A meal of symbols

At a traditional Rosh Hashana repast, every ingredient can have a meaning.

Chicken 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Chicken 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
As Rosh Hashana approaches, its foods, its rituals are steeped in memories of a childhood from another century, another age in which every occasion was a pretext for games and wonderful food.
For my Sephardic grandmother in Cairo and the two-score relatives who gathered around her table every Rosh Hashana – the first of the Days of Awe leading to Yom Kippur – that High Holy Day was a serious and solemn affair.
But while the grown-ups read the prayers and followed the rituals, we children – unwitting recipients of edible semiology (the science of symbols) – gleefully gorged on mounds of patties or cut-up frittatas that were green with Swiss chard and golden with leeks. They were delicious.
Because the Hebrew word for chard, selek, is contained in the verb lesalek (“to expel”) and the word for leek is related to karet (“to cut off or destroy”), they are eaten on Rosh Hashana to symbolize getting rid of bad things, from one’s own evil thoughts to any malice others might harbor toward you.
We children secretly wished for our enemies to be chopped up like these vegetables we wouldn’t touch the rest of the year. After all, it was sanctioned by the prayers! (”May it be your will, oh God, that our enemies be cut off.”) Biting into the chard and leek patties made us feel delightfully wicked and empowered, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (“Off with their heads!”).
What we relished as an edible game was part of an age-old Jewish ritual handed down from generation to generation. Like most Jews from Cordoba, Spain, who had fled the Inquisition in the late 15th century, my family settled in the four corners of the Mediterranean: France, Greece, Palestine and Italy. Toward the end of the 19th century, they brought to Egypt their traditions and cuisines, but the 20th century proved turbulent, and the fruit of their multiplication was again scattered, this time to the four corners of the world.
IN JEWISH HOLIDAY rites, every ingredient has a meaning. Honey represents sweet living and wealth, and so an apple and a halla baked into spiral rounds (both symbolizing the continuity of creation and the year’s cycle) are dipped in honey.
Fish is an ancient symbol of fertility and abundance. Being very literal, my paternal grandmother would place the head of a fish on the table as an expression of her wish that we children be “at the head” of our class.
Bowls of ruby-like pomegranate seeds would be passed to represent the multiplication of good deeds or descendants – a source of silly giggles for the teens in the group. And wine – not the sweet Manischewitz but real wine – was blessed and generously poured, “baptized” in water for us kids.
ASHKENAZI To my husband, an Argentine whose family came from prewar Poland, most of these foods are quite foreign. The only pomegranates and dates 19th century Ashkenazi Jews knew were in The Song of Songs, King Solomon’s semi-erotic book of verses. They were more into cabbage and meat.
I am, by virtue of history and nature, an iconoclast, and, while it may seem anathema to the more orthodox, Rosh Hashana in our family is a hybrid, a fusion of who we are, where we live and what we like. While ours is not a kosher household, celebrating as we do is one way to transmit the cultural baggage of our convoluted personal histories to our children and grandchildren.
I still look forward to the leek and Swiss chard (or spinach) frittatas.
They’re so much fun and, thanks to food processors, less time-consuming than when my grandmother made them.
My husband refuses to eat pomegranate; he doesn’t like the seeds, he says. I still pass it in a bowl and sprinkle the shiny red seeds on salads, but I also serve tobiko (flying fish roe) or caviar as a symbol of multiplication.
No one in the family likes to see the head of a fish, or for that matter a whole fish with eyeballs and gaping mouth, at the table, and I don’t like gefilte fish, an Ashkenazi holiday tradition.
Instead I will make a sumptuous and easy-to-prepare broiled salmon fillet seasoned with extra virgin olive oil, soy sauce, finely sliced garlic and liquid smoke.
To satisfy everyone’s tastes I’ll also brine a few chicken breasts the night before and cook them with pomegranate molasses.
As an accompaniment, I’ll make a concession to the Ashkenazi sweet tooth with sweet golden sliced carrots – like gold coins! (Of course, this is another pun turned symbol. Carrot in Yiddish is mehr, which also means “more,” so figure it out.) My carrots will be naturally sweet and curried, sweated in olive oil, then cooked in orange juice, seasoned with curry powder and a bit of sea salt for depth and finished with butter. They will be joined by roasted cauliflower with raisins and pine nuts, a simply fabulous dish with unexpected flavors that I first tasted at Boulette Larder in San Francisco.
For starches I’ll make an old favorite, Persian rice with quinoa, an ancient Andean grain. Fragrant with roasted spices, studded with dried cranberries and grated carrots and sprinkled with orange blossom water, it’s heavenly.
Since we live in Miami and will still have mangoes from our backyard in the refrigerator, the baby mesclun salad will be dotted with diced mango along with tomato, onion and crumbled feta cheese to balance the sweetness.
ITALIAN TOUCH Dessert will be simple and can be prepared in advance – dulce de leche ice cream to please my Argentine husband and to accompany a plum crostata, a wink to my Italian grandfather.
All the dishes in this menu can be prepared a day or two ahead except for the salmon and the salad. And no, I will not celebrate the second day of the holiday, as it is written, but I will enjoy the leftovers! Here’s to new years in new centuries and brave new worlds.
CHICKEN BREASTS WITH POMEGRANATE MOLASSES Middle Eastern meets Chinese in this sweet and sour dish, a lovely alternative for guests who don’t like fish. Leftovers reheat well. Dipping the chicken in cornstarch and egg white before sauteing, as the Chinese do, keeps the meat moist, as does the brining. Pomegranate molasses is sold in Middle Eastern markets.
Kosher salt 6 chicken breast halves, about 1 cm.
thick 11⁄2 Tbsp. cornstarch 1 egg white 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil 1 large onion, sliced 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses Pomegranate seeds (optional) In a large bowl, combine 1⁄4 cup kosher salt with 6 to 8 cups warm water, stirring to dissolve. Add the chicken breasts, cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
Before cooking, bring the chicken to room temperature, drain and pat dry.
In a shallow bowl, mix the cornstarch with the egg white and set aside.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet. Saute the onion about 5 minutes, till translucent. Add garlic and cook 2 more minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the hot skillet. Dip the chicken breasts in the cornstarch mixture and add to the skillet. Saute about 5 minutes, turn and cook 3 more minutes, until cooked through.
Return the onion and garlic to the pan. Drizzle molasses over all, turning to coat. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Makes 6 servings.
BROILED SALMON This is one of the easiest and best-tasting salmon recipes I’ve ever made.
It should be prepared not more than 30 minutes before cooking.
1 whole salmon fillet, 3 to 5 cm.
thick, preferably with skin (about 150 gr. per serving) Olive oil or vegetable-oil spray About 4 Tbsp. good-quality soy sauce About 1 Tbsp. liquid smoke 2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced Cover a large, shallow baking pan with aluminum foil and grease or spray it with oil. Fifteen to 30 minutes before cooking, place the fish, skin side down, on the pan. Spread the soy sauce, liquid smoke and garlic evenly over the flesh.
Set the fish 10 cm. from the broiler and cook on high for 10 to 12 minutes depending on thickness. The surface will turn a deep brown while the inside will be moist and flavorful. Do not overcook. Transfer to a platter. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH GOLDEN RAISINS AND PINE NUTS 1 head cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets Olive or vegetable oil spray 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1⁄4 cup pine nuts 11⁄2 tsp. kosher salt (or more if needed) 1 medium onion chopped 2 medium leeks (white and light green part only), thinly sliced Freshly ground pepper and nutmeg to taste A sprinkling of cayenne 1⁄2 cup raisins or dried cranberries Heat oven to 200ºC. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and spray lightly with oil. In a large bowl, mix the florets with 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt.
Spread on the pan and roast 15 minutes.
Turn and bake until lightly browned and tender, another 10 to 15 minutes.
Toast the pine nuts in a nonstick skillet over medium heat, shaking until lightly brown. Transfer to a plate. In the same pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Saute the onions and leeks until lightly brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the remaining salt and the pepper, nutmeg and cayenne.
In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower with the onions, leeks, raisins and pine nuts. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 6 servings.
Source: Adapted from Edible: A Celebration of Local Foods by Tracy Ryder and Carole Topalian (Wiley, $29.95).
SWEET CURRIED CARROTS The curry and ginger raise the bar for this pedestrian root vegetable, while the butter adds a mellow dimension.
450 gr. fresh carrots, peeled 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil About 1⁄2 cup orange juice (not from concentrate) 1 tsp. curry powder 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger Salt (very little) to taste 2 Tbsp. butter 1 Tbsp. honey Cut carrots into 0.6 cm. slices. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add the carrots, cover the pan and cook, shaking occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes.
Add the orange juice (more if needed to cover), curry powder, ginger and a sprinkle of salt. Cook, uncovered, on medium heat till the liquid has reduced by half and the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Add the butter and reduce the liquid even more. Stir in the honey to form a glaze. Makes 6 servings.
SPINACH (OR SWISS CHARD) FRITTATA Two 280-gr. packages of frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry, may be substituted. For leek patties, replace the spinach with 4 large leeks, using only the white and tender green parts. Rinse well under running water, dry, slice thinly (or chop in a food processor) and saute with the onion, omitting the garlic.
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup) 4 Tbsp. olive oil 1 large garlic clove, minced 680 gr. fresh spinach or Swiss chard, washed (discard tough stems) 1 Tbsp. cornstarch 3 large eggs 1⁄3 cup grated Parmesan cheese Salt and freshly ground pepper Saute onion in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on medium heat until a little more than translucent, 5 to 8 minutes.
Let them begin to caramelize (this will bring the sweetness forth). Add garlic and cook a minute more.
In the meantime, wilt the spinach in a large pot with the water still lingering on the leaves over medium heat for a couple of minutes. The volume will diminish considerably. Drain well in a colander, reserving 1⁄4 cup of the water, and set aside. When cool enough to handle, chop spinach by hand and put in a bowl.
In another bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in the reserved cooking water.
Whisk in the eggs and cheese. Add the spinach and onion. Mix well and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium- high heat, pour in the spinach mixture and cook until a little more than half set, 8 to 10 minutes. To turn the frittata, loosen it from the pan bottom with a spatula, place a plate over the skillet and invert the frittata onto the plate. Slide it back into the pan and cook about 5 minutes more, until the second side is done. Cut into wedges to serve. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
– MCT Simone Zarmati Diament is the editorpublisher of www.southfloridagourmet.com and co-host of the radio podcast Food & Wine Talk WSFG.