An Offbeat Rosh Hashanah Menu

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Brisket. Roast chicken. Tzimmes. Kasha varnishkes. Challah. Apples and honey.

Tradition is wonderful, and the foods that reflect it are an essential part of Jewish culture. And with Rosh Hashanah spanning two nights, celebrants have the option to embrace tradition on night one, then riff on the classics the second night.

The following menu offers an alternative to the typical Rosh Hashanah meal, swapping flank steak for brisket or roast chicken, using the Italian staple polenta as the starch, and tossing up a salad of apples, carrots and greens with maple mustard dressing.

There are several key themes reflected in traditional Rosh Hashanah foods.

First, the sweetness: Apples dipped in honey are the quintessential culinary symbol of the holiday. The sweetness of each bite is emblematic of the wish for a sweet year. The treat also represents prosperity; in biblical times, honey symbolized wealth due to its relative scarcity. The concept of a “new fruit” is also present — typically, the pomegranate is integrated into the meal, but apples, which are just coming into season now, can also qualify.

Traditional challah is often a braided loaf, but during the High Holidays they are often formed in rounds. Some believe this symbolizes the cycle of life. Others claim it resembles a crown and therefore symbolizes God. Others consider the opportunity for atonement as a circular and eternal concept. In this meal, the polenta is served in a round pie plate as an offbeat way to demonstrate the circular themes.

The dessert, pear cake, is just a tweak on the traditional apple cake — and it also echoes traditional themes. With a fall harvest, pears fit the “new fruit” idea, and, baked in a round Bundt pan, the cake also embodies the circular concepts surrounding the High Holidays.

Mojo Soy Flank Steak

Serves four to six

Flank steak is best served medium-rare to optimize tenderness. A longer marination also ensures best texture. The honey in the mojo gives a nod to a traditional ingredient, and the other components give this dish a fresh and zesty flair.

1 flank steak, 2-2½ pounds

For the mojo marinade:

Juice of 1 lemon, 1 lime and 1 orange

¼ cup soy sauce

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup honey

1 onion, sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

A few drops of hot sauce

Mix all mojo ingredients, and place them in a large Ziploc bag or Tupperware.

Place the steak in the marinade and thoroughly coat it. Allow it to marinate for eight to 24 hours.

Bring the meat to room temperature before grilling.

Sear the steak on high heat for about a minute, then move it away from direct heat and cook it (on the same side) for about four to five minutes. Flip the steak; repeat the process.

Tent the steak with foil, and allow it to rest for about five minutes. Slice it thinly on a diagonal across the grain.

Polenta

Serves four to six

This cornmeal dish is the ultimate example of Italian cucina povere. Literally translated, this means “poor kitchen,” but the more accurate term is “peasant food.” Polenta is prevalent in Italian Jewish cooking and, considering the heritage of many Jewish culinary traditions, peasant food is certainly relevant.

One great benefit to polenta is its versatility. It can be pareve, dairy or meat, depending on the ingredients.

Its flavor is relatively neutral, with a dash of sweetness from the corn, so it marries well with most anything.

You can top it with Bolognese sauce, melted cheese or stewed vegetables or slice it and fry it for breakfast topped with maple syrup. It can be served straight out of the pot, soft and custardy, or, as in the following preparation, poured into a mold, allowed to solidify and sliced.

The version below uses chicken broth, but it is also great with vegetable broth, or a 50-50 mixture of milk and water for a richer polenta.

6 cups chicken broth

cups cornmeal or polenta

½ teaspoon salt

Generous sprinkle of fresh ground pepper

Optional: 2 tablespoons schmaltz or olive oil

In a medium-sized sturdy saucepan, bring the broth to a boil.

Very slowly, sprinkle the polenta into the broth, whisking constantly. Lower the heat to a simmer.

Change to a wooden spoon, and continue stirring frequently as the polenta cooks.

When done, it will begin pulling away from the sides of the pan. The cornmeal will be soft to the bite and will no longer have a hard, grainy texture. Add the schmaltz or olive oil and stir.

Pour the finished polenta into a greased pie plate and allow it to set, about an hour. Heat in a 300-degree oven to warm through, if needed, before serving. Slice and serve.

Salad with Apples and Maple Mustard Dressing

Serves four to six

This salad offers contrasting colors, flavors and textures — sweet, crispy apples; salty, crunchy almonds; and orange carrot strips. It is pretty and delicious.

For the salad:

1 large head of your favorite lettuce, or a 5-ounce box of baby greens

1 crisp, sweet apple such as Honeycrisp or Gala, chopped and spritzed with lemon to prevent browning

2 carrots, shredded

cup raisins

cup salted almonds, coarsely chopped

For the dressing:

1 garlic clove, finely minced

¼ teaspoon salt

Generous sprinkle of fresh cracked pepper

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Make the dressing: Place all ingredients in a blender and whiz until thoroughly mixed.

Assemble the salad ingredients and toss with dressing just before serving.

Pear Cake

Serves eight to 10

This cake offers a slight tweak on traditional apple cake. Pears have a milder flavor and a softer texture than apples. The resulting cake is similar to the traditional apple cake, but just different enough to spark interest — and to adhere to our theme of riffing on the classics.

cups vegetable oil

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups peeled, cored pears, sliced thickly (Bosc, Bartlett or Anjou work well)

1 cup raisins

Heat your oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour a 9-inch Bundt pan.

Beat the oil and sugar; add the eggs and beat until creamy.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, salt, cinnamon and soda. Add it to the egg mixture.

Add the pears and raisins, then mix again.

Pour the mixture into a pan and bake it for 75 minutes.

Cool the cake completely in the pan before inverting it onto a cake plate.