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Creating a Rosh Hashanah Dinner Tradition

Originally published September 2003. Republished September 23, 2011.

Every family creates its own "we-ness." Whether it's piling onto the roof to watch the fireworks every Fourth of July or the garlic-rosemary potato pancakes we always wolf down the first night of Hanukkah, the special traditions we weave into the fabric of our family make us a "we" unlike any other.

For several years, my husband and I did not observe any Jewish traditions in our own home: we celebrated Rosh Hashanah dinners and Passover seders only at our parents' tables. But when our daughter, Alexandra, was born, we, like many baby boomers, began re-examining the rituals that had become rote, the customs from which we had felt so disconnected. And we re-created our own traditions together as a family.

From the time Alex was a toddler, we have begun preparations for Rosh Hashanah during our summer vacations, when we search for a new honey to indulge her Pooh-like passion for dunking chunk after chunk of challah and apples into unmitigated sweetness. Jews traditionally save a new fruit from the autumn harvest to eat on Rosh Hashanah. We serve a new honey as well: wild blueberry honey from Maine, creamed lavender honey from Provence, chestnut from Italy, honey fragrant with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda. The second night of Rosh Hashanah we spend with my in-laws and their extended family; the first night, at our house, is always an elaborately planned meal for Alex and our closest friends, Jewish, interfaith and gentile.

Last Rosh Hashanah was the first we would be celebrating without Alex, who had morphed into a college freshman clear across the country in Los Angeles. What would the special dinner we had originally begun for her be like without her presence, dipping her challah into the new honey, scooping the ruby seeds of the season's first pomegranate onto our plates?

Alex and her buddies wouldn't be there, but the friends we have invited every year—those who had grown up Jewish and those who hadn't—would be, as was another dear friend whose son was also away at college. Chris was raised as a Catholic, and although she had attended many Passover seders, having married two Jewish men—her ex, and the man to whom she was now married—she had never been to a Rosh Hashanah dinner and neither had her 14-year-old daughter, Ashley.

Many books stress the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, and, by tradition, it is the day when our fate is inscribed for the coming year in the Book of Life. But it is also a birthday party, celebrating the birth of creation. Conversation at our table is joyous—it is, in fact, forbidden to display anger on this holiday. My husband Howard and I had decided to plan a dinner that would emphasize the joy and sweetness of the holiday, of creation, of life.

We developed a menu rife with food puns in the Rosh Hashanah spirit. There were heads of roasted garlic, embodying our wish to be a model of righteousness, at the head of our peers; a butternut soup, so we would "squash" all that is evil; a salad of Boston lettuce and thinly sliced beets, so we can "beat" back our enemies. We began explaining the puns, and soon all of our guests, including Ashley, were finding wonderful puns where we weren't aware any existed.

We passed around pieces of raisin-studded challah—cut from a loaf that was round so our year would be fulfilled and unbroken by tragedy—and quarters of apples fresh from our local greenmarket: sweet Galas, tart Rhode Island Greenings, and Macouns that fell somewhere in between. We dipped everything into the sageflower honey we bought in Santa Barbara, the same one Alex would be sharing with her friends later that night at Pomona College, and we tasted the sweetness we hoped the world would enjoy in the coming year.

We cut open a pomegranate, and Ashley spooned out some seeds for everyone. I explained that even in our global world that knows no seasons, we make sure to choose a special fruit, and refrain from eating it when it comes into season locally in late summer or early autumn. Then, when Rosh Hashanah comes, it is as if we are tasting the fruit for the first time. We had not eaten pomegranates since last January; tasting it now was like discovering it, participating in the brand-newness of Creation. This is the thrill expressed in the Shecheheyanu prayer, traditionally recited on Rosh Hashanah and other occasions when one experiences the pleasure of life's extraordinary moments, what Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, calls the "wow prayer."

As we held hands, Howard recited the prayer. A tear rolled down Chris's husband's cheek. The Shehecheyanu, he remembered, had been his late father's favorite blessing, and he had never understood why. Now, hearing it chanted again for the first time in 25 years, he finally understood.

We dug into the braised brisket with chestnuts, tart-sweet prune tsimmes and luscious desserts. And finished with tea sweetened with more of that honey.

Yes, it would be a very sweet year.

 


 

AROMATIC BRISKET WITH CHESTNUTS

Sweet chestnuts are New Year's food for Jews from Transylvania, who eat them when reciting the Shehecheyanu, the prayer for new fruits at Rosh Hashanah, and Hungarian Jews cook them in a special tsimmes at Sukkot.

In this brisket recipe, the chestnuts break up, imparting a nutty sweetness to the brisket. To build additional layers of flavor, I stud the meat first with garlic, then bathe it in a pomegranate-molasses and balsamic vinegar marinade.

Ingredients
5 large cloves garlic, peeled
A first-cut beef brisket, about 4-5 lbs., trimmed of excess fat, wiped with a damp paper towel, and patted dry
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
12 crushed peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
6 cups (1 1/2 lbs.) chopped onion
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8-10 carrots, scraped and quartered
3 fresh thyme sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 cups chestnuts, blanched and peeled (procedure follows), or use canned(packed in water), frozen, or rehydrated dried chestnuts

1. Cut half the garlic into thin lengthwise slivers and set the rest aside. Make a little slit in the fat side of brisket with the point of a small, sharp knife. Insert a garlic sliver into the slit, using your fingers and the knife tip to push it in as far as possible. In the same way, insert the remaining slivers all over the top and bottom of the brisket, spacing them out as evenly as you can.

2. If you have a plastic food storage or roasting bag large enough to hold the brisket, put the meat in the bag and place it on a baking sheet. Otherwise, just put the brisket in a large non-reactive pan or bowl. Combine the pomegranate-molasses, balsamic vinegar and crushed peppercorns in a small bowl. Chop the reserved garlic and add it to the bowl. Pour the mixture over the brisket. Close the plastic bag or cover the pan with foil and marinate the meat in the refrigerator for a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 4 hours, turning the meat occasionally.

3. Remove the brisket from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature. Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade.

4. Because the brisket tends to splatter somewhat from the marinade (even though I dry it), and because it is so large, I find it easier to brown the meat under the broiler. Just cover the broiler pan well with aluminum foil to minimize cleanup. (If you prefer, sear the brisket on top of the stove, using 3 tablespoons of oil.)

Preheat broiler. Place the brisket under the broiler, fat side up on a foil-lined broiler pan. Broil about 5-6 minutes on each side, or until browned. Don't allow it to develop a hard, brown crust, which might make the meat tough or bitter. Move the meat around as necessary, so it sears evenly on the back and front portions. Transfer the brisket to a platter and set aside.

5. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

6. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large roasting pan or casserole. (If you pan-seared the meat, pour off all the fat remaining in the pan, then heat 2 tablespoons of fresh oil.) Add the onions, and saute over medium-high heat until the edges are golden, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste, turn heat down to very low, and cook until quite softened, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes (time will vary, depending on type of pan used). Add the carrots, thyme, and reserved marinade, and bring to a simmer, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.

7. Salt and pepper the brisket to taste on both sides, and add it to the pan, fat side up. Spoon the vegetables over the meat. Cover tightly and place in oven.

8. Braise the meat for 11/2 hours, basting with the pan sauce and vegetables every 30 minutes. Add the chestnuts. Cover the pan again, and continue cooking and basting for another 1 - 2 hours, or until meat is fork tender. (When you baste, check that the liquids are bubbling gently. If they are boiling rapidly, turn the oven down to 300 degrees.)

9.Transfer the meat, chestnuts and carrots to a platter and keep warm, loosely covered with foil (reserve a couple of carrots--and some chestnut pieces, if desired--for thickening the gravy). Remove thyme sprigs and strain the braising mixture, reserving the solids. Skim and discard as much fat as possible from the liquid. In a food processor or a blender, puree the solids, including the reserved carrots and chestnuts, with 1 cup of the defatted braising liquid until smooth. (Alternatively, if you prefer a chunky gravy, puree most, but not all of the solids.) Put the pureed mixture, the remaining braising liquid, and the rest of the solids into a clean saucepan, and cook until ingredients are well combined and hot. Taste and adjust seasoning. If gravy is too thin, boil down to desired consistency over high heat.

10. Cut the brisket into thin slices across the grain at a slight diagonal angle. Arrange the sliced brisket on a serving platter with chestnuts and carrots. Spoon some of the hot sauce all over the meat and pass the rest in a sauceboat.

Yield: 8 generous servings

To peel chestnuts: Using a sharp knife, cut an "x" on the flat side of the shell. If possible, pierce deeply enough to go through both the peel and the thin brown inner skin. Put the chestnuts in a big, heatproof bowl or pot. Pour in enough boiling water to cover them by an inch or two, cover, and let soak about ten minutes. They are easiest to peel when hot, so take them out of the water one at a time. Pull off both the shell and the papery skin. Removing the skin can be tedious; if necessary, pour more boiling water over the nuts to loosen it. They are now ready for the recipe. Cut them into bite-size chunks, or if small, leave whole.

EGYPTIAN BLACK-EYED PEAS WITH CILANTRO (LUBIA)

Black-eyed peas probably arrived in ancient Judea from China via the Silk Route, and consuming them on Rosh Hashanah is a Middle Eastern tradition dating back to the Talmud. For Egyptian Jews, eating black-eyed peas embodies their wishes for prosperity and good fortune in the coming year.

The long-grain rice in the recipe is no afterthought but integral to the dish: one of those culinary mysteries providing the fluffy nutty quality needed to unlock the butteriness of the beans.

Serve the lubia and rice as an accompaniment to the brisket or as a meatless entree alternative, garnished with generous quantities of cilantro.

Ingredients
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
Two 10-ounce packages (4 cups) frozen black-eyed peas, or 1 1/2 cups dried black-eyed peas, picked over, drained and rinsed (try frozen black-eyed peas, if available; they are usually more flavorful than the dried variety)
One 8-ounce can tomato sauce
2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro root (or, if unavailable, chopped cilantro stems) and 3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves, plus additional whole leaves for garnish
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Freshly cooked long-grain white rice

In a large saucepan, cook the garlic in the olive oil until it is softened and just tinged with gold, about 2 - 3 minutes. Add the peas, tomato sauce, cilantro root (or stems), and enough fresh cold water to cover the peas by about 1 inch. Bring the mixture to a boil, and simmer it, covered, over low heat. If using frozen peas, add salt and pepper to taste after cooking for 10 minutes; if using dried peas, add salt and pepper to taste after 20 minutes. Add more water if necessary to keep the peas quite soupy: there should be enough water to form some sauce. Cook frozen peas for a total of 20-30 minutes; dried for 35-45 minutes, or until the peas are tender (exact time will depend on the age of the peas). Stir in the chopped cilantro and serve the lubia over the rice, garnished with additional cilantro leaves.

Yield: about 6-8 servings

CARAMELIZED ONION AND CARROT TSIMMES WITH CANDIED GINGER

Spicy, sweet, and tangy-sour notes harmonize beautifully in this meatless vegetable-fruit melange. Serve it as a side dish or offer it as a condiment with the brisket or poultry.

Ingredients
3 tablespoons mild olive or other vegetable oil
1 1/2 lbs. (6 cups) onions (preferably red), thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 cups carrots, scraped or peeled, and sliced
1 tablespoon minced candied ginger
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon fragrant honey
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup pitted prunes, quartered

In a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet, heat the oil and add the onions. Salt and pepper lightly, and stir well. Cook, covered, over very low heat, stirring occasionally, so mixture does not burn, for about 30-40 minutes, or until the onions are meltingly tender and almost transparent. Add the carrots, ginger, orange juice and zest, honey, cinnamon and additional salt and pepper to taste. Raise heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil. Let it bubble for a few minutes, then reduce heat and continue cooking, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are tender and the onions are golden and syrupy, about 15 minutes. Add the prunes and simmer for 5-10 minutes longer, or until the prunes are quite soft. If necessary, boil for a few minutes over high heat to evaporate any liquid remaining in the pan. Adjust the seasoning. Keep the mixture warm, covered, until ready to serve. The tsimmes tastes best if allowed to stand for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavors to meld (or prepare in advance and just reheat before serving.)

Yield: about 6 servings

MAPLE-FLAVORED QUINCE AND RASPBERRY COMPOTE

Make sure the quinces are ripe. Unlike most fruits, which sweeten up nicely when stewed unripe, quinces may retain an unpleasant tannic taste, similar to unripe persimmons. Don't worry about bruises: if they are very fragrant and give slightly when pressed, they will be luscious.

This beautiful garnet compote is wonderfully renewing after a rich meat dinner. Leftover compote combined with cottage cheese or yogurt makes a delicious breakfast.

Ingredients
3 medium-large ripe quinces
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, split or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 pint raspberries
additional maple syrup or fragrant honey, if necessary

Wash the quinces well, rubbing off any downy fuzz, and cut them into sixths. Using a small, sharp paring knife, cut away and discard the stems, blossom ends, and all hard bits around the cores. The peels and seeds will add body to the poaching liquid by causing it to jell slightly, so cut them away and place them in a wide, heavy, non-reactive pot, together with the trimmed quinces. Add the maple syrup, salt, vanilla, and enough water to cover everything, bring to a boil, and simmer, partially covered, until quinces are very tender, about 25-40 minutes (time will vary considerably, depending on the quinces). Remove quinces from the pot and place in an attractive glass bowl. If desired, cut the quinces into smaller pieces. Simmer the poaching liquid (containing the peels and seeds) until it begins to get noticeably darker and more viscous; this might take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or so. When it is almost syrupy, add the lemon juice, raise heat to high, and boil until the liquid is reduced to about a cup. Pour the hot liquid through a fine strainer over the quinces, discarding the vanilla bean, peels and seeds. Stir in the raspberries. Cover the bowl, let the compote rest until it comes to room temperature, and then refrigerate it until thoroughly cold. Taste, and if necessary, adjust sweetening with additional maple syrup or honey.

Yield: about 6 servings

Cook's Note: For a lovely, tart-sweet finish, garnish with pomegranate seeds.

INDIAN-INSPIRED PINEAPPLE-COCONUT MILK NOODLE KUGEL

This dairy-free pudding is a playful culinary pun on traditional Ashkenazi noodle kugels: coconut milk replaces the dairy variety; orzo, a pasta in rice clothing, becomes the noodles; and the pineapple and spices provide the evocative scent of the tropics.

Soft, creamy custard on the tongue, it tastes sweetly spicy and fruity, and makes a lush, graceful finish to the lavish Rosh Hashanah dinner.

Ingredients
One 20-ounce can of pineapple rings in natural, unsweetened juices
3 tablespoons maple or brown sugar
mild oil, such as avocado, sunflower or almond oil, for greasing pan
salt
1/2 cup orzo
2 cups unsweetened coconut milk
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger
1 vanilla bean, split
3 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
boiling or scalding-hot tap water, for hot-water bath

1. Preheat broiler. Drain pineapple and arrange in a single layer on a foil-lined broiler pan. Sprinkle evenly with maple or brown sugar. Broil pineapple on one side only until it is a rich, golden-brown and sugar has melted, about 5-8 minutes.

2. Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking dish with the oil. Spread the pineapple pieces (with any sugar drippings), sugared side down, in a single layer on the bottom of the pan. (If there is an extra ring or two, cut in quarters and use to fill in the spaces between the rings.) Set aside. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees.

3. Bring 2 quarts of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a rapid boil. Add the orzo and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Drain well, rinse a few seconds under cool water and drain again.

4. While orzo is cooking, combine coconut milk, cinnamon and ginger in a medium saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean and add to the pan. Turn heat to low and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes to infuse the milk with the fragrance of the spices. Don't allow the mixture to boil. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

5.In a large bowl, beat eggs, granulated sugar, and a pinch of salt until thick and light. Add the coconut milk mixture, pouring it through a strainer into the bowl. Discard spices. Add the cooked, drained orzo and combine ingredients well.

6. Distribute the mixture evenly over the pineapple in the prepared pan. Place the pan in a larger baking pan and add enough boiling or scalding-hot tap water to the larger pan to come halfway up the sides of the kugel pan.

7. Bake for 60-75 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. The kugel must cool to set. You can serve it right from the pan, or invert it when cool: run a knife along the edges of the pan, turn the pan upside down on a serving plate, and unmold.

8. Serve the kugel chilled, but not icy cold. Or for a more exotic finale, try it slightly warm (reheat gently).

Yield: about 8 servings

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Who has given us life," part of a blessing thanking God for bringing us to a special or new moment. Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." A bread that comes in a few different varieties; its most common variation is a braided egg bread, though there are water challahs that don't have eggs, and there are whole-wheat challahs which sometimes also don't have eggs. It is customary to being Sabbath and holiday meals by saying blessings and eating challah. Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.
Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen's newest book is Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, published by John Wiley and Sons in February 2008.

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