convinced that writing a menu is important and good for you. But, how do we write a menu?
Ideally, you write it once for every chag. You save it in your documents on your computer. Or, on a paper and you put it in a binder so that you find it. And every year, you pull it out and you tweak it, and use it again. Because yes, everyone wants the same foods, mostly (see step 12 about the foods that did not work)
1-That first time though, you sit and you write a list.
Start by writing down all the meals during the month of Tishrei, including Shabbosim in between, and every “erev.”
Erev Rosh Hashanah
First Night Rosh Hashanah
First Day Rosh Hashanah
Second Night Rosh Hashanah
Second Day Rosh Hashanah
Shabbos Parshas x
Friday Night Meal
Erev Yom Kippur Meal 1
Erev Yom Kippur Meal 2
Motsei Yom Kippur
Just keep going. Get your calendar out and write it all down. Once that’s done, see if you know if you are hosting or being hosted and mark that as well.
2- Start by filling in the easy stuff. Write down challah (how many per meal), the simanim your family does, the shehechiyanu, the soups you know your family likes (chicken soup with noodles, right?) and leave a spot for the soup that you want to try but aren’t sure which one yet.
3- Make a list of appetizers, side dishes, meats, chickens, or soups that cook well in bulk. Spread those out throughout the first days and second days and Rosh Hashanah too. Nobody minds eating the same thing again, as long as it’s fresh and not served too close together.
4- Don’t stress to finish your menu right away. You want to play around with it and leave some spots open for fresh salads and ideas that you will come up with as you get closer to Yom Tov (also, you know that your favorite site will be posting new recipes, so leave room for that). A menu that has too many items isn’t necessarily a good menu. Too much of a good thing removes importance from great dishes. You want your dishes to be appreciated and savored, not reheated the week after Yom Tov.
5- Balance. You need to make sure that the appetizer and the main work. If you are serving fish for an appetizer, consider what main you are serving. If the main is heavy and very filling, you want an appetizer that is just that, an appetizer. Which means, a few bites. Not a meal. We tend to over serve and stuff our guests. It’s not elegant nor healthy, not to mention unclassy.
If you are not doing fish for the appetizer, make sure that the main isn’t the same dish. Like for example: skirt steak salad appetizer and a steak for a main course. It’s redundant. You want to balance it out by rather serving grilled chicken over your salad. Or, you can choose to serve a filling appetizer (which brings me to the next point) and serve a more delicate main that only the adults will appreciate (like a rack of lamb chops or a smallish flanken roast with some vegetable sides.
6- Serve the kids: I hate running after my little kids when I’m hosting, to make sure that they ate something (they are usually so busy playing with the guests etc!) And no, I don’t force them to sit at the table. The way I solve this is by serving a filling and exciting appetizer that I know my kids look forward to. This way, everyone eats, we start the meal as a family, and I don’t stress about what happens after that.
They will all come back for dessert, they always do.
Examples of filling appetizers are:
Crispy Chicken from Dinner Done, page 112 (Yes, it freezes well, I just do the last step fresh)
Batter Fried Chicken from Our Table, page 26
Mongolian Beef over Sushi Rice (I prepare this one fresh)
Grilled Chicken Salad from Dinner Done, page 256 (the crunch freezes well, and everything else gets prepared in advance)
Seared Tuna cubes over Kani Salad from Our Table, page 16 (I sear it fresh)
Gnocchi with Short Rib Ragout (meat freezes well, I prepare the gnocchi fresh)
7- I like to Cook on Yom Tov. There, I said it.
I will never forget how I once visited my sister in London for Pesach and one Yom Tov afternoon my kids were hungry and my sister was resting, so I made them latkes for early supper. I can still see the looks of horror on my nephews and nieces faces, they thought that their aunt from America was being mechalel Yom Tov and cooking. It was comical. Yes, you guessed it, my sister does not cook on Yom Tov, she likes to have everything ready and just reheat.
But, I’m not like that. But I also learned to be a bit more like that. I learned the hard way one chag when I was hosting 28 people and decided that I wanted to serve freshly made french fries and an appetizer that consisted of fried chicken strips. All fresh. Sure, it was a delicious meal but I was a shmatta and so was my kitchen. Also, I didn’t get to enjoy or sit with my guests.
You live and you learn. Now I envision my kitchen and my stove top and how I will juggle it all.
Yes, I still cook fresh on Yom Tov, but it needs to be balanced (key word, again) with all the other courses. Some from the freezer, some fresh is the magic formula. Like for example, I will fry and freeze all the chicken from the Crispy Chicken in Dinner Done page 112 and prepare the sauce, then, reheat the sauce and assemble it all fresh, on Yom Tov. And yes, it tastes amazing. I will prepare a standing rib roast fresh. I will roast potatoes. But, these are all dishes that don’t take up much kitchen space or time.
8- Desserts. Figure out when you can serve a fun dessert (like a ice cream with a hot fudge) and when you need to serve something straight from the freezer, like on Shabbos. On Sukkos, I like to serve a hot dessert, in the Sukkah, like this one here. Think of the meal, envision yourself there and see what will work.
9- More people doesn’t mean serving an insane amount of food.
This one I learned too, the hard way. Too many leftovers later I learnt that when hosting a crowd you need a few items that “stretch a course” like adding hummus plates or an eggplant carpaccio to any appetizer, and adding a second meat or chicken to the main course. Otherwise plan the same way, just think of plating and how you will do that. Also, think which plates you will use to serve each dish.
10- Take into consideration the second night meals.
You have less time to reheat food, no time to defrost that soup. So plan accordingly. Either have your meats in the fridge ready for a quick reheat or, build your menu around dishes that don’t take long to cook/reheat. And make sure that soup is defrosted already, from before Yom Tov. Not just the soup, but anything in the freezer that needs to defrost, make sure it’s in the refrigerator before Yom Tov begins.
11- Count in the leftovers
With so many meals and so many courses, you are bound to have some leftovers. Either plan a leftovers based meal towards the end of the chag, or, plan to repurpose. Like shredding a meat/roast and serving it as pulled beef or in tacos.
12- After Yom Tov is over, go back, and put in your notes.
Next to the item that went over well write why and update the amounts you needed (prepare more rice, less of the mash). Write specifics like “the Friedmans (guests that might come again) loved this main” and also write the negative (this dessert took way too much time, not worth it. Wasn’t that good anyway).
Also, chances are that on Yom Tov you probably tweaked and changed things, so go back and put those changes in.
The more info you put in, the easier it will be to write a menu the following year.
Remember to save your menu, in a place where you will find it, and yes, you will thank yourself a year from now.