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It can happen to any of us. Something interrupts our schedule, and we find ourselves just before Rosh Hashana, with little time to shop and cook. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to streamline old-fashioned favorites to create an easy-to-prepare, delicious holiday meal.
This is a time to turn to your freezer and your pantry. If you have chicken and vegetables in your freezer and couscous or rice in your pantry, you have the makings of a tasty, festive dinner.
Almonds and dried fruit are key pantry items, and you should consider them your allies. Using them requires no effort and they do wonders to contribute elegance as well as good flavor.
Use chicken pieces, which thaw and cook faster and are easier to serve than a whole bird. If you haven't had time to let the chicken thaw slowly in the refrigerator, use your microwave's thawing program and keep checking so the chicken doesn't get hot; your goal is just to thaw it.
Another fairly fast method is to thaw the chicken, still in its bag, in a sinkful of cold water and change the water several times.
The Mizrahi technique of baking chicken in tomato sauce is a quick route to a flavorful, enticing entree. In my family the sauce is usually flavored with cumin, turmeric, black pepper, onions and garlic, based on my mother-in-law's Yemenite-style chicken, but you can vary the seasonings to your taste. Tunisians and Moroccans flavor a similar Rosh Hashana sauce with cumin and paprika and serve it with lamb or beef, wrote Martine Chiche-Yana, author of La Table Juive (The Jewish Table, Edisud; in French). A Greek chicken specialty for the holiday, according to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece, calls for browning chicken pieces in olive oil, then cooking them with tomatoes, white wine, sauteed onion and garlic, and sometimes parsley and lemon juice too.
Choose canned tomatoes to save time; they're already peeled and often they give a deeper color to sauces than fresh ones. To further simplify the dish, I make it in one pan. I skip the step of sauteing; instead I brown the sliced onion in the roasting pan along with the chicken.
Serving couscous is a custom for the holiday in many North African homes. For special occasion couscous prepared the traditional way, Rivka Levy-Mellul, author of Moroccan Cooking (Beit Hahotza'a Hayerushalmi, 1982; Hebrew), suggests embellishing steamed couscous with chicken or lamb, chickpeas, carrots, winter squash, fried almonds, raisins and prunes, and flavoring it with saffron and a little sugar and cinnamon.
You can greatly simplify this elaborate recipe by cooking couscous by the quick method, which makes this tiny pasta faster to prepare than rice or potatoes. To many people, couscous is more festive, especially if garnished with good quality dried fruit and toasted almonds. You or a family member can pick up fresh-toasted almonds at a nut shop on the way home from work; or substitute any nuts you happen to have.
If you like, serve the couscous with canned chickpeas heated with carrot rounds, which cook rapidly. Another tasty, colorful accompaniment is orange-fleshed, bell-shaped butternut squash (Hebrew dalorit). You can bake the squash halves at the same time as the chicken, or microwave them in a covered casserole. Once the squash is cooked, you can drizzle the pieces with honey or sprinkle them lightly with sugar and cinnamon; if you're not using toasted almonds and raisins with the couscous, you can scatter some over the squash.
To complete the meal, you can make use of a good-quality mixture of frozen vegetables, adorned with drained canned water chestnuts, if you have some in your pantry, and sprinkled lightly with a little extra virgin olive oil or Asian sesame oil.
While the chicken is cooking, you or a family member can put together an Israeli salad or simply a green salad made with packaged baby lettuces, tomato wedges, cucumber slices and your favorite dressing.
My friends and I favor a pot-luck holiday dinner. This way everything is homemade, and we all enjoy learning new ideas from each other. If you're preparing dinner on your own and you wish to include more appetizers, in addition to the apples and honey and holiday challah, there is always the option of purchasing one or several items from a good deli. For an easy biblical dessert, serve a platter of grapes, fresh figs and yellow dates, as a lovely, natural beginning to a sweet new year.
EASY BAKED CHICKEN WITH CUMIN AND TOMATOES
Use chicken legs or breasts, with or without skin. If you prefer, substitute 1 teaspoon each of ground coriander and dried oregano for the spices. You can prepare this convenient entree ahead and reheat it.
2.25 kg chicken pieces, with bones
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 large onion, halved and sliced thin
a 400-gram can tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
6 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
Preheat oven to 200 C. Put chicken pieces in a large roasting pan and sprinkle with pepper and cumin. Roast for 5 minutes. Add onion to pan and roast 5 more minutes or until it begins to brown. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, a little salt, garlic, turmeric and 1â„4 cup water and mix to coat chicken pieces. Cover with foil and bake for 15 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 190 C. If pan is dry, add 1â„4 cup water. Continue baking chicken covered, checking liquid once or twice, for 25 to 40 minutes longer or until it is tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Serve hot.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
QUICK COUSCOUS WITH RAISINS AND TOASTED ALMONDS
Use any kind of raisins you have, or substitute diced dried apricots or pitted prunes. If you don't have couscous, make a rice pilaf with similar ingredients, following the variation.
31â„2 cups chicken broth, or half broth and half water
Pinch of saffron (optional)
31â„3 cups packaged couscous
1â„2 cup raisins pinch of cinnamon (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1â„2 cup slivered or blanched almonds, toasted
Bring broth to a boil in a medium saucepan with saffron. Stir in couscous and raisins and return to a boil. Cover pan. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and almonds.
Makes 8 servings.
RICE WITH RAISINS AND TOASTED ALMONDS
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy saucepan, add 2 cups long-grain rice and stir for 2 minutes over medium heat. Add 4 cups hot liquid (a mixture of chicken broth and water) and a pinch of saffron and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 12 minutes. Add raisins without stirring, cover and cook for 5 minutes or until rice is tender. Finish with cinnamon and sugar and almonds as above.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.