Yikes! It is almost Easter. Or, yikes! It is almost Passover.
Either way it means a big family meal. If you are like me, it is a meal you are rarely prepared for.
Unlike the other big eating holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Easter always sneaks up on me.
Usually I have a problem deciding what to fix for Easter. Somehow, barbecued ribs, my entree of choice for most major eating holidays, does not seem appropriate.
For Easter I was thinking about marinating a leg of lamb in red wine, olive oil and marjoram then cooking it slowly on the barbecue grill. But just the other day I received word that Marylanders are not supposed to fire up our charcoal grills.
Last weekend Alan Zentz, fire supervisor for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' forest service, issued a state-wide ban on the use of charcoal grills. Cooking outdoors with gas grills would be permitted, he said. He cited an increase in the number of forest fires and the bone-dry conditions of the state's forests and fields as reason for the statewide open burning ban, the first since 1988.
I confess that I read about the ban when I was out in my back yard Saturday night, leafing through the newspaper as I grilled some hamburgers. My grilling was interrupted, but not by the news of the ban. Instead I had to go inside because it had started raining.
The next night, a family dinner in the back yard had just been completed when ferocious thunderstorms moved through.
The lesson seemed clear. All I have to do is fire up my charcoal grill and the skies will open.
I called Zentz Monday to offer my services as the state's rainmaker. He did not leap at the offer.
He said that despite the weekend rainfall, most of the state was still unusually dry and vulnerable to brush and forest fires. He said the ban on using charcoal grills would remain in effect until we got a soaking rain, something that forecasters say may happen this week.
Gas grills presented less of a fire threat than charcoal grills, he said, because the gas can easily be turned off. Charcoal grills, he said, remain hot long after you have finished cooking on them.
In previous years, a knocked-over grill might not have started a fire, or might have burned only one-tenth of an acre, he said. But this year, he said, not only have there been more brush and forest fires in Maryland, the fires have been burning up more acreage. A recent fire in Harford County started when a charcoal grill was knocked over and ended up destroying 2 acres, he said.
Zentz said his family had felt the effect of the ban on charcoal grilling. He and his wife, Sue, had planned to grill steaks on their charcoal grill in their Cecil County home. When his wife learned about the charcoal ban, she got a gas-fired camp stove. But as she started to cook the steaks on the stove, thunderstorms hit and washed out the cookout.
After talking to Zentz I figured that if it rains some more this week, I might get to grill lamb for Easter. If not, I guess I will have to cook it in the oven.
As for Passover, Carolyn Shochet, a reader of this column, told me about Philip Hackerman, a graduate of the International Culinary College who specializes in cooking creative kosher dinners for the holiday.
For example, she said, at a recent cooking class he conducted for members of Baltimore's Beth El congregation, Hackerman taught class members how to make Baked Alaska using a non-dairy kosher creamer in place of ice cream.
I reached Hackerman at the Pikesville home of his father, Benjamin. He told me that he cooked "intimate dinners," in people's homes. His family, he said, keeps kosher.
In previous years his Passover customers have been older folks, who wanted to have a family feast but weren't quite up to all the cooking, he said. In addition to cooking the meal, Hackerman also cleans up. While his fee varies according to the menu and the size of the group, for Passover the minimum fee is $15 a person, he said.
This year he has promised his mother that he will help her cook for Passover. He said he will probably make salmon blintzes for his family, a dish he also made at the Beth El class.
But he said that even at this late date, two days before Passover, he could help a panic-stricken host, cook for the holiday.