To define Jewish food is to understand the diaspora through centuries of migration. For millennia, as Jews were a people without a country, many of the dishes evolved from where their communities had lived, vastly varying depending on geography and cultural influences.
At Rosh Hashanah, no Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors settled along the Rhine River in France and Germany, go without apples and honey, for instance. But for Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities (with ties to the Iberian Peninsula and to the Middle East and North Africa, respectively), pomegranates and dates are among the mandatory symbolic foods. So rich and vast is the expanse of Jewish cuisine that we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in choosing dishes for our new year’s meal. While you can play it safe and cook only the familiar-to-you foods, you can also go beyond the figurative pale and introduce something new to the table.
This fall, three dynamic new books on Jewish cuisine in its many forms — chef Einat Admony’s “Shuk,” Adeena Sussman’s “Sababa” and Leah Koenig’s “The Jewish Cookbook” — are here to help us cook the Rosh Hashanah meal of our dreams, whether these dishes are from close to home or far afield. Admony, who was born in Israel and has made New York her home for over a decade, serves food influenced by her Iranian, Iraqi and Yemenite backgrounds. Israeli food is, as the kids say, hot right now, and some credit should go to Admony, who at her New York restaurants has refused to Americanize what she grew up eating and instead (rightly) assumed that if she serves it, people will take to it.
Israeli cuisine, Admony said in a phone interview, is harder to define than Jewish, as it pulls significant influences from Palestinian and other Arab cultures, as well as Northern African, Mediterranean, Eastern European, Iranian and others — a bona fide melting pot of flavors and techniques.
Sussman, who co-authored model Chrissy Teigen’s cookbooks (among others), melds Israeli food and ingredients found at the shuks (markets) in Tel Aviv, where she lives, with her American sensibilities.
And Koenig, a Brooklyn native who has been writing about Jewish cuisine for about 10 years, has produced a tome spanning the Jewish culinary canon from achik chuchuk (tomato and onion salad popular in Bukharian Jewish cuisine) to zeeuwse bolussen (Dutch coiled cinnamon buns). All three books are vibrant, exciting and hunger-inducing.
I decided to build a Rosh Hashanah Seder around dishes from these three books, bridging the gap between geographies to showcase something of a pan-Jewish approach to the holidays. If you’re hosting a large crowd, round it out with honeyed carrots and savory noodle kugel. At just about every dinner, casual or festive, I also serve punchy, peppery arugula dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and flaky sea salt — a simple side salad that complements whatever I have cooked.
For this year’s dinner, I propose (and hear me out) that instead of a brisket, you cook a pot roast, specifically one braised in wine. Koenig first encountered the dish while on her honeymoon in Rome: She was a vegetarian at the time, but the Shabbat dinner she and her husband attended had a lot of meat courses. Taking the phrase “when in Rome” to its most literal level, Koenig tried the pot roast and was struck by how clean and familiar, but more streamlined and elegant, the flavors were than those of the briskets of her childhood, which had ingredients such as onion soup mixes. “This is what your holiday main should be,” she told me, “something that is comforting and doesn’t have a lot of heavy lifting, the embodiment of the relaxation of the holiday.”
Separately, while I love me some brisket, you never know how chewy or tender it will be until you tuck into it. The same cut, made exactly the same way, is at times tender and other times stringy and chewy — so you’re rolling the dice. With a pot roast, there’s nary a doubt. Give the meat a quick, aggressive sear to get a good crust, and then, as Ron Popeil would say, “Set it and forget it.” A few hours later, the meat is tender, succulent, yielding. If you can manage it, be patient and give it an overnight rest — so the flavors age and meld — and it transforms from delicious to astounding. And, yes, you can make this pot roast in a slow cooker, thanks for asking!
One cannot live on pot roast alone (though some have tried, I’m sure), so to balance out the meal, and to complement the hearty beef, a sturdy grain such as farro does the trick. Admony’s farro salad, drawing on her Iranian roots, works beautifully with the pot roast, cutting through the fattiness with crunchy, tart bites of apple, juicy, puckery pomegranate and sweet, caramelized bits of roasted persimmon. If you can’t find persimmon this time of year, add some chopped dates — another symbolic Rosh Hashanah ingredient. A sweet-tart dressing with lemon juice and silan (date syrup), a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking, lends bright, sunny notes to the chewy grains.
If sweetness is the theme of Jewish new year foods, dessert seems mandatory. This year, in addition to my beloved apple cake, I’m serving Sussman’s stunning and decadent salted caramel tahini tart (which might be a no-go for strict kosher households, due to dairy restrictions). Described in the book as “the Gal Gadot of tarts,” it immediately seduced me, and I’m so glad to have succumbed. Sussman said she figured the caramel could benefit from tahini’s earthy notes and give the otherwise familiar tart a more nuanced taste. I mostly followed the recipe, but decided to dock the dough and line it with weights during an initial bake, as tart doughs like to puff up and shrink. And because I like a bit of contrast in my sweets, I upped the salt in the caramel a touch to get it just to that “salted” territory.
Paired with a tangy labneh whipped cream (labneh being another indispensable ingredient in Israel and the rest of the Middle East), the tart manages to be light and luxurious. A small sliver will satisfy the sweetest tooth, making it a great dessert to serve a crowd. Oohs and aahs are guaranteed, and whatever your guests’ geography and religious adherence, should their year take on the same sweetness and luxury, you can take full credit for their good fortunes.
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