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In the town where I grew up, there were three churches and no synagogues. Naturally, Jews were few and far between. We moved there in the 1950s because my mother liked the landscape. Abandoning our Ashkenazi background, she befriended our neighbors, pursuing standard American fare, such as candied carrots and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows. So it's not surprising that I was in college before I got my first taste of tzimmes.
One Sukkot during the late 1960s, a boyfriend invited me to his grandparents' two-family house in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood that was mostly populated by Orthodox Jews. In their dining room, the usual foods graced the lace on their holiday table: challah, roasted turkey, brisket with onions, stuffed peppers and an apple kugel - no cream, of course.
"What's that?" I whispered, pointing to a bowl brimming with sweet potatoes and carrots, the color of molten amber punctuated by bold black prunes.
"Tzimmes," my boyfriend said.
"Tzimmes?" I asked, trying this sweet and savory medley. Catching a hint of honey, I wanted the recipe.
"You've never heard of tzimmes before," said his grandmother, piling a second portion on my plate. "In Yiddish, it means a big fuss or a lot of trouble."
"I don't know any Yiddish," I said, distracted by my ecstasy. Although I eventually broke up with that boyfriend because he was too much of a tzimmes, I was seduced by a burst of flavor as vibrant as autumn leaves. That Sukkot, I discovered a comfort food with a warmer heart than mashed potatoes or Campbell's soup concoctions.
Although tzimmes is most often associated with Rosh Hashanah because of its sweet ingredients, the dish is also served at Sukkot, when piping hot casseroles full of fall produce are infinitely practical. In cold climates, hearty foods are popular for outdoor dining in sukkahs, the harvest huts erected in backyards and decorated with dangling produce to celebrate the season's bounty.
Leo Rosten explains in "The Joys of Yiddish," the word tzimmes derives from the German zum, or "to the," and essen, or "eating." Simmered for hours on a low flame, tzimmes is a mixture of vegetables; fruits, often dried; and sometimes meat, such as brisket, flanken, or short ribs. It's not surprising that tzimmes originated in Germany, where people have cooked fruit with meat since the Middle Ages.
Because of their many ingredients and long cooking time, tzimmes recipes are associated with prolonged procedures or involved business. Leo Rosten cites a newspaper advertisement: "Skip the fuss. Leave the tzimmes to us."
In spite of the stigma attached to its meaning, tzimmes isn't really difficult to prepare, not counting the chopping of produce. After that, cooks are on Easy Street. As the assorted ingredients gently stew in a large pot, multi-taskers can help children with homework, return phone calls, read e-mails and bake brownies, if they remember to give the tzimmes an occasional stir.
Praising the ease of tzimmes preparation, Kay Kantor Pomerantz, author of several cholent, or Sabbath stew, cookbooks, explains, "I love tzimmes almost as much as cholent, because you can throw it together and it always tastes delicious." When ingredients have a chance to mellow and harmonize, the flavor is heightened. "The longer tzimmes sits, the better," Pomerantz says. "But don't let it sit too long."
In America, most tzimmes recipes combine sweet potatoes, carrots and prunes. However in the Old Country, white potatoes prevailed. Sweet potatoes are an American contribution to the genre. Traditionally tzimmes was sweetened with honey. But in our country, where everything from ketchup to breakfast cereal is sugared, maple syrup, brown sugar, canned pineapples and orange juice were invited on board. A good tzimmes can be made with practically anything, but dried fruit is its signature ingredient. There are recipes that call for dates, apricots, raisins, figs and even cranberries. Cinnamon has been the seasoning of choice, although paprika was a contender too.
A staple of kosher hotel buffets in Israel, tzimmes epitomizes Ashkenazi cuisine. However, health conscious people looking to trim fat and cholesterol from their diets have replaced beef with chicken and turkey in recipes. Today's tzimmes is seasoned with lusty flavors as far flung as ginger, cayenne pepper, Madeira wine, cumin, or chili powder. A recipe from author Gil Marks calls for mint. In modern-day America, tzimmes appears in some surprising forms, as teacakes, souffles and desserts, which include candied fruit and caramelized apples.
In Jewish circles, it's been said that you can make a big fuss about almost anything, but you can't make a real tzimmes without carrots. Congenial and colorful, carrots are the common denominator in recipes.
In her book of personal anecdotes, "And the Bridge Is Love," Fay Moskowitz offered the most delightful description of all time: "Aunt Celia had red hair the color of carrot tzimmes cooked in honey and darkened with cinnamon." Who knows if that was her natural color, or if Clairol ever offered a product close to the deep coppery shade of a good, old-fashioned tzimmes.
A versatile stew that welcomes a multitude of ingredients, tzimmes is a complete meal in a pot when made with meat. When vegetables and fruit stand alone, it becomes a saucy side dish, which perks up poultry or veal. Because Sukkot falls so deep into autumn this year, nothing could be more satisfying than a steaming tzimmes, whether it be your grandma's recipe or an updated version full of sassy ingredients.
With its funny sounding name, tzimmes is one of those foods that have bounced around the Ashkenazi world for centuries, but rarely receives respect. Like a loveably flamboyant child, tzimmes is often the butt of jokes, but with its irrepressible personality, this comforting stew is simply too tantalizing to miss.
Click here for tantalizing and creative tzimmes recipes (including teabread).