Blessed vegetables

Custom of serving vegetables on Rosh Hashana said to date back to Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Abaye, his reason is that they're abundant.

Stew  (photo credit: David Eulitt/The Kansas City/MCT)
(photo credit: David Eulitt/The Kansas City/MCT)
Growing up in an Ashkenazi home in Washington DC, I had never heard of a Rosh Hashana Seder. This ceremony of sampling various symbolic foods, with blessings included for each one, is popular among Jews of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern origins.
When my friends Valerie and Hayim Alon had such a Seder as part of their Jewish New Year dinner, I enjoyed it very much. The most interesting Seder foods were the dishes made of vegetables – leeks, pumpkin and chard. The Alons prepared them as delicious appetizers, such as pumpkin cooked with chickpeas, nutmeg and a hint of maple syrup, and leeks braised with tomatoes.
Their Rosh Hashana Seder reminded me somewhat of a menu de dégustation, or tasting menu. I would have been happy to focus the meal on vegetable dishes like these. Along with sweet halla, they could be part of a Rosh Hashana vegetarian feast.
Some say the reason for blessing these specific vegetables is that their names in Aramaic or Hebrew are similar to words for things people wish for in the coming year. For example, the word for leek, known in Hebrew not only as kresha but also as karti, is similar to the Hebrew word yikartu, to be cut off, meaning our enemies should be eliminated.
Yet the custom of serving these vegetables on Rosh Hashana is said to date back to Rabbi Abaye of the Babylonian Talmud. A practical man, his reason for including those specific vegetables on the holiday menu is that they are abundant. He advised eating them as omens for good fortune.
It’s not by chance that he mentioned those vegetables. Rabbi Abaye lived in Babylonia – now Iraq – and these vegetables were and still are popular throughout central Asia.
PUMPKIN STEW is a favorite in the region, wrote Julia Najor in Babylonian Cuisine. Her recipe calls for cooking the pumpkin with browned meat, onion, garlic, tomato paste, date honey (silan) and lemon juice. Another popular dish is a stew of greens, meat and chickpeas, flavored with garlic and lemon juice.
Jews from Iraq use chard in a variety of ways, wrote Pascale Peretz-Rubin, author of Delicacies of Iraq (in Hebrew). On their menu the greens might appear in a stew of tiny beef cubes with potatoes, tomato paste and sauteed onion; or the leaves might be stuffed with a garlicky meat and rice filling with fresh mint. They stew pumpkin with tomatoes, raisins and a pinch of hot pepper to make a sweet-savory sauce for kubbeh (meat-stuffed semolina dumplings).
Chard and pumpkin are liked by Kurdish Jews too. According to Varda Shilo, author of Kurdistani Cooking (in Hebrew), they cook chard with meat, bulgur wheat and chopped hot pepper, or simmer the vegetable with rice, sauteed onion and chicken.
Pumpkin might be simply sauteed and then simmered with rice.
In Uzbekistan, where the Bukharan Jews originated, a popular recipe was a pumpkin simmered until very tender with a stuffing of ground lamb, rice, onion, cumin, turmeric and fresh coriander, wrote Copeland Marks, author of Sephardic Cooking. Leeks are popular among Persian Jews, who combine them with dill, tarragon and other herbs to flavor a sauce for meatballs. Marks noted that Afghan Jews combined the flavors of Persia with those of Uzbekistan. Among Afghans, leeks are used as a filling for a ravioli-like dumpling.
For obvious reasons Rabbi Abaye didn’t mention tomatoes and peppers, which are at the height of their season in Israel around Rosh Hashana. He didn’t know these vegetables because they arrived in the Old World more than 1,000 years after his time. There’s no reason, however, why we can’t include them when making Rosh Hashana appetizers or side dishes from the “blessed vegetables.”

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
Chard can be cooked like spinach and is a quicker substitute because chard has much larger leaves and takes little time to clean. This chard and vegetable casserole, moistened with olive oil, flavored with garlic and sauteed onion and topped with chopped almonds, can be made in advance and reheated.
Makes 6 servings.
700 gr. (11⁄2 pounds) Swiss chard, rinsed thoroughly
6 to 8 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 cup finely chopped onion
800 gr. (13⁄4 pounds) ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
3 small garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 small sweet red bell peppers, halved crosswise and cut in strips 6 mm (1⁄4 inch) wide
1 sweet green pepper, cut like the red peppers
3 Tbsp. unseasoned bread crumbs
3 Tbsp. coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Preheat oven to 205ºC (400ºF). Cut chard leaves from stems, discarding stems. Pile chard leaves, cut them in half lengthwise and then crosswise in strips about 1 cm, (1⁄2 inch) wide.
In medium-size saucepan of boiling salted water, cook, uncovered, about 3 minutes, or until just tender. Drain thoroughly. Squeeze by handfuls to remove excess moisture.
In a large skillet, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, stir in onion, and cook about 7 minutes, or until soft but not brown. Stir in tomatoes. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring constantly, about 12 minutes or until mixture becomes dry. Stir in garlic, add ground pepper and adjust seasoning to taste.
In a large skillet, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat, add peppers, salt and pepper to taste and cook, tossing often, about 7 minutes or until tender.
Lightly coat a heavy 5-cup gratin dish or other shallow baking dish with olive oil.
Spread chard in dish. Spoon tomato mixture over chard and smooth. Spoon pepper mixture evenly over tomatoes.
Scatter bread crumbs then almonds evenly over vegetables. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake about 15 minutes, or until vegetables are heated through and beginning to bubble at the bottom. If topping is not brown, broil with broiler door partly open about 1 minute or just until lightly browned, checking often and turning dish if necessary so topping browns evenly. Serve hot, from baking dish.
This recipe is from Sephardic Cooking by Copeland Marks. “Pumpkin is a common vegetable in Persia and is popular with the Jews,” he wrote.
The sauce in this dish is flavored with sauteed onions and dried apricots. Marks calls for lamb but you can use ground chicken instead. The kabobs are stewed, not grilled.
Makes 6 to 8 servings with rice and salad
1 cup dried green mung beans, soaked in 2 cups water overnight
450 gr. (1 pound) ground lamb 1 medium onion, grated (1⁄2 cup)
1 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. pepper
1⁄4 tsp. ground turmeric
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 2 medium onions, chopped (1 cup)
450 gr. (1 pound) pumpkin, peeled, cut into 7.5-cm. (3-inch) pieces
1 cup dried apricots, soaked in 1 cup water for 1 hour
1 cup water
Stir soaked mung beans briskly to remove the skins. Scoop off the skins with a slotted spoon and discard. Put the beans and soaking liquid in a large pan.
Mix lamb, grated onion, salt, pepper and turmeric together by hand or in a processor.

Set aside.
Heat oil in a skillet and stir-fry the chopped onions over low heat for about 4 minutes until golden/light brown on the edges. Pour into pan with the beans. Add pumpkin pieces, apricots and liquid, and 1 cup water and bring to a boil.
Take 1 heaping tablespoon of the lamb mix for each kabob and shape cylinders 5 cm. (2 inches) long and 2.5 cm. (1 inch) thick. Put these into the bean and pumpkin pan one by one. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 15 minutes, or until all ingredients are tender but not mushy. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes more if too firm.
Serve warm with ample sauce.