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Jewish Journal

Sephardic Dinner Spices Up Holiday

by Judy Zeidler

September 22, 2005 | 8:00 pm

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I am reminded of our trip to Italy a few years ago. We arrived in Milan in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel, planning to attend Rosh Hashanah services that evening at the Sephardic Synagogue.

We were relaxing in our room, and were surprised when the phone rang, because we did not think any one knew where we were. It was Adina Cohen, inviting us to her home for dinner after Rosh Hashanah services.

Cohen was born in Beirut, and her husband, Rabbi Eliezer Cohen, the retired chazan (cantor) of the Sephardic synagogue, is from Cairo. They now live in Milan, and both have strong Sephardic backgrounds. They had heard from their nephew, Moshe Salem, who lives in Los Angeles, that we were traveling in Italy and might be in Milan during Rosh Hashanah.

After services, we met them outside the synagogue and walked to their home, along with several members of their family. We were seated in the living room and met their three daughters, Melitta, Sharon and Elisheza, as well as aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, as they arrived from the synagogue.

The Cohens welcomed their guests, and we were all invited into the dining room, where a large table that almost filled the room was set for the holiday meal. Almost everyone spoke English, but they made sure that we sat close to their daughters, who were educated in Israel and spoke several languages. They made us feel welcome, and explained many of the Sephardic customs with which we were unfamiliar.

The evening began with washing of the hands, and a blessing was recited over the two round, home-baked loaves of challah. The rabbi broke off pieces of the challah, dipped them in salt and sugar and passed a piece to each guest. Adina Cohen explained, that for this special bread, the dough is left to rise only once and takes less time to prepare. The unusual texture, crusty on the outside, yet light and soft inside, comes from kneading the dough to its maximum elasticity, and is quite different from the challah that I make for my family.

Then the ceremonial foods were presented. Each dish was served separately, and a special blessing was said. First a plate of sweet dates, representing peace and beauty, was passed around the table. Then a bowl of fresh pomegranate seeds in rose water was served, the symbol of fertility and worthy deeds.

Next, slices of candied zucca (pumpkin) were eaten, representing a full year of good blessings for the family. Hubbard or butternut squash is the closest to Italian zucca, and may be used instead.

Also, during the New Year celebration, leeks are eaten to bring good luck, and Adina Cohen brought out a large leek frittata that was cut into wedges and served. The final dishes consisted of apple slices cooked in honey to symbolize a sweet year, and bowls of black-eyed peas, expressing hope for the future.

We thought the evening was over, but it was just beginning. The formal dinner started with a whole poached salmon, that was cut and served at the table, topped with homemade mayonnaise. Cohen told us that some of the foods that she serves now, such as fish, were not usually eaten in Lebanon, because they were considered a luxury and almost impossible to find. Since her marriage, many of the dishes she prepares for Rosh Hashanah are her husband's family recipes from Egypt.

Roasted veal stew was the main course. Cohen mentioned that often lamb is eaten during Rosh Hashanah, but since it was not available, they substituted veal. Crusted rice, first steamed and then fried, was the perfect accompaniment for the veal, and was served along with stewed zucchini and sauteed Swiss chard.

Dessert was simple and refreshing -- platters of sliced melon and cactus pears garnished with mint leaves.

Sharing and friendship were at the heart of this wonderful evening, as well as the special role that the foods played. It was a family affair, Cohen a talented cook, baked the challah and prepared the entire dinner herself. Her daughters, were in charge of setting the table and responsible for doing the dishes, and Eliezer Cohen performed the service.

Inspired by the hospitality of the Cohen family in Italy and fascinated by our experience with the Sephardic foods they served for Rosh Hashanah, we have added these dishes to our family holiday dinner.

Symbolic foods are: dates, pomegranate seeds with rose water, candied pumpkin, leeks, apples cooked in honey, black-eyed peas, baked beets.

Rosh Hashanah Challah

2 packages active dry yeast

3/4 cup warm water

2 tablespoons sugar

3 to 4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

Sesame seeds

Combine yeast with water and pinch of sugar. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, remaining sugar, salt and two eggs. Add yeast mixture to flour mixture.

Dough will be moist and sticky. Knead about 10 minutes, adding flour or water as needed, until maximum elasticity. Dough should still be moist. Sprinkle dough with flour, cover with plate or towel and let it rise until double, about one hour.

Divide dough in half; place each half on a lightly floured board and lightly knead into two round loaves. Place on a greased baking sheet, leaving space between loaves as they will rise when baking.

Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake at 350 F for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and completely baked inside.

Makes two loaves.

Leek Frittata

4 eggs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 medium leeks (about 3/4 pound), white part only, split and washed well

4 tablespoons olive oil

Mix the eggs, salt and pepper with a fork.

Slice the leeks into thin slices. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat olive oil and cook over medium-high heat until tender for six to eight minutes.

Pour the eggs over the leeks, mix and cook over medium-low heat until the eggs are set on the bottom but soft on the surface, three to four minutes.

Put a plate over the frittata and invert the skillet to reverse the frittata onto the plate. Slide the frittata back into the pan to cook the other side. Cook for about five minutes. Slide onto a platter, cut into wedges and serve hot or at room temperature.

Serves eight to 10.

Veal Stew

This stew can be prepared a day ahead and tastes even better after the flavors have a chance to meld.

4 pounds veal shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

2 celery stalks, sliced

1 cup dry, white wine

3 cups veal or chicken stock

1 large tomato, chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 bay leaves

10 whole black peppercorns

4 sprigs fresh parsley

8 sprigs fresh thyme, tarragon or oregano

4 long sprigs fresh marjoram or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 tablespoon dried thyme, tarragon or oregano

10 pearl onions, par boiled for 5 minutes and peeled

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Season the veal on both sides with salt and pepper. In a large heavy pot or casserole, heat the oil and saute the veal on both sides until brown.

Add the onions and garlic and saute until soft, about five minutes. Add the carrots, celery and saute for five minutes. Add the wine and simmer for two minutes. Add the stock, tomato, tomato paste and bring to a boil.

Combine the bay leaves, peppercorns, parsley and fresh and dried herbs in a piece of cheesecloth; tie with a string and add to the pot. Cover and bake for 2 1/2 hours or until tender.

Toss in the pearl onions. Remove the cheesecloth bag. Serve in soup bowls.

Serves eight to 10.

Judy Zeidler is the author of "The Gourmet Jewish Cook" (Cookbooks, 1988) and "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

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