Jewish New Year, Light and Easy
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; Page F01
Although the celebration of Rosh Hashanah is built on tradition, a Jewish cook might feel the need to vary the holiday's menu, especially in a year when the topic of change is already on the table. A few flavor twists, a lighter feel and a more user-friendly approach all could embody the symbolic turning of the page that the Jewish New Year represents.
In short: no brisket, no gefilte fish.
Still with me? Before such a menu is undertaken, it is important to note the unbending rules that help shape the meal. Rosh Hashanah generally falls in the midst of the fall harvest; this year it begins at sundown Monday. Seasonal fruits and vegetables figure prominently; apples and carrots, whose sweetness signifies wishes for a happy and prosperous new year, are customary.
Because the holiday usually involves long hours of attending religious services, it's best for a cook to have done much of the culinary heavy lifting beforehand. My proposed menu allows for that. Just about all of the dishes can be cooked or reheated in a 425-degree oven, keeping things simple.
In America, a meal for the High Holidays often marries the sturdiness of Ashkenazi cuisine (from the Jews of Eastern Europe) with the colorful spice of the Sephardim (from those of North Africa). But the ground rules still leave plenty of room to craft a lively feast. Potato cakes, borrowed from a Hanukkah playbook, can serve as a first course bolstered by fresh thyme, chives and a quick relish of roasted red peppers, capers and a bit of smoked salmon. These potato cakes can be made ahead; don't let any latke experts suggest otherwise. Cooking for company demands compromise, and these crisp, flatter-than-usual cakes do just fine when briefly reheated in the oven.
For the main course, chicken breasts rubbed with spices of Sephardic influence and stuffed with a mixture of fruit, pine nuts and bread crumbs will build on the holiday's sweet theme. They, too, can be made ahead and reheated, then drizzled with a quick apple-cider pan sauce.
Their intense flavors deserve complementary sides. The egg noodles in traditional kugels are baked in a sweet, cinnamony custard. To avoid mixing milk and meat as prescribed by kosher dietary law, a savory noodle kugel layered with sauteed mushrooms and leeks would be an unfussy addition to the plate. It can be assembled and baked a few days in advance and reheated, or assembled and baked in a matter of minutes (instead of the usual 50 minutes to an hour for a noodle pudding) just before serving.
Look to a wilted slaw of cabbage and jicama to serve as the other bookend for the main-course chicken. Admittedly, jicama might be new to the table at the High Holidays. But the mild, sweet root vegetable offers a crisp counterpoint in this slaw. Warming the cabbage wilts it slightly and helps meld the different flavors and textures.
A Rosh Hashanah meal usually begins with apples and honey, eaten as the harbinger of a sweet year to come. At the end of the meal, they return for dessert, with a caramel-apple twist. A dipping sauce made with honey, corn syrup and brown sugar is cooked to the soft-ball stage so that it grabs the apple and holds on to its nut coating.
The menu might be a little different from last year's Rosh Hashanah meal and the one before that. But the new year is about change and fun and, besides, good food is hard to argue with, particularly if it builds on all the wonderful traditions of eating at home with your family and friends.
Tony Rosenfeld is a contributing editor at Fine Cooking magazine and author of "150 Things to Make With Roast Chicken" (Taunton Press, 2007).