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ROSH HASHANAH : Beyond Apples and Honey

September 09, 1993|FAYE LEVY

Many time-honored culinary customs turn out to be amazingly up to date. Food traditions for the Jewish New Year (which begins this year Wednesday evening) are a perfect example. Dishes for the holiday that have been popular for ages are in harmony with the latest nutritional guidelines. Rosh Hashanah menus usually begin with fish, for instance, an ancient symbol of abundance--and a modern element of healthful diets.

Vegetables and fruits play a major role in Rosh Hashanah dinners, as an expression of thanks for a plentiful harvest. The holiday ritual highlights the appreciation of the season's bounty. There is a blessing said over a fruit that is tasted for the first time in the year, often a pomegranate or other exotic fruit.

The customary New Year greeting, "have a good and sweet year" is echoed on the menu. On most tables, sweet vegetables, especially carrots, winter squash or sweet potatoes, appear in soups, stews, salads or side dishes.

A taste of honey also symbolizes the wish for a sweet year. In biblical times honey was the sweetener. Besides, honey represented good things, as in the Bible's romantic references to Israel as "the land of milk and honey." These days, many health-minded people choose honey over sugar as a sweetener. Apple slices and bowls of honey for dipping them appear on the table at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah dinner.

The hope for a sweet year also affects seasoning customs. In some houses, hot and spicy dishes are toned down so they taste mild and "sweet"; sour ingredients such as lemon juice and vinegar are omitted or used only with a light touch.

In Israel, I discovered Rosh Hashanah specialties from different Jewish communities. My favorites are dishes that are naturally healthful--not contrived or watered down for the sake of nutrition. These are dishes that rely on interesting seasonings for their fine taste.

A holiday dinner could begin, for instance, with sea bass with garlic and sweet peppers, a bright and zesty Moroccan-Jewish appetizer. It's delicious--and a revelation to anyone who thought that gefilte fish is the only Jewish way of preparing fish. For a Rosh Hashanah main course, serve roast chicken stuffed with rice and fruit, which combines savory and sweet flavors. Sephardic side dishes--vegetable pancakes made of winter squash, leeks and spinach, and an easy salad of diced tomatoes, golden peppers and cucumbers sprinkled with a little oil, lemon juice and cilantro--make a lively complement to the chicken. From the Ashkenazic, or Eastern European Jewish kitchen, come carrot kugel, a popular holiday treat, as well as a traditional cinnamon-and-ginger-flavored honey cake for dessert.

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At other holidays, some families use dried hot peppers, but for Rosh Hashanah spicy peppers are omitted to make the dish "sweet." The appetizer is often served cold or at room temperature, which makes it easier to prepare ahead.

SEA BASS WITH SWEET PEPPERS, GARLIC AND TOMATOES

1 1/4 pounds Chilean sea bass or halibut fillets, about 1-inch thick

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

2 sweet red peppers, diced

8 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

Salt, pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

1 cup water

1/2 cup chopped parsley

Cayenne pepper

Cut fish in 4 pieces. Heat oil in medium skillet, add sweet red peppers and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes. Add fish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add paprika. Add water to skillet. Bring to simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 10 minutes or until fish is tender. (When checked in thickest part, fish color should be opaque.)

Transfer fish to deep platter, using slotted spatula. Add peppers to platter. Boil cooking liquid, stirring occasionally, until only about 3/4 cup remains. Stir in parsley and dash cayenne pepper. Taste liquid and adjust seasonings if needed. Spoon over fish. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 appetizer servings, or 2 to 3 main course servings.

Each appetizer serving contains about:

204 calories; 163 mg sodium; 91 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.85 gram fiber.

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A light stuffing of rice pilaf studded with apples and raisins cooked in orange juice lends a festive touch to this easy roast chicken.

ROAST CHICKEN WITH RICE AND FRUIT STUFFING

2 tablespoons oil

1 small onion, minced

1 cup long-grain white rice

1 1/2 cups hot water

1/2 cup orange juice

Salt, pepper

1 small apple, peeled, halved and diced

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken

Orange slices, halved, optional

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