Sukkot: Just the Right Time for the Comfort Foods of the Past


Though I don't like to admit it, lately I've been eating the foods of my youth: chicken fricassee and stuffed peppers, sweet-and-sour meatballs, braised short ribs. I liked them as a child, but that was before I was exposed to moussaka, polenta and Pad Thai noodles.

By the 1970s, I became so enamored with other people's cuisine that I rejected my grandmother's cooking.

Now that she's been gone for some 30 years, I realize how much I miss her chicken pot pie brimming with peas and huge chunks of white meat, the biscuits floating atop her beef stew, and the way she folded softened cabbage leaves around a heaping tablespoon of onions, rice and chopped beef.

Right now I'd do anything for a taste of her stuffed peppers or meatloaf — the first things I rejected after declaring myself sophisticated.

With Sukkot approaching, I see the wisdom of such simple fare. What could be more satisfying on cool autumn nights than the comfort foods of the last century?

Sukkot is a homey holiday rooted in our agricultural past. During ancient times, the Israelites traveled to Jerusalem to give thanks for the year's fruits and grains. They lived in makeshift huts, a precursor to today's sukkahs whose walls are decorated with the bounty of the season. Like latticework, sukkah roofs welcome fresh air and a peek at the sky.

Piping-hot stews, and casseroles full of vegetables and meat simmered in sauces became popular at Sukkot over the centuries, especially among those who follow tradition by eating their meals inside sukkahs.

Jewish homemakers gravitated to basic casseroles and stews because they were easy to transport, they were tasty, and they called for small portions of inexpensive cuts of meat.

With the shaky economy, everything old is new again. People are clipping coupons, albeit more often from online sources than from newspapers. Home cooking is up; restaurant dining is down.

Yesterday's foods are a practical way to feed the family and friends likely to gather inside of the sukkah for eight nights. What else has a chance of staying warm in an outdoor hut in mid-October, when the holiday falls this year?

Decades ago, as the temperature started dropping, my mother used to make her version of chicken fricassee. She would collect the bags of parts that came inside poultry and store them in the freezer. When she had amassed enough to fill a pot, she'd declare it fricassee season.

In my Betty Crocker world, kitchen counters were not supposed to be spattered with the blood of chicken necks, livers and gizzards, which as a teenager I called lizards and gizzards. Even worse, my mother's fricassee bubbled in a watery liquid that was missing one important ingredient — chicken.

One Sukkot years later, a friend raved about her mother's chicken fricassee. Curious about its origins, I discovered that this stew once called for cream sauces tinged with Vermouth. In the Old Country, kosher cooks omitted the cream in favor of brown gravy.

In Jewish Cooking in America, Joan Nathan explained that food writer Mimi Sheraton, who adored her mother's chicken fricassee, claimed that meatballs, an American addition to the dish, were probably a sign of abundance. Sadly, my mother's fricassee omitted the meatballs, too.

At some point in every woman's life, she must come to terms with her mother's strengths and imperfections. A decade after my mother died, I began recalling her cooking with both humor and nostalgia. I started freezing the bags of innards found in chicken and turkey cavities.

"What are you doing with this stuff?" my husband asked one day, waving a plastic bag full of stiff parts. "Reinventing chicken fricassee," I said.

David is from an Italian Jewish background, so I created a yummy tomato sauce. My quest went through several stages. While I added meatballs and chicken breasts and wings to my mother's recipe, those who have tried my rendition fight — ironically — over the lizards and gizzards.

For centuries, the stew pot has been a staple in Jewish households, often used on Shabbat. However, in America, stew recipes changed accents when introduced to ketchup, canned pineapple, cranberries, oatmeal and the sauces: tomato, Worcestershire, chili and barbecue.

The Campbell Soup Company was right there to spruce up hot dishes with canned soups that could double for sauces. To make sure the public was aware of this modern convenience, in 1916 the company issued a recipe booklet that changed the course of gravy history. Like other American women, Jewish housewives flavored their cooking with these tasty, new ingredients.

In my grandmother's day, all of these filling recipes contained beef. As I tweaked them, however, I added a couple of poultry options because people don't eat that way anymore, night after night.

Yet, I suspect stick-to-your-ribs foods, prepared with tight budgets in mind, will be big hits this Sukkot. These dishes are irresistibly delicious, which is why we adored them in the first place.

(The recipes below are by Linda Morel.)

Chicken Fricassee With Turkey Meatballs

Meatball Ingredients:

11/2 lbs. chopped turkey
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (commercially produced)
garlic powder
salt and pepper

Fricassee Ingredients:

6 Tbsps. or more olive oil
3 lbs. necks, gizzards and livers, or any combination, from chicken or other poultry
2 large skinless, boneless chicken breasts (4 pieces) cut in half (8 halves)
8 chicken wings
2 onions, chopped
12 carrots, sliced
1 package (12 oz.) mushrooms, sliced
3 cans (8 oz. each) tomato sauce
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste, mixed with 12 oz. of water
1/2 cup Vermouth
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. thyme

Mix together meatball ingredients, incorporating well. Form into balls slightly smaller than golf balls by rolling a tablespoon of the turkey mixture in your palms, until you form perfectly round balls with no visible seams. Place on plate, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Makes 25 to 30 meatballs.

If necks are more than 3 inches long, cut in half with a sharp knife. If gizzards are larger than a walnut, cut in half. Using one or two frying pans, fry chicken breasts and wings, livers, gizzards and necks, in batches, until golden brown.

In a large Dutch oven, sauté onions in olive oil. When onions are transparent, add meatballs and brown.

Add all remaining ingredients, except livers, and gently stir. Simmer on a medium flame for 30 to 40 minutes, until the gizzards are softened. Add livers and simmer 5 more minutes. Remove bay leaf. Tastes best when made a day ahead. Serve with noodles or rice.

Makes 8 servings.

Sweet-and-Sour Meatballs

Sauce Ingredients:

2 Tbsps. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cans (8 oz. each) tomato sauce
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
1 cup white wine
2 cups water
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
juice from 3/4 of a lemon
1/2 tsp salt

Meatball Ingredients:

1 small onion, chopped
2 lbs. chopped beef
1 tsp. salt
1 egg, beaten
3 Tbsps. olive oil, or more, if needed

To Prepare Sauce: In a large saucepan, heat oil briefly on a low flame. Sauté garlic in oil.

Add remaining sauce ingredients to pan and stir to blend, making sure tomato paste is fully incorporated. Cover pan and simmer on a low flame while preparing meatballs, about 30 minutes.

To Prepare Meatballs: Place onion, beef, salt and egg in a large bowl. Mix ingredients thoroughly.

Make 11/2-inch meatballs (golf-ball size), by rolling a rounded tablespoon of the beef mixture in your palms, until you form perfectly round balls with no visible seams.

Heat oil on a medium-low flame in a large skillet, preferably nonstick. In batches, brown meatballs in oil on all sides.

With a slotted spoon, carefully place meatballs in sauce. Simmer in sauce for 30 to 40 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through.

Recipe can be served immediately, but tastes best when made a day in advance. Meatballs freeze well.

Serve them with rice. Makes about 36 meatballs.

Serves 6 to 8.

Chunky Vegetable Beef Stew

21/2 lbs. boneless beef stew meat (such as chuck)
kosher salt to taste
ground black pepper to taste
2 shallots, finely diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 Tbsps. olive oil, or more if needed
6 Tbsps. flour
11/2 quarts of water, or more if needed
2 bouillon cubes
1 tsp. Creole seasoning, such as Emeril's Bayou Blast or Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning blend for meat
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped
1 zucchini
2 parsnips
6 carrots
1 package (8 oz.) of mushrooms
6 celery stalks
1 package (16 oz.) wide noodles, optional

Season beef cubes generously with salt and pepper. Reserve.

In a large pot (preferably nonstick), sauté shallots and garlic in olive oil, on a low flame, until they are transparent, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Dredge beef in flour and add to the shallot pot, stirring often until beef browns. Add more oil, if needed.

Carefully pour enough water into pot so that mixture is just submerged. Add bouillon cubes, Creole seasoning, bay leaf and parsley. Cover pot and gently simmer. Once bouillon dissolves, taste to see if more salt is needed and add if necessary. Simmer for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water, 1/4 cup at a time, if needed. However, you want a thick sauce.

Meanwhile, coarsely dice zucchini, parsnips, carrots, mushrooms and celery. Place in stew pot and stir to blend. Add a bit more water, if needed. Check seasoning again and add more salt, if needed. Cover pot and simmer another 30 minutes, or more, until meat is tender when pierced with a knife.

If serving stew with noodles, prepare them according to package instructions.

Drain noodles and divide into soup bowls. Ladle stew over noodles.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.



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