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One of my favorite Rosh Hashana customs is eating a new fruit. The tradition came about to provide a reason to say the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for allowing us to reach this day, on the second day of the two-day festival.
So what is a "new" fruit? That's a topic of debate among rabbis and educators. Some say it's a fruit that's just coming into season, or one you haven't eaten since last year.
Some people avoid certain seasonal fruit until Rosh Hashana to be sure it will be "new." A more relaxed attitude suggests choosing a fruit you haven't eaten for at least 30 days, or simply one you don't eat often. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author of The Jewish Holidays (Harper & Row, 1985), expresses this approach: "At the beginning of the second evening meal of Rosh Hashana, it is customary to eat a 'funny fruit,' which means any fruit we have not eaten in a long time." He suggests kiwis or unusual melons.
So many fruits are available almost year-round that it is hard to find a "new" fruit, wrote Rabbi Yehudah Prero in his Rosh Hashana article for the Project Genesis Web site (www.torah.org) and added that it depends on your markets. When he lived in Chicago he chose hard-to-find starfruits, fresh dates or figs.
Writing about the Rosh Hashana table of her childhood in Italy, Edda Servi Machlin, the author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking (Ecco, 2005), recalled that there were always fresh figs, pomegranates and jujubes, also known as Chinese dates.
In some families, the time-honored tradition is to eat an unfamiliar fruit. As more varieties of fruit become available, our idea of what is exotic evolves. Having a fresh pineapple was an event in our home when I was growing up, and we had never heard of avocados or persimmons. These are still the holiday's special fruits on some tables.
The choice is personal. If my Asian pear tree has fruit, for me that's a perfect pick for the holiday table.
Recently I got some ideas for interesting holiday fruits from fruit maven Robert Schueller of Melissa's Worldwide Produce. I sampled a huge, luscious Keitt mango that was so sweet that you could almost eat it with its skin. He also introduced me to the tropical monstera deliciosa - "delicious monster." With its elongated shape and dark green scales, it somewhat resembles an alligator. When the scales fall off, you eat the fruit, which looks and tastes like a hybrid of banana and pineapple.
Emboldened by these experiences, my husband and I went to a Filipino supermarket and bought possibly the world's funniest fruit, the durian. This large, spiky fruit is known for its pungent aroma and thus is suitable for only the most daring diners. But we liked its sweet taste and rich custard texture and could understand why east Asians dubbed it the "king of fruit" and even make it into ice cream.
The most gorgeous fruit was the shocking pink dragon fruit. When I saw it, I recognized it as the pitaya that I bought a couple of years ago during a stroll in Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market. Native to Latin America, this cactus fruit, which comes in various colors, has been the subject of Israeli research in developing drought-resistant export crops to grow in the Negev. Melissa's Web site notes that its delicately sweet flavor recalls watermelon, cactus pear (sabra) and kiwi. Others feel it resembles melon. To me it tastes a little like all of these.
You'll find other unusual fruits at good supermarkets.
Yellow barhi dates are in season just in time for Rosh Hashana. They are fabulous when yellow and firm and when softened, brown and honey-like.
All these fruits are worthy candidates for the holiday blessing. So are fresh figs and pomegranates, which, along with dates and grapes, are preferred by many because they are biblical fruits. Aromatic guavas are another good choice. But why stop at one fruit? Why not present a beautiful platter of unusual and best-of-the-season fruits?
The most delicate "new fruits" are best savored as is, so that nothing intrudes on their special flavors. I wouldn't cook pitayas or fresh litchis. Fresh pineapples, figs, dates, and mangos taste good in simple recipes that don't obscure their character, such as fruit salads, or as a garnish for delicate rice dishes. Moroccan and other Sephardi cooks often stud rice with raisins, and I like to embellish such classic recipes with exotic fruit to grace my Rosh Hashana table.
Rosh Hashana fruity rice
Substitute any tender festive fruit you like. Use one kind or, even better, a colorful mixture of tart and sweet fruits, as in the recipe below.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, halved and cut in thin slices
2 cups long-grain rice
4 cups hot chicken stock, water or a mixture of the two
1 bay leaf
11/2 teaspoons salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons raisins
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup quartered pitted dates, preferably yellow
1/2 cup fresh figs, quartered lengthwise
2/3 to 1 cup diced mango or papaya
1/2 cup half-slices of peeled kiwi
1/2 cup toasted cashews or almonds
Heat oil in a stew pan. Add onions and saute over medium heat for 12 to 15 minutes or until tender and deep brown. Remove half of onion mixture and reserve.
Add rice to pan and saute, stirring, for two minutes. Add stock, bay leaf, salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Stir once. Add raisins. Cover and cook over low heat for 18 minutes or until rice is just tender. Let stand off heat, covered, 10 minutes. Discard bay leaf.
Reserve half of fruit and nuts. Using a fork, fluff rice lightly and gently stir in the reserved onions and half the fruit and nuts. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve rice in a shallow bowl, garnished with reserved fruit and nuts.
Makes 8 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).