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A Stockpot of Festive Fare

September 10, 2009 By:
Linda Morel, JTA
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What does a typical Israeli family eat on Rosh Hashanah? It's hard to say with certainty.

Ask any two Jews, and you're likely to get three opinions. In a sense, it's an unfair question because no two families in Israel, or in any country, celebrate the holiday in the same way.

However, Janna Gur, author of The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey, offers some insight into Rosh Hashanah entertaining.

Gur, who was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, immigrated to Israel in 1974 and has been joyously consuming its cornucopia of local food ever since. Her cookbook is a coffee-table-sized collection of recipes as stunning as the Mediterranean Sea.

She says that in most Israeli homes, one will find a combination of Sephardi and Ashkenazi dishes at holiday time. This is characteristic of the explosion in Israeli cuisine in recent decades.

Gur describes Israeli cooking as the product of diverse cultures. During the 20th century, Jews from all over the Diaspora settled in a homeland that was new to them. While they brought their recipes from far-flung places, they also looked to their Arab neighbors for inspiration with ingredients, like chickpeas, that many of them had never seen.

At first, the Jews from abroad clung to their culinary heritage, in part to preserve their identity and to savor the foods they adored. Through exposure to Jews from distant lands and by exploring ethnic restaurants, they liked what they tasted and so adopted new recipes.

Delicacies from every continent have become the stockpot of Israeli food. Time has seen a blurring of Ashkenazi and Sephardi cuisine.

"But there are certain items that are almost mandatory on the Rosh Hashanah table," according to Gur.

In most Jewish homes around the world, you will find a round challah, sliced apples and a pot of honey.

Other foods, however, are surprising, either for their appearance or absence at New Year's celebrations.

"Fish is one of the most important items on the Rosh Hashanah menu," insists Gur.

While gefilte fish is served in Ashkenazi homes, Moroccan Jews savor a spicy fish cooked casserole-style with hot peppers and garlic.

Usually made with grouper, the hot fish dish -- reddened by paprika -- is much easier to prepare than gefilte fish. Gur says you can go a little lighter on the chili peppers, but the dish is meant to have a kick.

"By the way, many families serve both the spicy fish and the milder gefilte fish," says Gur, explaining how Israeli food has become a melting pot of cuisines and flavor combinations.

Israel's climate also plays a part in Rosh Hashanah fare. Summer is still going strong by the Jewish New Year, so many families wait for cooler weather to serve piping-hot chicken soup. The same is true for potato and noodle kugels.

Brisket is often bypassed, too, with Gur noting that many families opt for chicken or lamb casseroles. Typically, the main dish contains some sweet elements, such as dried or fresh fruit, honey, pomegranates or molasses.

Lamb-and-Quince Casserole is typical at Israeli Rosh Hashanah dinners. Quince is a tart fruit adored by Bulgarian Jewish cooks.

"I personally love quince in cooking," she says of a fruit similar in appearance to the yellow apple and available mostly in the fall.

Those who avoid red meat can substitute chicken for lamb.

Israelis insist on a salad with almost every meal, attests Gur, and this is true as well at holiday time. But the typical Israeli salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers is not common at New Year's celebrations. Many Israelis prefer a green salad dotted with pomegranate seeds. With their abundant seeds, pomegranates symbolize the 613 commandments of the Torah.

Gur raves about the Beetroot-and-Pomegranate Salad from her cookbook.

"I first made this salad last year, and it was a big hit," she says. "I received the recipe from Erez Komarovsky, a dear friend and very talented chef. I would never imagine combining these two ingredients in one salad, but they work well together."

Carrot dishes, symbolizing prosperity in the coming year, are wildly popular in Israel. They appear in the form of an Ashkenazi tsimmes or a spicy Moroccan carrot salad. In most Israeli homes, you'll see at least two vegetables on the holiday table -- whether they be fresh, baked, sautéed or pickled.

As in America on Rosh Hashanah, you can expect apple cakes and desserts oozing honey. Often, the pastries are homemade.

"You know, cake-baking is extremely popular in Israel in both Sephardic and Ashkenazi households," explains Gur. "But even Sephardic cooks rarely confine themselves to Middle Eastern pastries."

Her recipe for apple cake is perfumed with cinnamon and exudes the crunch of walnuts. It's a kosher baker's dream because the cake is meant to be made with oil, rather than butter.

The following recipes are from The Book Of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey.

Moroccan-Style Hot Fish
(Pareve)

By Guy Peretz, Gazpacho, Holiday Inn, Ashkelon

4 hot red peppers, cut into strips 
2 sweet red peppers, cut into strips 
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped coarsely 
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped coarsely 
8 portion-sized (about 6-oz. chunks) of grouper or other saltwater fish 
20 cloves garlic, peeled

Seasoning-Mix Ingredients:

8 Tbsps. paprika 
salt to taste 
1 cup olive oil

Line a wide saucepan with the peppers, parsley and cilantro.

Incorporate together the ingredients of the seasoning mix.

Dip the fish chunks into the seasoning mix and arrange in the saucepan above the peppers. Stir together the remaining seasoning.

Mix with the garlic and 3 to 4 cups of water. Pour over the fish.

Cook for 10 to 15 minutes (depending on the size of the fish chunks) over high heat.

Lower the heat, cover and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens.

Serves 8.

Lamb-and-Quince Casserole
(Meat)

By Yehiel Filosof, Balkan Restaurant, Jaffa

4 Tbsps. oil 
1 lamb (2 lb. 4 oz.), cut into cubes 
kettle of boiling water 
3 large quinces, peeled, cored and cut into 6 wedges each 
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 
1 tsp. (level) sweet paprika 
4-5 tsps. sugar 
rice, prepared according to package directions

Heat oil in a large saucepan and brown the meat on all sides.

Pour in boiling water, covering meat. Cover pan. Cook for an hour or more, until meat is tender and almost ready to eat.

Add the quince. Season with salt, pepper and paprika, and cook for another 10 minutes.

In the meantime, dissolve the sugar in 2 to 3 tablespoons water in a frying pan. Cook to a light-colored caramel.

Carefully, add some of the lamb cooking liquid to the caramel and stir well. Pour the caramel into the saucepan and cook for another 10 minutes, until lamb is completely tender, and the quince wedges are soft, but retain their shape.

Serve with steamed rice.

Serves 6 to 8.

Beetroot-and-Pomegranate Salad
(Pareve)

By Erez Komarovsky

3-4 medium beetroots 
2 Tbsps. pomegranate concentrate 
2-3 Tbsps. freshly squeezed lemon juice 
2-3 dried chili peppers, crushed 
coarse sea salt to taste 
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves 
1 cup pomegranate seeds

1/4 cup olive oil

Boil the beetroots in water until tender. Cool, peel and cut into very small dice.

Mix with the pomegranate concentrate, lemon juice, peppers and sea salt. Set aside for 15 minutes.

Mix the salad with the cilantro and pomegranate seeds. Pour the olive oil on top and serve.

Serves 6.

Apple, Cinnamon and Walnut Cake
(Pareve)

5 large baking apples, peeled and cored 
juice of half a lemon 
2 cups flour 
1 tsp. cinnamon 
1 tsp. baking soda 
pinch of salt 
3 eggs 
1 cup sugar 
5 Tbsps. brandy 
1 tsp. vanilla extract 
3/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for oiling pan 
3/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

Dusting Ingredients:

2 Tbsps. sugar 
1 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°. Generously oil 10-inch springform pan.

Cut 3 apples into 1/2-inch dice.

On a separate plate, slice the remaining 2 apples into 8 wedges each. Sprinkle the diced and sliced apples with lemon juice; set aside.

Sift the flour with cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Place eggs, sugar, brandy and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat them until pale and thick, about 8 minutes.

Lower speed, Gradually add in the oil, then the flour mixture.

Fold in the diced apples and walnuts. Pour batter into prepared springform pan.

Arrange the apple wedges in the center of batter in a flower pattern. Combine dusting ingredients and sprinkle on top.

Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry, with just a few crumbs.

Cool for 10 minutes, release sides of pan from cake, and cool completely on a rack.

Serves 8.

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