Among the many Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah is probably second only to Passover as a time when Jews most embrace the cliché “you are what you eat.” The emphasis on the symbolism of specific foods on this holiday is well-known: honey represents our hopes for a sweet year ahead, a round challah for a perfect year, a fish head represents the rosh, or head, of the year, and a pomegranate celebrates the new harvest. I’ve recently begun thinking about extending this concept to the design of the whole Rosh Hashanah menu.
Since I moved to Jerusalem last March, I’ve met Jews from places I never even knew had Jewish populations — Sweden, Bosnia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Estonia. Here in Israel, the diversity and complexity of our backgrounds has struck me more than ever before, and since my greatest wish is for peace and unity among all the world’s people, I thought I’d start this year with a meal that symbolizes that wish for unity, especially among the Jewish people.
More than just sustenance, food can serve ritual, social and cultural roles. To Jews, food is a symbol of God’s providence on Earth. We are told, “V’achalta, v’savata, uverachta” — “You shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless.” With our meal, we both meet our needs and thank God for providing us with what we need. And many scholars have pointed out how the blessings before eating are designed to raise our consciousness beyond our mere animal needs to the point of spiritual awakening. Many believe our culture positively revolves around food and holiday meals. (To wit, the old joke about the story behind every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”)
One popular Rosh Hashanah custom is to eat foods whose names create simanim, or symbols. These foods, such as leeks, gourds and carrots, often gain their significance through puns because their Hebrew or Aramaic names are similar to words of blessing, such as a request that God tear up any evil decrees against us. Modern writers often suggest we create our own simanim, playing off English words. For example, my single friends and I might consider eating dates in the hopes of changing our status in the coming year!
My Rosh Hashanah menu features dishes from places around the world where Jews live, unified by the use of common ingredients and seasonings that spill (figuratively) from one dish into the next. To start, we have a Cuban-style baked whole fish. While Cuba’s Jewish community is not as large today as it once was, the Jews of Cuba hold a significant place in the history of Jews in the New World. The dish gives us an opportunity to get the symbolic fish head on the table. And the tradition of apples and honey also find their way into this appetizer.
As a main course, I give a twist from the American South to the traditional Ashkenazic holiday brisket, using bourbon as the flavoring. Made from corn, bourbon is a sweeter whiskey than either rye or scotch, and the strong flavor of the meat can stand up to the alcohol without being overpowered by it. Pomegranate seeds and apples round out this sweet and savory centerpiece dish.
My mom likes to make a Carrot Kugel, a dish that grows out of the foods of Eastern European Jewry. I find it can be easy to go overboard with sweet in this holiday’s foods, so this recipe tones down the traditional Rosh Hashanah tzimmes (a sweet, carrot-based stew), shifting the ingredients into a standard potato-type kugel (pudding).
Many of the same ingredients are also featured in the Moroccan Winter Squash Tagine, a slow-roasted dish, traditionally made in a high-topped clay pot with a small chimney. Here the recipe is adapted to a Western style of cooking, and the vegetables are stewed in a deep pot on the stovetop. Winter squash and dried fruits give this dish a “comfort food” sweetness, and the spices provide a pleasant aroma.
Finally, a Syrian-style Stuffed Zucchini picks up as well on many of the same ingredients and seasonings from the other dishes. Traditionally topped with tomato sauce, a bit heavy for this meal (and also perhaps a bit informal for Rosh Hashanah), I’ve instead topped it with chopped fresh tomatoes and some brighter and lighter seasonings.
Although I haven’t included any here, this menu could be rounded out with salad, soups and desserts drawing from even more cultures. For example, an Israeli salad, or Indian-style cucumber salad could fit nicely. Soup could be drawn from nearly any Jewish community around the world. And for dessert you might consider baklava, Persian sweets or even an all-American apple pie.
May we all recognize, in the coming year, that we have so much more in common with each other than we have differences that distinguish us. Shanah Tovah!
All recipes make 8 servings.
Cuban Whole Fish With Apple-Mango Salsa
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cloves garlic, diced fine
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup olive oil
juice of 2 limes
1 tablespoon honey
2 whole fish (approximately 3 pounds each), such as, trout or sea bream, cleaned and scaled
salt and black pepper to taste
1 large red onion, peeled and sliced thin in rings
1 large apple, skinned and chopped
1 medium mango, skinned and diced
1 small red onion, diced
1 medium tomato, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and membranes removed, sliced thin (optional)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Combine marinade ingredients in a bowl and whisk together. Rinse fish thoroughly and pat dry both outside and in the cavity. Score both sides of each fish, making several slits about 2 1/2 inches apart and about 1/3 inch deep. This will allow the marinade to flavor the meat of the fish.
Season the fish, inside and out, with salt and pepper to taste. Line the bottom of a non-reactive shallow dish with onions. Place more onions inside the cavity of each fish. Pour marinade over the fish. Set aside, while you prepare the salsa, turning fish once.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Prepare all salsa ingredients and mix together thoroughly in a bowl.
Cover fish dish lightly with aluminum foil and place in oven. Cook for about 45 minutes, turning once after about 20 minutes. Fish is done if the flesh flakes easily when stuck with a fork. Bake for 5 more minutes, uncovered.
Serve fish whole, covered in Apple-Mango salsa, or with salsa in separate bowl on the side.
1 cup bourbon
1/2 cup olive oil
2 bay leaves
5 leaves fresh sage, diced (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
10 leaves fresh tarragon, diced (or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried)
4-5 lb. beef brisket
2-3 medium onions, sliced large
2-3 Granny Smith apples, cut into 3/4-inch chunks
paprika (enough for color)
salt and black pepper to taste
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 cups cooked sweet corn kernels
1 large red bell pepper, diced small
Combine bourbon, olive oil, bay leaves, sage and tarragon. Place brisket in ziplock bag or nonreactive glass casserole. Add marinade to brisket. Seal bag or cover casserole with plastic wrap.
Place meat in refrigerator and let marinate at least 4 hours. Overnight is fine. Rotate meat periodically and shift marinade around.
Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a large casserole pan with the onions and apple chunks. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of pomegranate seeds in with the onions. Remove brisket from marinade and place it fat side up on top of the onions. Pour marinade over brisket. There should be about 1/4 to 1/2 inch of liquid in the pan. If there is too little, add some water. Sprinkle brisket with paprika, for color, and add a little salt and pepper to taste. Cover with aluminum foil and place in oven.
After about 1/2 hour, flip brisket over and baste with liquid from pan. Recover and return to oven. Repeat after another 1/2 hour. Mix sweet corn, diced red pepper and remaining pomegranate seeds in a bowl.
After another 20-30 minutes, flip the brisket one final time. This time, pour the corn, pepper and pomegranate mixture on top of the brisket. Keep checking the brisket every 20 minutes or so, basting each time, until meat has become very tender. When it has, leave it uncovered in the oven for 10 more minutes.
Remove the brisket from the oven and allow it to cool. Slice it against the grain once it is cool and put it back into the pan with juices. When serving on a platter, spoon corn, pepper and pomegranate mixture over the top.
Mom’s Carrot Kugel
1 pound carrots, peeled
2 medium or 1 large onion, peeled
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons dried orange peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup flour
Shred carrots and onion in food processor (or grate by hand). Place in a large mixing bowl and add the brown sugar. Mix lightly.
Lightly beat 2 eggs, mixing in orange peel, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour egg mixture over the carrot mixture. Add oil. Again mix lightly.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour flour into bowl, stirring all ingredients to mix uniformly. The consistency should be like a thick, somewhat stiff batter. If it is too thick and you have trouble mixing, add a third egg.
Pour the batter into an oiled 8-inch square pan. Bake in oven for approximately an hour, or until kugel is no longer liquidy and the top begins to brown.
Winter Squash Tagine
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon allspice
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 pinch cayenne pepper
salt to taste
1 pound winter squash (e.g. butternut, acorn or pumpkin), peeled and cubed
1/2 pound potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 carrots, peeled and cut into round discs
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup pitted dates
1 cup pomegranate seeds
4 cups vegetable stock (or more as needed)
2 cups couscous
In a large stock pot, cook onion and garlic in oil over medium heat until starting to brown. Add cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cayenne pepper and salt. Stir and cook for another minute.
Add the vegetables, fruits and vegetable stock; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered, stirring periodically, for about 45 minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not mushy. Remove the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Taste and adjust seasonings with more cumin, cayenne or salt to taste.
Prepare couscous according to package instructions (should yield about 4 cups cooked). Arrange couscous in a ring around a large circular platter. Pour tagine mixture into center of plate.
1/2 cup uncooked long-grain rice
6 medium-large zucchini
3 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, diced small
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 lb. chopped beef
1 cup dried apricots, diced
6 ounces tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
4 large tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons fresh mint, diced (or 1 tablespoon dried)
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
Prepare rice according to package instructions. Clean zucchini, trim off both ends and slice in half lengthwise. Using an apple corer or similar utensil, scoop out the pulp in the center of the zucchini. Be careful not to puncture the skin. A small amount of flesh should remain on all sides. Pulp can be saved and used in various other dishes.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium flame and add onions. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring periodically, until onions start to grow translucent. Add garlic and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes. Avoid browning the onions and garlic.
Add meat, apricots, tomato paste and seasonings. Break up meat and gently stir-fry until all meat has been lightly browned. Pour meat mixture into large mixing bowl. Add cooked rice, stirring to blend evenly.
Mix tomatoes, mint, olive oil and lemon juice together in a bowl. Arrange zucchini in a casserole dish. Spoon meat and rice mixture into the hollowed out “canoes.” If any meat mixture remains, spill it loosely around the zucchini inside the casserole. Spoon tomato mixture on top of all the zucchinis, covering as much as possible. Again, loosely spill any excess around the zucchini inside the casserole.
Cover casserole with foil. Bake in oven for approximately 1 hour to 1-and-1/4 hours, until zucchini are tender but not mushy.
Joel Haber, a freelance writer and screenplay analyst, moved from Los Angeles to Jerusalem in March. He loves to cook because he loves to eat. Follow him at twitter.com/funjoel.