NEW YORK, July 11 (JTA) --On Yom Kippur eve, the emphasis, as it should be, is on getting to Kol Nidre services on time. Sometimes little thought is given to this very important meal whose menu should be in perfect balance to ready people for the fast ahead. Ideally, dinner on Yom Kippur eve should be hearty but light, nourishing but satisfying, tasty but not too luxurious. The challenge is daunting at a time when school and fall activities have just begun, and the Jewish calendar is so full.
I recall one year when I was still peeling potatoes an hour before eight people were expected for dinner on eruv Yom Kippur. I panicked, fearing that we'd never get to Kol Nidre services on time.
Fortunately my husband always comes to the rescue whenever I'm in a jam. He microwaved the potatoes, threw together a salad and broke into a sweat basting the chicken.
I set the table, barking orders, as our nine-year-old daughter scampered to her room to avoid my tension. I swore I'd never do that again.
Since then, I've given much thought to organizing this special dinner to save time, lower stress and serve foods that will facilitate a meaningful fast.
With Yom Kippur beginning this year on a Sunday night, people who observe the Sabbath have additional considerations. If possible, they should complete the bulk of their organizing and food preparation by Thursday, leaving Friday free to focus on Shabbat cooking. After Friday evening, their next opportunity to address the Yom Kippur eve meal is Sunday morning, when the countdown begins.
Although I'm embarrassed to admit it, I've solved this dilemma by imitating a staple of women's magazines--the make-ahead menu. The day after Rosh Hashanah, while I'm sipping coffee and drizzling honey over a piece of challah, I start planning for Yom Kippur eve. I fine-tune my menu and compose a shopping list.
On each of the following days, I prepare a dish and freeze it, or I make most of the steps in the directions, refrigerating foods until I'm ready to proceed.
On the day of Yom Kippur eve, I have only a few last-minute touches to handle. I glide into the holiday with a sense of serenity, a far cry from the frenzied person I used to be.
For peace of mind, I now serve the same menu every Yom Kippur eve. It meets my most important criteria: healthy, appealing and easy to execute. This menu can be expanded to include additional dishes, but it's filling enough to stand alone.
Inspired by Greek Jews, who often partake in stewed chicken and tomatoes before the Yom Kippur fast, I created my own version of this traditional dish. The chicken is sauteed and then poached in plum tomatoes, which simmer into a sauce that moistens the chicken. However, this dish is fairly bland and doesn't cause undue thirst the next day.
The ample tomato sauce calls for a bed of rice. Throughout the world, chicken and rice are served on Yom Kippur eve, because they are filling and easy to digest. However, many people, particularly when pressed for time, have difficulty finessing rice, which needs some tender loving care. They end up with a sticky ball of starch, rather than a pot of fluffy rice. My recipe, relying on a bit of olive oil, comes out perfectly every time.
Roasted autumn root vegetables are a medley of seasonal produce flash-cooked at a high temperature. You can prepare this dish three days in advance, finishing it quickly just minutes before serving dinner.
Filled with dried fruits, flakes of oatmeal and a dollop of honey, baked stuffed apples are not an indulgent dessert. For that reason, it's a nutritious and appropriate way to end the pre-fast meal.
When it comes to Yom Kippur eve, my motto is to do as much as possible as soon as it's feasible. On the morning after Rosh Hashanah, finalize your Yom Kippur eve guest list. Decide what you want to serve. Select which linens you will place on the table. White is traditional on Yom Kippur. If you're using the tablecloth and napkins from Rosh Hashanah meals, make sure they're washed and ironed or back from the dry cleaner on time.
If you're expecting a crowd, you may have to expand your dining table. Know in advance how many leaves you'll require. If you need a folding table, make sure it's clean and in good condition. If you have to borrow a table and chairs from a family member or friend, organize this well in advance.
I suggest setting the table after breakfast that morning. Eat lunch in your kitchen or on the living room coffee table. To make life easy, order a pizza.
Although it goes against my creative nature to be repetitive, under certain circumstances, it makes sense.
On Yom Kippur eve, I'm a big proponent of the pre-set menu, one you can follow year after year. Select a combination of recipes you can manage. Of course you can make reasonable substitutions, such as casseroles or other make-ahead dishes. But with so much going on, Yom Kippur eve is not the time to strike a new course or leave things to chance. It's the time to be methodical and calm, to guide yourself and your family into a peaceful fast.
POACHED CHICKEN BREASTS AND TOMATOES
3 Tbsp. olive oil, or more if needed
1 large onion, diced
Salt to taste
4 whole chicken breasts, (bone in, skin on) cut in half (8 pieces in all)
8 fresh plum tomatoes, diced
28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes
1. Drizzle oil into a large pot. Saute onion until translucent, for about a minute or two. Remove and reserve.
2. Lightly salt chicken breasts. Divide chicken breasts into 2 batches. In the pot, saute top and bottom of chicken breasts, adding more olive oil if chicken sticks to pot. Reserve first batch of chicken breasts while sauteing the second batch.
3. Returning onions and all 8 chicken pieces to the pot, add fresh and canned tomatoes, including liquid from can. With a fork, crush canned tomatoes and break into clumps.
4. Simmer on a low flame for 40 minutes, until chicken breasts are cooked through. Serve immediately with Foolproof Rice.
MAKE-AHEAD METHOD: Once chicken breasts are cooked through, bring to room temperature. Transfer to a plastic container and freeze. The day you're serving them, defrost completely. Transfer to a large pot. Heat until sauce bubbles and chicken is warm inside. Serve with Foolproof Rice.
Yield: 8 servings
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 cups of any commercial rice, such as Carolina or Uncle Ben's. (Avoid minute rice or fast cooking rice.)
4 cups of canned chicken broth
Salt to taste, optional
1. Drizzle oil into medium-sized saucepan, rotating pan so oil evenly coats the bottom.
2. Place pan on medium flame. Add rice and stir. Continue stirring for 2 minutes, or until rice appears almost translucent. Each grain should be coated with oil.
3. Add chicken broth and, if desired, a small amount of salt. Cover pot and simmer on a low flame. Stir rice every 5 minutes to make sure it's not sticking to the pot and that the broth is simmering gently, not boiling. Continue until all water is absorbed, about 20 to 30 minutes.
4. Remove pan from heat. Let rice rest in a covered pot for 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and serve immediately.
Yield: 6 cups of rice; 8 servings
ROASTED AUTUMN ROOT VEGETABLES
No-stick vegetable spray
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes or yams, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
20 round red or Yukon C potatoes, miniatures
2 beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
Kosher salt to taste
4 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
4 Tbsp. olive oil, or more, if needed
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Coat a 10x15 inch baking dish with nonstick spray.
2. Peel carrots and parsnips. Cut into 2-inch long sticks.
3. Place carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, miniature potatoes, beets and onion in baking dish.
4. Season lightly with salt. Drizzle vinegar and 4 Tbsp. olive oil on vegetables. Gently mix with a wooden or plastic spoon.
5. Roast vegetables for 1 hour, stirring and turning vegetables every 10 minutes so they roast evenly. If they start sticking to the pan, add more oil and stir.
6. Vegetables are ready when they are soft inside and brown on the outside. Serve immediately.
MAKE AHEAD METHOD:
Up to three days in advance, prepare vegetables through step #4. Place vegetables in a preheated oven for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes and adding more olive oil, if needed.
Remove pan from oven and bring vegetables to room temperature. Refrigerate. On the afternoon of Yom Kippur eve, bring to room temperature.
Before serving, place in a 450 degree F. oven and roast for 15 minutes, until vegetables are browned and warmed through. Stir every 3 minutes to avoid burning.
Yield: 8 servings
BAKED STUFFED APPLES
Nonstick vegetable spray
8 medium baking apples, such as Cortland, Gala, Braeburn or Fuji.
15 dried apricots
12 pitted dates
12 dried figs
4 tsp. uncooked oatmeal (not quick or instant oats)
2 tsp. honey
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. cinnamon
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9x13 inch baking pan with no-stick vegetable spray.
2. With a knife, using a circular motion, core apples by cutting away the seeds and fibrous parts. Go slowly so you don't hurt yourself. Cut 3/4 of the way down the apple. Don't penetrate the skin at the bottom of the apple. Discard seeds and core.
3. Place apples in baking pan. Microwave for 5 minutes. Reserve.
4. Cut apricots, dates and figs into quarters. In a medium bowl, combine them with remaining ingredients and mix well. Spoon mixture into the center of apples, and press down to stuff with as much filling as possible.
5. Lightly coat a sheet of aluminum foil with nonstick spray. Loosely tent foil over apples. Bake for 30 minutes, or until apples soften.
6. Remove foil and bake for 5 minutes. Skins may pucker. Cool for 10 minutes and serve.
Prepare through step #5 up to three days ahead. Bring apples to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate. Three hours before dinner, return to room temperature. Before serving, microwave for 3 minutes. Warm in a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes.
Yield: 8 servings