While apples and honey are de rigueur among Ashkenazim for celebrating the New Year, Middle Easterners turn to the more exotic, like dates, quinces or pomegranates during the High Holidays. So if you're looking for some unique recipes this High Holiday season, you might want to turn to Faye Levy's latest cookbook, "Feast from the Mideast: 250 Sun-Drenched Dishes from the Lands of the Bible" (HarperCollins, $29.95).
Levy lived in Israel for nearly 12 years, where she met and married her husband, Yakir. A cooking novice until her mother-in-law took her in hand, she soon developed a love for the varied, bold flavors of her adopted home. She went on to train at the renowned La Varenne in Paris and to produce more than 20 cookbooks and writes with authority and passion on the cuisine of the Middle East.
"It is amazing how all these people who can't get along eat the same things," observed Levy, whose cookbook highlights cuisines of over ten countries.
"Eating together and discussing food and recipes is a great way to bring people closer," Levy continues. "Arabs and Jews share a lot of the same food. The Islamic rules of halal are similar to our laws of kashrut. We both don't eat pork. Arabs do eat shellfish, and they don't have a problem mixing milk and meat, but they hardly ever do it.
While the book explores the foods of all faiths and nationalities of the region, so many of the dishes are perfect for Rosh Hashanah because of the Middle Eastern fondness for incorporating local fruits, a perfect way to wish guests a sweet New Year.
"Sephardic Jews begin the Rosh Hashanah meal with dates, just as we do with apples and honey," Levy noted. "And in Greece, Turkey and Morocco, all around the Mediterranean really, quinces are really important for Rosh Hashanah. Moroccan Jews do dip apples in honey, then dip them in sesame seeds, symbolizing our wish that our people be numerous. Pomegranate seeds are traditional for the same reason."
Chicken in Pomegranate Walnut Sauce, a classic dish of the Persian kitchen, is appropriate for the holiday, Levy said.
"Pomegranate juice and paste are available in Middle Eastern and gourmet markets, because a lot of American chefs, like Bobby Flay, have suddenly become very excited about them. It has become trendy," she said.
If you can't find either, Levy advises using pomegranate juice, now readily available in supermarkets, and adding less water.
Traditional holiday foods vary from country to country and from family to family. Some people avoid sour tastes for the holiday, like lemons and vinegar.
Persians, however, favor tart over sweet and love a splash of lemon juice on many dishes, Levy noted.
"In fact, I have a friend from northern Iran who says that the pomegranate paste available in this country is too sweet, so he asks his relatives from Iran to bring some from home when they visit." Some people avoid black ingredients for the New Year, so they use golden raisins instead of dark and do not serve eggplant. Since the word for leeks in Hebrew means "destroyed," many serve leeks to convey the wish that our enemies be destroyed.
Some people will not eat walnuts, but will use almonds; others eliminate nuts altogether.
"In our family we always have rice with toasted almonds and dried fruit for Rosh Hashanah," Levy said. "Middle Eastern cooks have so many delicious ways to do rice, and some, like Almond Apricot Basmati Rice, are so good you could consider them a dessert, a side dish or a main course.
"Sweetness for Rosh Hashanah is more of an Ashkenazi thing," she said, "though certain Middle Eastern Jews do it, too. Moroccans often serve vegetables sprinkled with sugar, but sometimes instead of making food sweeter, they might just tone down the spiciness."
For example, fish is traditional for Rosh Hashanah, particularly served with the head.
Moroccans might make Foil Baked Trout with Red Pepper and Garlic, but omit the jalapeño and lemon for Rosh Hashanah.
"It really depends on your family's tradition," Levy said.
For Ashkenazim, Rosh Hashanah would not be complete without honey cake, but Sephardim of the Mediterranean may choose Citrus and Spice Quinces with Cranberries or Date Pinwheel Cookies. Honey isn't found necessarily in desserts in the Middle East, Levy said, though some might use it as syrup on cake. Fruit with Honey, Figs and Dates will appeal to both camps as a sweet ending to the Rosh Hashanah dinner.
"It's perfect for the season and really easy. And it goes well as a topping for traditional honey cake, too."
Dja'jeh b'Ah'sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey)
2 cups pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup cold water for 15 minutes
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
5 to 5-1/2 pounds chicken pieces (white and dark meat), skinned
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped yellow onions
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Three 3-inch-long cinnamon sticks
2 cups cold water
Prepare the sauce. Place the prunes and soaking water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the honey and cinnamon. Mix well and simmer until the prunes absorb some water and soften (they should be soft yet retain most of their shape), about five more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Prepare the chicken. Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a plate.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft, three to four minutes. Add the chicken pieces and brown, cooking for two to three minutes on each side. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon sticks and water, stir well, and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for one hour.
Uncover the skillet and cook until some of the excess liquid cooks off and the sauce has thickened to a gravy-like texture, an additional 20 to 30 minutes.
Serve on large platter, garnished with one cup blanched whole almonds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden.
Ka'ikeh b'Ah'sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze Cake)
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)
2/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon tahini
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Prepare the cake. Combine the beaten eggs, tahini, honey and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add to the wet mixture and mix well.
Pour the batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 9-inch Springform pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-35 minutes.
When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 45 minutes. With a knife, loosen the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the cake pan and flip the pan upside down.
Prepare the glaze. Combine the honey and tahini in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until blended to a smooth consistency, four to five minutes. Add the sesame seeds and mix well. Remove from the heat and immediately pour the hot glaze over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to soak in. Let cool for 30 minutes.
Cut into diamond shapes about two inches long and one inch wide and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.
Faye Levy will be signing "Feast from the Mideast" at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.
For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (323) 761-8648.
Judy Bart Kancigor, author of "Melting Pot Memories," can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com .