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A sukkah by the sea where produce is on the menu

by Judy Zeidler

September 20, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Ellen Hoffman and Neal Castleman live in a contemporary two-story home that covers a narrow lot in Malibu. We have been guests for several years at one of the dinners the couple host during Sukkot, which are held in a sukkah Castleman built on the only space available -- their rooftop patio overlooking the sea.

Their sukkah is a wonderful architectural sight; it is built and designed using metal poles and canvas walls, which Castleman carefully reassembles each year.

Hoffman, an interior designer, comes up with original ideas for decorating the sukkah that make it warm and inviting. One such design is a centerpiece consisting of a wire-mesh box that resembles the sukkah and is illuminated from within by a hurricane lamp, which creates magical shadows on the white canvas walls. Glass ornaments and mirrored balls hang from the sukkah's rooftop and create even more patterns.

Guests who arrive as the sun is setting over Malibu climb a flight of stairs to enjoy a breathtaking view of the sand and the sea from the roof.

Castleman begins the evening by lighting candles. Everyone is asked to light a candle of their own as hosts and guests chant the blessing together. The mood is magical, and everyone begins to feel the evening's spirit. Wine is poured into a special silver Kiddush set the hosts recently bought in Jerusalem,and we recite a Kiddush over the wine, followed by a motzi over the challah.

While Hoffman doesn't prepare the meal, she works with Lene Houck, a friend and fabulous caterer who cooks the dinner under her careful guidance. Houck, owner of Food by Lene, explained that since Sukkot is observed early this year, she is able to find beautiful late-summer produce that she uses in her menu at the outdoor farmers market.

The basic preparation of her food relies on the freshness of the fruits and vegetables that are available during the season. Houck does not like to use too many products in the preparation of each dish, as she feels it will take away from the individual taste of the key ingredient.

She begins the evening with fun, fresh vegetable appetizers. Corn off the cob is sautéed in olive oil, and just before serving, it is tossed with thinly sliced fresh basil. The sweetness of the corn and the pungency of the basil are a perfect combination, and the dish is served on Asian spoons.

Other appetizers include Cherry Tomatoes With Fresh Basil and Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette, as well as a platter of Asparagus Straws With Curry Cream.

The dishes are carried up to the rooftop, where Houck's husband, Mark, also a prep cook, pours the wine and serves each course.

The first sit-down course is Lene's Gazpacho, a cold tomato soup made with hand-chopped vegetables, cucumbers, celery and green onions.

Since it is a long way from the kitchen to the rooftop sukkah, Houck had to solve the challenge of keeping the main course warm -- Red Snapper Baked in Parchment Paper. Fillets of red snapper are placed on a bed of spinach, topped with capers, tomatoes and olives and individually wrapped, sealed and baked in parchment paper that keeps the heat in while being transported to the guests.

Dessert follows the Sukkot theme with Oven-Roasted Berry Short Cakes, which feature a lemon peel to represent the etrog and chocolate-covered dates representing the lulav.

After the meal, Hoffman and Castleman ask each guest to comment on what Sukkot means to them. We go around the table listening to the guests' thoughts and see the stars peeking through the sukkah roof. The sea air and sound of the waves below add a special meaning to the evening as a happy group of friends climb down the stairs, saying goodbye with the hope of being invited again next year.

Sauteed Fresh Corn Off the Cob
1/4 cup olive oil
3 ears of corn, cut kernels from the cob
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon lime juice (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat olive oil and sauté the corn kernels on medium high for about eight minutes. Remove from the stove. Add the parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and lime juice if you choose. Place corn in Asian soup spoons and serve. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 10 servings.

Cherry Tomatoes With Fresh Basil and Aged Balsamic Vinaigrette
20 cherry tomatoes, rinse and dry
20 small basil leaves, rinse
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinaigrette

Cut the top off of the tomatoes. With tip of a knife, make a small incision and insert basil, leaving the tip sticking out. Place on plate and drizzle with the balsamic vinegar before serving.
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