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!
Olive Oil Poached Sardine Fillets and Fried Heads with Lemon
Olive oil as needed
6 sardines, fresh/whole
6 garlic cloves, peeled, whole
1/2 bunch Italian parsley
Kosher salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Procedure to clean sardines:
Cut off the head of the sardine by cutting behind the gills.
Run your knife down the belly of the fish, careful not to cut into the meat.
Using your thumb or forefinger, run your finger down the belly in order to clean out the innards.
Gently butterfly the fish with your fingers to expose both fillets.
With your finger, follow the spine of the fish to the tail. Gently bend the tail backward in order to break the spine bone at the tail. A small piece of the bone should pop through the fillet. Grab this piece of bone, and pull toward the front of the fish. The spine and bones should come out in one clean piece.
Rinse the fillets under cold running water to remove any remaining innards. Pat dry and keep in a cold place.
In a small sauce pot, add about 1 inch of olive oil.
Place the sardine fillets, garlic and parsley stems in the cold oil in the sauce pot.
Bring the oil to a simmer. As soon as the flesh of the fish turns opaque, remove the sardines, garlic and parsley stems from the oil and let drain on a paper towel. Season the fillets with salt and pepper.
While the oil is still hot, fry a handful of parsley leaves for 1-2 minutes until the leaves turn bright green. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Increase the heat under the oil, add the sardine heads, and fry until very crispy. Remove from the oil, drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
Serve the poached fillets along with the fried heads, a wedge of lemon and fried parsley leaves.
Chilled Honey-Cucumber Soup
Chilled Honey-Cucumber Soup
1 cup almonds, blanched and slivered
1/8 cup honey
1/2 cup olive oil
2 leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
1/2 cup challah bread crumbs, crust removed
1 Kirby cucumber, peeled and seeded
25 green grapes
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
In a blender or food processor, add the almonds, honey and olive oil. Puree to a smooth nut butter texture.
In a sauté pan, sauté the leeks in a small amount of olive oil. Let cool.
Add the remaining ingredients — challah, cucumber, grapes, vinegar, salt, pepper and leeks. Puree until smooth.
Strain the soup through a fine mesh strainer. Chill.
To serve, portion the soup into bowls and garnish with green grapes and almond slivers.
Apples and Honey Chicken
6 chicken thighs, skin on, bone in
1/2 cup olive oil
1 onion, grated
2 Golden Delicious apples, peeled and grated
6 garlic cloves, grated
1 tablespoon red pepper paste
1 tablespoon honey
14 ounces coconut milk
Salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a wide, shallow pan with straight walls, brown the chicken thighs skin side down over high heat in a small amount of olive oil. Do not remove or agitate the chicken until the skin is golden brown and crispy. Repeat this process until all of the thighs are browned, being careful not to overcrowd the pan.
Reserve the rendered chicken fat from the browning process to be used in the sweet potato recipe.
Either on a box grater or using the grater attachment on a food processor, grate the onion, apples and garlic.
In the same pan used to brown the chicken, add the onions, garlic and apple and sweat over medium heat for 5 minutes. Season with salt.
Add the red pepper paste and let cook for another 3 minutes.
Add the honey and coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer.
Place the chicken thighs in the simmering liquid, cover and place in the oven for 45 minutes.
Warm kale-and-fennel slaw with smashed garlic vinaigrette
Warm Kale-and-Fennel Slaw With Smashed Garlic Vinaigrette
1 bunch kale leaves, stems and ribs removed
1 bulb fennel, sliced thinly
1/2 cup olive oil
4 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Black pepper to taste
Clean the kale and remove the stems and ribs. Tear the leaves into bite size pieces.
Remove the tops of the fennel bulb and the core. Separate each layer of the bulb, and slice thinly.
In a small sauce pot over low heat, add the olive oil and garlic. Let the garlic toast for about 5 minutes until golden brown.
Turn off the fire and add the lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
In a heat resistant bowl, pour the warm dressing over the kale and fennel.
Let the slaw marinate for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Mashed sweet potatoes with cumin-spiced pumpkin seeds and schmaltz
Clockwise, from top left: Mashed Sweet Potatoes With Cumin-Spiced Pumpkin Seeds and Schmaltz; Warm Kale-and-Fennel Slaw With Smashed Garlic Vinaigrette; Apples and Honey Chicken.
4 medium-sized sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin
3 tablespoons schmaltz
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sugar
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
In a medium sized sauce pot, place the diced sweet potatoes and enough water to cover them along with a generous pinch of salt. Bring the potatoes to a boil and simmer until very tender, about 30 minutes.
In a small sauté pan over low heat, add the pumpkin seeds, cumin and dash of olive oil. Stir the mixture until the cumin becomes fragrant. Remove from the pan and reserve for garnish.
Drain the water from the potatoes, and place the potatoes back in the same pot. Let the potatoes steam for about 2 minutes in order to dry.
Add the schmaltz, olive oil, lemon juice, sugar and season with salt and pepper. Mash the mixture until smooth.
Garnished the finished potatoes with the toasted pumpkin seeds and serve.
Honey-olive oil cookies with thyme and fleur de sel
Honey-Olive Oil Cookies With Thyme and Fleur de Sel
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons fleur de sel
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Combine the flour, sugar and most of the thyme leaves in a bowl (reserve some of the leaves to garnish the cookies).
Combine the honey, egg and olive oil in another bowl.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix to form a dough (if too wet, add more flour; if too dry, add more olive oil).
Coat your hands in olive oil, and roll golf ball-sized pieces of dough. Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet.
Garnish the tops of each dough ball with thyme leaves and a pinch of fleur de sel.
Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the bottom of the cookies are golden brown.
Makes 15 cookies.