- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Many time-honored culinary customs turn out to be amazingly up-to-date, and food traditions for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which begins Sept. 15, are perfect examples.

Rosh Hashana dishes that have been popular for ages are in harmony with the latest nutritional guidelines.

The holiday menus usually begin with fish, an ancient symbol of abundance and a modern element of healthful diets. Vegetables and fruits play major roles in these dinners as expressions of thanks for a plentiful harvest.

The holiday ritual highlights the appreciation of the season’s bounty, and a blessing is said over a fruit that is tasted for the first time in the year, often a pomegranate or other exotic fruit.

The customary new-year greeting, “Have a good and sweet year,” is echoed on the menu. On most tables, sweet vegetables, especially carrots, winter squash or sweet potatoes, appear in soups, stews, salads or side dishes.

A taste of honey also symbolizes the wish for a sweet year. In biblical times, honey was the sweetener. Besides, honey represented good things, as in the Bible’s romantic references to Israel as the “land of milk and honey.” These days, many health-minded people choose honey over sugar as a sweetener.

Apple slices and pieces of sweet challah (Jewish egg bread), along with bowls of honey for dipping, appear on the table at the beginning of the Rosh Hashana dinner.

The hope for a sweet year also affects seasoning customs. In some houses, hot and spicy dishes are toned down so they taste mild and sweet; sour ingredients such as lemon juice and vinegar are omitted or used only with a light touch.

Sephardic Jews often serve pomegranates, dates and syrup-poached quinces. For the Jewish new year, the lavish spread of vegetable salads typical of any festive Sephardic meal includes sweet vegetables such as beets and carrots. The rest of the holiday dinner may also feature sweet foods.

Moroccan Jews serve couscous with seven vegetables, including winter squash, carrots, turnips and chickpeas, which simmer with raisins and meat; the raisins count as one of the vegetables.

In Israel, I discovered Rosh Hashana specialties from various Jewish communities. My favorites are dishes that are naturally healthful, not contrived or watered down for the sake of nutrition. These are dishes that rely on interesting seasonings for their fine taste.

A holiday dinner could begin, for instance, with sea bass with garlic and sweet bell peppers, a bright and zesty Moroccan Jewish appetizer. It’s delicious and a revelation to anyone who thinks gefilte fish is the only Jewish way of preparing fish.

For a Rosh Hashanah main course, serve roast chicken stuffed with rice and fruit, which combines savory and sweet flavors. Sephardic side dishes — vegetable pancakes made of winter squash, leeks and spinach and an easy salad of diced tomatoes, golden peppers and cucumbers sprinkled with a little oil, lemon juice and cilantro — make lively complements to the chicken.

From the Ashkenazic, or Eastern European, Jewish kitchen, come carrot kugel, a popular holiday treat, and a traditional cinnamon-and-ginger-flavored honey cake for dessert.

Sea bass with bell peppers, garlic and tomatoes

At other holidays, some families use dried hot chilies, but for Rosh Hashana, spicy peppers are omitted to make the dish sweet. This appetizer is often served cold or at room temperature, which makes it easier to prepare ahead.

11/4 pounds sea bass or halibut fillets, about 1-inch thick

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

2 red bell peppers, diced

8 large cloves garlic, minced

½ pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

½ cup chopped parsley

Cayenne pepper

Cut fish in 4 pieces. Heat oil in medium skillet, then add red bell peppers and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes. Add fish, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Add paprika. Add 1 cup water to skillet. Bring to simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to low, then cover and cook about 10 minutes or until fish is tender. (When checked in thickest part, fish should be opaque.) Transfer fish to deep platter using slotted spatula.

Add peppers to platter. Boil cooking liquid, stirring occasionally, until only about 3/4 cup remains. Stir in parsley and a dash of cayenne pepper. Taste liquid and adjust seasonings if needed. Spoon over fish. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 servings as an appetizer, 2 or 3 as a main course.

Roast chicken with rice-and-fruit stuffing

A light stuffing of rice pilaf studded with apples and raisins cooked in orange juice lends a festive touch to this easy roast chicken.

2 tablespoons oil

1 small onion, minced

1 cup long-grain white rice

½ cup orange juice

Salt and pepper

1 small apple, peeled, halved and diced

½ cup raisins

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 chicken (3½ to 4 pounds)

Orange slices, halved, optional

Heat oil in deep skillet. Add onion and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add rice and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Add 1½ cups hot water and the orange juice and salt and pepper to taste, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes. Add apple and raisins to rice and stir it lightly with a fork. Cover and cook 5 more minutes or until rice is nearly tender. Stir in cinnamon. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sprinkle chicken to taste with salt and pepper on all sides. Spoon enough stuffing into chicken to fill without packing too tightly. Reserve extra stuffing at room temperature. Set chicken in roasting pan. Roast in preheated 400-degree oven about 1 hour, or until juices run clear when skewer is inserted into thickest part of leg. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Heat remaining stuffing in nonstick skillet over low heat or in a covered dish in microwave until very hot. Serve chicken with stuffing on platter and extra stuffing on side. Garnish with orange slices. Makes 4 servings.

Leek, spinach and winter squash pancakes

These vegetable pancakes make a tasty accompaniment for roast chicken or can be served as an appetizer.

1 10-ounce piece winter squash, such as banana squash

Salt

1 3/4-pound bunch spinach, rinsed thoroughly, stems removed

2 large leeks, white and light green parts

4 to 5 tablespoons oil, divided

Pepper

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon flour, divided

2 eggs, or 1 egg plus 2 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cut squash in 2 to 3 pieces. Put in medium saucepan of boiling salted water. Cover and simmer over low heat 15 minutes or until tender. Drain and cut off peel. Cut squash in smaller pieces and mash with fork. Press gently in strainer to remove excess liquid. Transfer to bowl.

Cook spinach in large pan of boiling, salted water 3 minutes or until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze spinach to remove excess liquid. Chop finely and transfer to separate bowl.

Split leeks twice lengthwise and rinse well to remove sand between layers. Cut in thin slices crosswise. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large heavy saucepan; add leeks and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until tender. Transfer to separate bowl.

In medium bowl, mix ½ cup flour, eggs, sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and dash of pepper to make very thick batter. Add about 1/3 of batter to each bowl of vegetables, and mix well. Taste to adjust for seasoning. Stir 1 tablespoon flour into squash mixture.

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons oil in heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Form pancakes with vegetable mixtures, 1 tablespoon batter each, flattening each after spooning out, and fry about 2 minutes or until golden brown on each side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve hot. Pancakes can be kept warm in low oven on paper-towel-lined baking sheets about ½ hour. Makes 22 to 24 small pancakes, 4 to 6 servings.

Sweet carrot kugel

Carrots are a favorite for the Rosh Hashanah table because they are sweet and their golden color makes them a symbol of prosperity.

3 extra-large eggs, separated

5 tablespoons sugar, divided

4 medium carrots, peeled and grated, about 1 2/3 cups grated

1/4 cup ground blanched almonds

1/4 cup matzo meal

3 tablespoons flour

Salt

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sweet red wine

2 teaspoons lemon juice

13/4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Beat egg yolks with 3 tablespoons sugar in large bowl about 2 minutes or until thick and light. Stir in grated carrots, almonds, matzo meal, flour and salt to taste. Add wine, lemon juice and lemon zest. Mix well.

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue beating at high speed 30 seconds or until glossy. Quickly fold 1/4 of whites into carrot mixture.

Spoon mixture over remaining whites; fold together quickly but lightly. Transfer to oiled 4- to 5-cup baking dish. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 35 to 40 minutes or until firm and golden brown. Serve hot or warm. Makes 4 servings.

Honey cake

Traditional honey cakes often call for walnuts, but this one makes use of pecans, which are as popular in Israel as they are in the United States. This cake tastes even better when it is made one or two days ahead.

1½ teaspoons instant coffee granules

1½ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Dash ground cloves

2 large eggs

½ cup sugar

½ cup honey

1/3 cup oil, plus more for greasing pan

½ cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Dissolve instant coffee in cup with 6 tablespoons hot water. Let cool. Sift flour with baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

Beat eggs lightly. Add sugar and honey; beat until mixture is smooth and lightened in color. Gradually add oil and beat until blended. Using wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture alternately with coffee mixture, each in 2 batches. Stir in pecans.

Pour batter into 8-by-4-inch loaf pan, lightly greased and lined with greased parchment or waxed paper.

Bake in preheated 325-degree oven 50 to 55 minutes or until cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan about 15 minutes. Turn out onto rack, and carefully peel off paper. Wrap in foil when completely cool. Serve at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).


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