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In Israel, a buffet of international cuisines
September 1st, 2009
New York (JTA) — What does a typical Israeli family eat on Rosh HaShanah?
Like any question you ask two Jews, 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 Rosh HaShanah in the same way.
However, Janna Gur, author of “The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey” (Schocken Books, New York, 2007), offers 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. (See Sept. 26, 2008 Chronicle.)
She says that in most Israeli homes, one will find a combination of Sephardi and Ashkenazi dishes at Rosh HaShanah. 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, such as 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. Sometimes through exposure to Jews from distant lands and sometimes through exploring ethnic restaurants, they liked what they tasted and 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,” Gur says.
In most Jewish homes around the world one 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,” Gur says.
While gefilte fish is served in Ashkenazi homes, Moroccan Jews savor a spicy fish cooked casserole style with hot peppers and garlic.
Traditionally 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 international cuisines, a menu of exotic flavor combinations.
Israel’s climate plays a part in Rosh HaShanah fare. Summer is still going strong at 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. Usually 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. Gur, too.
“I personally love quince in cooking,” she says of a fruit similar in appearance to the yellow apple and available mostly in the fall.
Israelis insist on a salad with almost every meal, Gur says, and this is true as well at Rosh HaShanah. But the typical Israeli salad of chopped tomatoes and cucumbers is not common at New Year’s celebrations. Many Israelis prefer a green salad sprinkled 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 Rosh HaShanah, 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 extremely 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, sauteed 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,” Gur says. “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,” by Gur.
Beetroot and Pomegranate Salad (Pareve)
3 to 4 medium beetroots
2 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate (can be ordered online at Israelikosher.com)
2 to 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 to 3 dried chili peppers, crushed
Coarse sea salt to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 cup pomegranate seeds
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 on top and serve. Yield: 6 servings.
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-ounce chunks) of grouper or other saltwater fish
20 cloves garlic, peeled
8 tablespoons paprika
Line a wide saucepan with the peppers, parsley, and cilantro. Mix 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 10-15 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. Yield: 8 servings
Lamb and Quince Casserole (Meat)
By Yehiel Filosof, Balkan Restaurant, Jaffa
1 (2-pound, 4-ounce) lamb, 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 level teaspoon sweet paprika
4 to 5 teaspoons sugar
Rice, prepared according to package directions
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and brown the meat on all sides. Pour in boiling water, covering meat. Cover pan and cook for an hour or more, until the 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 the lamb is completely tender and the quince wedges are soft but retain their shape.
Apple, Cinnamon and Walnut Cake (Pareve)
5 large baking apples, peeled and cored
Juice of half a lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 tablespoons brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for oiling pan
3/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 (10-inch diameter) springform pan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously oil springform pan.
Cut 3 apples into 1/2-inch dice. On a separate plate, slice the remaining 2 apples into 8 wedges each. Sprinkle diced and sliced apples with lemon juice and 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 the speed and gradually add the oil and then the flour mixture.
Fold in the diced apples and walnuts. Pour the batter into prepared springform pan. Arrange the apple wedges in the center of the batter in a flower pattern. Combine dusting ingredients and sprinkle on top.
Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until the cake is golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out dry with a few crumbs adhering.
Cool for 10 minutes, release sides of pan from cake, and cool completely on a rack. Yield: 8 servings.