Purim is a busy holiday. It starts with an evening reading of the Megillah of Esther, followed the next morning by the second reading of a story that rivals the pace of a best-selling novel. The plot features a brave and beautiful heroine, a despotic king, a clever uncle, and a villain who is destroyed by his own evil plans.
After the morning reading, many people visit family and friends to distribute “mishloach manot,” packages filled with two baked goods and a drink. They also give “matanot l’evyonim,” donations to the needy.
Finally comes the highlight of any Jewish holiday – a delicious meal. But unlike most Jewish celebrations, where dining occurs at night, the Seudat Purim is a feast served midday, often lingering until evening.
The idea of consuming a meal during daylight hours was decided in the fourth century by the scholar Rava, who thought the timing would prevent Purim from becoming a regular workday.
Bearing out Rava’s worst fears, the lavish luncheon now passes under the radar screen of many, and it is mostly observant Jews who throw Seudat Purims. However, because Purim falls on a Sunday this year, Feb. 28, it’s an opportunity for the celebration to reach a larger audience.
But how do you get started?
“There’s no such thing as a traditional Seudat Purim,” says Janet Andron Hoffman, an adjunct professor of early childhood education at Columbia University Teachers College and a social worker at the Abraham Heschel School in New York City.
Hoffman finds that most families develop their own style of hosting the celebratory lunch. However, the meal begins like other Jewish holidays – by breaking bread and reciting blessings.
“I like to cook,” Hoffman told The Jewish Standard last Friday, in the midst of making a lemon pound cake, “especially for Shabbat and holidays.”
This Purim, Janet and Kenneth Hoffman will have what she called “an extended family marathon – everyone is sleeping over for the whole Shabbat weekend.” All together, there will be 13 adults and three small children. (For some holidays, the guest list is even longer.)
“Everybody brings something,” Hoffman said. “We usually have one meal of the weekend that is eclectic/Jewish. The other meal or two will have some kind of culinary theme,” like Moroccan, that is chosen in a round of e-mails. “It’s really a lot of fun,” she said. “No one yet has put forward what the cuisine of the weekend will be. I do hope they’ll let me know.”
As for the Seudat Purim, it must start midday and end at sundown. Most important, the luncheon should be joyous because it commemorates the Jews of ancient Persia defeating their enemies.
Drinking plays heavily in the Purim story, which opens when King Ahasuerus of Persia gets drunk at a party and asks his first wife to show off her good looks. She refuses, so the king banishes her.
Ahasuerus then holds a contest to select a new wife. From hundreds of applicants he chooses a nice Jewish girl named Esther. She’s the niece of Mordechai, a prominent Jew who suggested that Esther enter the contest. He warns her not to reveal her religion at court.
In the next scene, Mordechai overhears that the king’s vizier, Haman, is plotting to annihilate the Jews. Mordechai implores Esther to save the Jewish people by intervening with her husband. She organizes a three-day event at which everyone gets drunk.
Ahasuerus becomes enraged when people he has not summoned request an audience, so Esther gathers her courage and approaches him.
Risking her life, she drops two bombshells: She reveals her religion and exposes Haman’s evil plot. Upon hearing the news, the king becomes so outraged, he hangs Haman on the gallows that the vizier had prepared to murder the Jews.
An ecstatic Mordechai and Esther host a huge celebration. From then on, they want Jews to observe Purim by exchanging packages of food and drink and by making charitable donations.
“This is what I love about my religion,” Hoffman says. “Even in the act of rejoicing, we’re still thinking about people in need. It’s built into the holiday.”
The foods eaten at Seudat Purim luncheons are rife with symbolism. Seeds and nuts are customarily cooked into holiday foods. The Talmud relates that Esther as queen ate only seeds and nuts in the palace of King Ahasuerus because she had no access to kosher food. Some experts believe she subsisted on chickpeas, too.
Many families buy an especially long, braided challah, commemorating the rope used to hang Haman. As turkey is generally known as a stupid animal and Ahaseurus was a foolish king, turkey often is the entree of choice on Seudat Purim menus.
Hamantaschen is the most well-known Purim food because its shape is reminiscent of Haman’s triangular hat. While hamantaschen are often filled with preserves or chocolate, poppy seeds were the traditional filling.
The drinking of alcoholic beverages is not only suggested but encouraged. In the Talmud, Rava said at Purim that people should drink to the point of not remembering whether it is Mordechai or Haman they are praising or cursing. If that degree of drunkenness is not appealing, a Seudat Purim is an occasion to serve your best wines.
Among all Jewish celebrations, this special meal is a time to express joyous revelry and release.
The bottom line is, a Seudat Purim is great fun.
Hoffman has hosted the festive lunch many times. With her three children now in their 20s, her Purim celebrations have evolved as her children have grown.
“The Seudat Purim is an opportunity to be with my family,” Hoffman says. “We love each other and have fun together; we’re lucky in that way.
“We celebrate with food, wine, and merrymaking. We’re all together. What could be better than that?”
Below are some recipes for a Seudat Purim menu.
Drunken Turkey (Meat)
Because the liqueur in this recipe is cooked through, the alcohol has lost its potency and thus is safe for children to eat.
No-stick vegetable spray
3 1/2 lb. turkey breast
1/4 cup orange liqueur
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 orange liqueur
1 1/2 cups orange juice
3/4 cup orange marmalade
1 tsp. lemon juice
6 tbsp. honey
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a roasting pan and rack with no-stick spray. Place rack inside roasting pan.
Rinse turkey breast under cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
Place breast skin side down on a plate. Douse with 1/8 cup orange liqueur. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder. Place breast skin side up on rack and repeat, seasoning with remaining orange liqueur, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the breast, avoiding any bones. Slide roasting pan inside the oven.
Meanwhile, place orange sauce ingredients into a medium-sized pot. Stir well to blend. Bring to a boil on a medium flame. Reduce flame and simmer sauce for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. If sauce returns to a boil, reduce heat again. Cool to warm and reserve.
After breast has roasted for 1 1/2 hours, remove it from oven. With a ladle, drizzle orange sauce on breast, reserving the remainder. Then return turkey to the oven.
Breast is ready when temperature on the thermometer reaches 170, which takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and wait 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with orange sauce.
Yield: 6 servings
Poppy Seed Noodles (Dairy or Pareve)
This recipe from Hungary reminds us of Queen Esther’s plight in King Ahaseurus’ court.
1 (16-oz.) package of extra-wide egg noodles
A few drops of cooking oil
6 tbsp. butter or margarine
Kosher salt to taste
White pepper to taste
1 tbsp. poppy seeds
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, garnish
Prepare noodles according to package directions, adding cooking oil to the boiling water. While noodles boil, chop shallots fine and sautÃ© in butter or margarine until translucent, about 2 minutes. Reserve.
When noodles reach the desired tenderness, drain them well in a colander. Place noodles in a large mixing bowl. Pour shallot butter (or margarine) over them. Add salt, pepper. and poppy seeds; stir until blended. Move noodles to an attractive serving bowl and sprinkle parsley over the top. Serve immediately.
Yield: 6 servings (as a side dish)
Chickpea Salad (Pareve)
This recipe tastes best when made 24 hours in advance.
2 (19-oz.) cans chick peas
15 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, cut in half
1/2 tsp. dried basil
2 tbsp. fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 medium-sized red onion, chopped
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
Kosher salt to taste
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
Drain chickpeas in a colander. Place chick peas and remaining ingredients in a large bowl and toss until well combined. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Toss again before serving, adding more olive oil and vinegar, if necessary.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Almond Triangles (Pareve)
Like hamantaschen, this pastry reminds us of Haman’s three-cornered hat.
No-stick vegetable spray
1 cup dark brown sugar (hard lumps removed)
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1 cup blanched, slivered almonds, coarsely chopped
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with no-stick spray.
In a large mixing bowl, with a wooden spoon hand mix the egg, brown sugar, and almond extract. (Don’t use an electric mixer in any step of this recipe.) Fold in flour, baking soda, salt. and cardamom, mixing well. Add almonds and stir until well blended.
Place batter in prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until edges brown and top surface is slightly firm to the touch but soft and spongy underneath.
Remove from oven and cool to room temperature on a wire rack. With a knife, cut across the pan, making 3 horizontal but equal strips. Then cut down the length of the pan, making 3 equal vertical strips. You’ll have 9 squares.
Remove these squares from the pan and cut them in half diagonally, creating triangles. The recipe freezes well. Yield: 18 triangles
Rebecca Boroson of The Jewish Standard contributed to this report.