By Harriet P. Gross
What do you think about while you’re at the stove, preparing your holiday meals? Since I’m not a cook, I’m always recalling the few past triumphs and the more ubiquitous near-misses, and tossing a prayer or two into the pot with the ingredients of the moment.
Erev Rosh Hashanah is an annual event at my house, always with a very early meal — look at most shuls’ start times for the first official service of the New Year! And my menu is always the same: chopped liver for the appetizer, chicken soup with matzah balls, brisket and honey cake. The variations are the vegetables, whatever sounds good as go-withs; this year, a baked cauliflower concoction and a potato/carrot/prune tsimmes. With apples, honey and challah on the table, the six family members who join us there never complain. In fact, they always praise the brisket and the soup.
Brisket is a snap: I cut an onion into a heavy pan, add some salt and pepper and garlic, then pour over the well-trimmed meat whatever bits are left in the bottoms of bottles in the fridge. It’s always a mash-up: mustard, ketchup, marmalade, Worcestershire and/or soy and duck sauce(s) — a sort of clearing out of the old for a new start to the new year. The miracle of brisket is that it’s such a forgiving meat; no matter the combination, it always tastes wonderful.
But for chicken soup, I still consult the recipe from Sara Kasdan’s funny 1969 book “Love and Knishes,” which reminds me that celery tops with leaves are better than stalks alone, and a bay leaf is essential. This year, however, life got too busy for that recipe. So instead I bought eight boxes of Meal Mart’s chicken-soup-for-one and on Erev-Erev Rosh Hashanah, dumped the contents into my soup pot. Plenty of nice chicken pieces, I decided, but a little short on broth and the eight matzah balls were small and very soft, threatening to disintegrate. “I’ll fix this in the morning,” I told myself as I shoved the pot into the fridge.
Morning came very early, as I awoke at 3:30 a.m. with a nagging need to get started. So I went downstairs, started eight more matzah balls (big ones), then added some canned Manischewitz chicken broth to the pot and set it boiling on the stove. Then I proceeded to everything else I could do in advance. I was so busy, I forgot about the pot altogether until I heard a strange hissing and saw steam rising from the burner it was perched on. I had let all the water boil away!
I quickly moved the pot and turned on the fan, but it was already too late. Our home security system’s fire alarm started to blare. And continued to blare. Then the phone rang — my cousin, our system’s backup contact, making sure everything was OK. She had planned to come over at 4:30 p.m. bringing the chopped liver, but not to be calling me 12 hours earlier!
Then the big red truck arrived with its own siren blasting and lights blazing, waking the neighbors. Six firemen entered; not totally satisfied with my story and a peek into that burn-bottomed pot, they went through the whole house including the upstairs master bedroom — where my husband somehow managed to sleep through the whole thing!
After the firemen left, I scraped up the matzah balls, sliced off the thinly charred bottoms, added them to the pot and went back to sleep. Later, at dinner, I detected a faint whiff of smoke when I ate mine, but nobody else seemed to notice; everyone proclaimed the soup even more delicious than usual.
When I’m fixing Erev Rosh Hashanah’s cookbook soup next year, I know I’ll be recalling this near-miss that turned into a slightly singed, unrepeatable “secret ingredient” triumph. That old adage, “A watched pot never boils,” fails to warn what can happen when you don’t watch at all!