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Jewish Journal

A young chef’s guide to the Rosh Hashanah meal

by Michael Israel

September 5, 2012 | 10:29 am

Considering the history of the Jewish people, the fact that Jews are still celebrating the High Holy Days today is a miracle in itself. Strong traditions and lasting rituals have enabled Jews to survive the most threatening periods of history. With the freedoms we have as modern American Jews, it makes sense that we use these same traditions and rituals to enjoy holidays to the fullest. As a chef and registered foodie, the best way I know to relish in the upcoming holidays is by making really delicious food. My plan for this year is to make a multi-course feast that pays homage to great Jewish eating traditions while at the same time represents me and my life as a Jewish chef in Los Angeles.

Watching friends and family nod their heads and smile as they eat the food you have prepared is unbelievably soul-satisfying. It is a great feeling to know that the meal you cooked has enriched the High Holy Day experience for those you love. Great food is part of the equation in making a great meal, but the experience is made complete when you also have time to enjoy the company of friends and family. In order to accomplish this, I turn to the motto of my alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, which states, “Preparation is everything.” Creating a strategy and timeline for a feast at home for guests will enable you as the cook to make great food and eat it too. Mise en place is a cooking term that means “to put into place.” It is what every chef must learn in order to master the craft of cooking. Mise en place represents the prep work done in advance of a meal and the strategy for serving it. If you are going to make the High Holy Day meal of a lifetime and still enjoy eating it, you must first focus on making a prep plan as to when the components of the meal will be made, and a strategy for how to serve the meal. This is what I will discuss as I go through my menu for the holidays.

My first course is Olive Oil Poached Sardine Fillets and Fried Heads With Lemon and Parsley Chips. Serving the fish heads, or the “rosh,” for the holidays has traditionally been a symbol for the fact that we have reached the head of the year, and also the head of life, rather than the tail. Some Jews serve whole fish so there will be a head on the table during dinner. Using this tradition as inspiration, I decided to serve fried sardine heads along with the fillets. Even though this is the first course, it should be last in the prep schedule. Ideally, purchase the fish as close to serving the meal as possible, so that it is at its freshest. The sardines should be cleaned and cooked shortly before serving. Last, they should be eaten immediately after cooking to maximize flavor.

The next course is Chilled Honey-Cucumber Soup. My wife and I own the M.O. Eggrolls food truck in Los Angeles. We are coming to the end of our first summer in business, and it has been a fantastic adventure. Along with the excitement and joy of running our truck comes the fact that we have been hot since April. Between the cooking equipment and the warm California sunshine, our truck heats up. This year, while I am relaxing and enjoying our High Holy Day feast, I want to eat something cool. Cucumber is a cooling ingredient and when paired with honey in a soup takes on a familiar homey sweetness that many Jews would associate with Rosh Hashanah. Along with being tasty, this chilled soup relieves a tremendous amount of stress, because everything can be made the day before, and to serve, it is simply poured into bowls and garnished.

Most chefs begin their careers working “the line.” This refers to the line of equipment in restaurant kitchens, where cooks are divided by stations and are responsible for cooking different items on the restaurant’s menu. Typically, stations are divided by the equipment each cook is responsible for, such as grill, sauté, fry, etc. This is the training ground for all chefs. You must prepare a variety of dishes as quickly as possible, while maintaining the highest-quality standards. The only way to survive the line is with impeccable mise en place.

Approaching a family meal at home as a line cook will enable you to cook a great meal and then have time to enjoy the company of your friends and family.  For the main course, I am serving Apples and Honey Chicken along with Smashed Sweet Potatoes and a Warm Kale-and-Fennel Slaw. Braised chicken is ideal for serving large groups hot food that is tender, moist and flavorful. I prepare all of the ingredients for the chicken the day before. The day of the dinner, I begin to cook the chicken in the early afternoon and let it cook slowly until I am ready to serve it.

The ingredients for the slaw are also prepared the day before, and I create a kit for the dressing. Kitting a recipe is a pillar of the Culinary Institute of America’s curriculum. It means that I have the ingredients for a recipe portioned and organized so that I can quickly assemble the dish when needed. By kitting the dressing, I am able to easily prepare the slaw near the time of serving it without stress. The last component of the entrée is the smashed sweet potatoes. Mashed preparations, like potatoes or squash, can be held in a heat-resistant bowl, covered in plastic wrap on top of a double boiler for long periods of time without compromising its quality. I prepare the sweet potatoes before my family and friends arrive and hold them over a double boiler until I am ready to serve them. Limiting the number of steps I have to take after family has arrived allows me time during the meal to sit with them and enjoy the food and their company.

After a great feast, I prefer a dessert that is petite and pairs well with fine coffee and schnapps. This year I am serving Honey-Olive Oil Cookies with Thyme and Fleur de Sel. The olive oil gives the cookie a biscuit-like texture that pleasantly dries the mouth and creates a craving for something to drink. Relaxing at the end of a holiday meal with the people I love and sharing cookies and schnapps is a tradition that helps me celebrate Jewish life. I hope that you will feel empowered to continue developing your own great Jewish culinary traditions for your friends and family.

I wish you all a delicious and sweet new year. L’shanah tovah!

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