Purim Panic!!!

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Dear Jamie,
Purim starts right after Shabbat is over and I am so panicked! How I am going to get everything done for the seudah, what with cleaning up from Shabbat and all? Is there any way to prepare in advance? What advice can you give me to keep my cool and stop my panic?
Heather in Toronto

Dear Heather,
First, breathe! Remember that we’re all in the same boat, and breathe again. Seriously -- it can be done. After all, you’ve done harder things than this – like a three-day Yuntif. Unlike Shabbat or Yom Tov, on Purim you have the opportunity to serve fresh food, right out of the oven, the way it was meant to taste. Every cook who has slaved over a meal knows that value here. This is our dream, and we get to live it on Purim.

But you’re worried about doing it all in the space of time from havdalah until the seudah on Sunday afternoon. I must digress for a moment to tell you how I really love when the Megillah–reading is right after Shabbat. I’m in a much more patient frame of mind when I’m not fasting. So coming to shul after Shabbat – on a full stomach – makes the Megillah much more enjoyable. Don’t ruin the experience worrying about how you’ll pull off the seudah!

Relax: Follow these tips and tricks and your big seudah won’t cause big panic.

• When you invite your guests, delegate some of the work. Assign a salad (the time-consuming washing and checking and chopping) to one of your guests beforehand, so you won’t have to worry about it. People love to help and bring something to the meal. Dessert is another great course to farm out. The less you have to do personally, the less overwhelmed you’ll feel.

• Clean up from Shabbos right away and set the table for the seudah. It will make you feel that you’re ahead of the game already.

There’s no rule that says you have to cook everything on Purim day, so use the following do-ahead tips and chill out.

1. Soups are fantastically forgiving when made in advance. Make your soup now and freeze it so all you have to do is defrost and warm it before the seudah. Another great idea: go with a chilled soup – mango strawberry or gazpacho or perhaps chilled cucumber dill. They can be made before Shabbos, kept in your fridge till the seudah, and served chilled!

2. When it comes to the mains, think about which steps can be done in advance. If you are doing pasta: cook your pasta al dente (even as early as Thursday), drizzle it with olive oil and toss to coat. This process keeps it from becoming a sticky clump in your fridge. Store it in an airtight sealable bag or container. Likewise, most sauces can be made in advance, but keep the pasta and sauce separate until just before serving. Warm your sauce first, then toss in your pasta to combine and warm over the heat.

3. If you are doing a chicken dish, pick something easy: a one dish, one step oven-baked recipe is best. Clean your chicken and place it in your baking dish so it’s all ready to go and all you have to do is season before baking it fresh and serving.

4. If you are using vegetables, you can wash, check and cut them as early as Thursday. That way, you just need to assemble everything before the seudah. Trust me, this is such a mind-relaxing way to cook – you will adopt this practice year round!

5. Any salad dressing can be made in advance -- up to a week, at least in most cases. Just toss it on your pre-washed and cut veggies and serve.

6. If you are serving meat, choose something that’s better prepared ahead of time, such as brisket. Make it Thursday or Friday, slice it and immerse it in your gravy or sauce. Then just reheat and platter it Sunday. If you want to serve something freshly made that day -- like a standing rib roast or steaks -- leave only that dish to prep and cook the day of the seudah. Again, consider any steps you can prep in advance – vegetables, measuring -- at the very least, make sure you have all the ingredients in the house before Purim. (Discovering at the last minute that you don’t have a major ingredient for your main induces nightmare-level panic.)

7. Consider frozen or chilled desserts such as mousse, frozen pies, homemade ices or ice cream bars. They are so refreshing and all can be made the week prior to the seudah. And remember, you needn’t go overboard with dessert: one nice one will do just fine ‘cuz people will be candied out. Also think fruit platter, which can be cut and prepped in advance of Shabbos.

So there’s no need to panic. Think of the Purim seudah as the finish line of a week-long jog that you can do at your own pace.

Heather, you’re in control. It’s going to be a great!

Chag Purim Sameach to one and all!