Simhat Torah is a joyful day with plenty of feasting but in most households, without particular foods or dishes associated with the holiday. In some families stuffed cabbage rolls are served because their shape recalls Torah scrolls; but I must confess, I do not remember when a plate of stuffed cabbage made me think of the Torah.
For my holiday menu I like to feature foods that were available in ancient Israel, especially produce items mentioned in the Torah. Grapes were a signature fruit of Israel and, of course, were made into wine and raisins. All three can fit beautifully in a festive menu for Simhat Torah.
To celebrate the season's abundance of produce, I am fond of preparing a Mediterranean tajine of chicken and vegetables in a rich, slightly spicy sauce, a type of dish brought to Israel by Jews from Morocco. Classic sweet meat tajines pair meat (usually lamb) or chicken with dried or sometimes fresh fruit and are flavored with honey, saffron and sweet spices such as ginger and cinnamon. Savory tajines match the meats with vegetables. Their seasonings are similar to those of the sweet tajines and often includes cumin and turmeric as well. I also like to make nontraditional tajines that meld both types by adding raisins or other dried fruit to a savory tajine so that my entree has vegetables and fruit.
Wheat is another food mentioned in the Torah and is believed to have originated in our region. There are many forms in which wheat can accompany the entree. Tajines are traditionally accompanied by bread. Of course, holiday halla would be a tasty choice. I've often enjoyed tajines accompanied by steaming hot couscous, another delicious wheat product that is easy to prepare according to the directions on the package. Wheat berries or bulgur wheat are not customarily served with tajines but taste very good with the rich sauce.
For an easy way to include wine and grapes in the menu, make a healthful fruit salad with a wine dressing. Simply combine a colorful selection of fruit in season, including seedless red and green grapes, and dress them with a mixture of wine and honey.
CHICKEN TAJINE WITH TOMATOES, ZUCCHINI AND RAISINS
This savory-sweet tajine is easy to make as there is no need to brown the chicken pieces and thus you don't need to contend with splatters. Instead the chicken pieces are heated gently with the spices and sliced onions before the liquid is added. Fresh coriander, cumin, ginger and hot pepper flakes enhance the sauce rather than dominate it, so that the flavor of the chicken and tomatoes comes through. Serve the chicken with couscous or halla and if you like, with spicy harissa sauce on the side.
â€¢ 2 large onions, halved and cut in thin slices (half-moons)
â€¢ 3 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
â€¢ 6 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
â€¢ 1 tsp. ground cumin
â€¢ 1 tsp. ground ginger
â€¢ 11â„2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
â€¢ 1â„2 tsp. paprika
â€¢ 2 Tbsp. olive oil
â€¢ salt and black pepper
â€¢ a 1.6-kg chicken, quartered
â€¢ 1â„4 cup water
â€¢ 700 gr. tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or three 400-gr. cans tomatoes, drained, chopped
â€¢ 350 gr. Middle Eastern or Mexican squash (kishuim) or zucchini, cut in 1-cm. slices
â€¢ 1â„3 cup raisins
In a large stew pan mix onion, garlic, cumin, ginger, pepper flakes, paprika, 2 tablespoons cilantro and oil. Add chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper and warm over low heat about 5 minutes, turning a few times, to flavor well with the spices.
Push most of onions to base of pan, underneath chicken. Add water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer 15 minutes. Turn chicken pieces over and cook 15 minutes or until breast pieces are tender; remove breast pieces. Add squash, sprinkle with salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes. Add raisins and simmer for 5 minutes longer, or until remaining chicken pieces and squash are tender.
If you would like a thicker sauce, remove pieces and boil sauce a few minutes to thicken. Reheat over low heat. Stir in 3 tablespoons cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning. When serving, sprinkle with remaining tablespoon cilantro.
Makes 4 servings.
FALL HOLIDAY FRUIT SALAD WITH WINE DRESSING
This salad includes three biblical fruits - grapes, pomegranate seeds and figs. You can also add sweet apple wedges but be sure to cut them at the last minute so they won't discolor. If you are making the dressing with sweet instead of dry wine, reduce the amount of honey to 1 tablespoon.
â€¢ 6 to 8 figs, green and purple, quartered
â€¢ 3 ripe plums of different colors, cut in wedges
â€¢ 11â„2 cups seedless grapes, some red and some green
â€¢ 2 kiwis, peeled, halved and sliced
â€¢ 1â„2 cup pomegranate seeds
â€¢ 2 ripe pears (optional)
â€¢ 2 to 3 Tbsp. dry red or white wine
â€¢ 2 to 3 Tbsp. honey
Combine figs, plums, grapes, kiwis and pomegranate seeds in a shallow bowl. Peel pears at the last minute, core and slice; add to bowl. Mix wine with honey to taste and pour over fruit. Serve cold.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.