The Jewish New Year, which begins on Sept. 8 this year at sundown, is one of the most important occasions on the Jewish calendar. And a central part of its observance is the Rosh Hashana dinner, which emphasizes sweet foods in hopeful anticipation of a sweet year.
For most American Jews, Rosh Hashana meals are in the Ashkenazi style, with roots in the customs of their Eastern and Central European forebears. They typically feature brisket with dried fruit, irresistible sweet carrots, and, for dessert, home-baked honey cake. This is the tradition I grew up with.
But I must admit that since my in-laws in Israel introduced me to Mediterranean (Sephardic) Jewish cuisine years ago, I have enjoyed cooking Rosh Hashana meals even more. The diverse ingredients and the variety of fresh flavors provide so many opportunities for creativity.
Certain Rosh Hashana traditions are observed on Jewish tables around the world, such as dipping apples in honey. In Ashkenazi and Sephardic homes alike, fish and sweet vegetables such as carrots and pumpkin are important elements on the menu.
To these, however, Jews from Mediterranean lands add their own customs: At the beginning of the meal, they have a mini Seder, or special ceremony that somewhat recalls the Passover Seder. For this Rosh Hashana ritual they recite special New Year blessings on symbolic foods, including pomegranate seeds to wish for numerous good deeds, leeks and chard for divine protection, and black-eyed peas for abundance.
These special foods are incorporated into Jewish New Year menus in different ways. Frequently, each is prepared on its own as a cold appetizer. Leeks are often braised with a touch of tomato. Chard is sauteed with garlic, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Italian Jews might include beets among the sweet vegetables, and make them into a salad or combine them with potatoes and green beans. Some Moroccan Jews poach the vegetables with raisins or other dried fruit and serve them sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar as a sweet topping for the hearty holiday entree known as couscous with seven vegetables.
In most households the holiday entree features beef or chicken. Unlike Ashkenazi cooks, who prefer their chicken roasted for the festive dinner, Mediterranean Jews often braise or stew their chicken. In Greek and Turkish homes, chicken pieces are simmered with tomatoes, white wine, parsley and garlic. Moroccans might prepare meat or chicken as sweet tagines, or lavish stews, with dried fruit, saffron and cinnamon sticks.
For the richly flavored sauces created by these stews, a festive rice pilaf or a platter of steamed couscous, with a topping of toasted almonds and raisins, is the preferred partner.
Faye Levy is author of “Feast from the Mideast.”
One holiday table
The selection of elements Mediterranean Jews serve for Rosh Hashana varies widely from community to community and family to family. Here is an example from Fortunee Hazan-Arama, author of “Saveurs de mon Enfance: La Cuisine Juive du Maroc” (“Flavors of My Childhood: The Jewish Cuisine of Morocco”), who lovingly described the spread at her family home:
“Holiday plates are set on a table covered with a beautiful white tablecloth. Placed in the center, for the blessings, are a dish full of freshly picked apples, a small pot of honey, a small bowl of sesame seeds or of a mixture of anis and sesame seeds and sugar, a bowl of freshly picked green olives, a plate of fresh dates, a plate of raisins, a bowl of preserved quinces, a bowl of jujubes (Chinese dates), a large bowl of pomegranate seeds moistened with orange flower water, a plate with a cooked lamb’s head or a cooked fish, a plate of cooked chard; a grand platter of the seven vegetables — chickpeas, turnips, carrots, onions, green and red squash or pumpkin and raisins, all sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon … and two or three home-baked breads.”
After that comes the main course.
Moroccan chicken with prunes, almonds and couscous
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
Braising chicken in a sauce that combines cinnamon, nutmeg and honey with a hint of saffron might sound surprising, but this is a delicious, spectacular dish. Some people sprinkle the chicken with toasted sesame seeds as well. If you’d like a touch of green, you can garnish the dish with fresh basil.
3 pounds chicken pieces
2 yellow onions, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 stick cinnamon
1 cup chicken stock, broth or water
1/8 teaspoon saffron threads
1 1/3 cups pitted prunes
2 tablespoons honey
Freshly grated nutmeg
1 package (10 ounces) plain couscous, cooked to package directions
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds, lightly toasted
1. Combine chicken, onions, salt and pepper in a Dutch oven. Cover; cook over low heat, turning chicken pieces over occasionally, 5 minutes. Add cinnamon, stock and saffron. Heat to a boil over medium heat. Cover; simmer over low heat, turning pieces occasionally, until breast pieces are tender when pierced with a knife, 35 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cook remaining chicken pieces, until tender, covered, 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate.
2. Add prunes and honey to sauce; cook uncovered over medium heat until prunes are just tender, 5 minutes. Transfer prunes to a heated bowl; cover. Discard cinnamon stick. Cook sauce over medium heat, stirring occasionally, to thicken slightly, about 5 minutes. Add nutmeg. Taste; adjust seasoning. Return chicken to pan. Cover; heat over low heat 5 minutes.
3. Fluff couscous with a fork; mound it on a heated platter. Arrange chicken around or over couscous; spoon sauce and prunes over chicken. Garnish with almonds.
Per serving: 785 calories, 30% of calories from fat, 26 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 88 g carbohydrates, 48 g protein, 425 mg sodium, 8 g fiber.