Wholesome foods for a healthy new year

With such a wonderful variety of fruit in season just in time for Rosh Hashana, why stick to one fruit for the blessing?

Pecans 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pecans 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To me, Rosh Hashana is an ideal occasion to focus on healthy cuisine. After all, so many of the holiday’s customs revolve around fruits and vegetables.
For today’s Rosh Hashana menus people often borrow foods from both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi traditions, resulting in a greater variety of healthy dishes. From the apple wedges dipped in honey, to the carrots and sweet potatoes favored by many Ashkenazim, to the leafy greens, leeks, orange squash, pomegranate seeds and dates served by Sephardim, the holiday menu is naturally off to a wholesome start.
Designing menus with a higher proportion of vegetables and fruits is a key to eating healthier. And when it comes to sweeteners, honey is consider a “super-food” by nutrition experts like Dr. Steven G. Pratt and Kathy Matthews, authors of Superfoods HealthStyle, because it is high in health-promoting antioxidants.
A few years ago, shortly before Rosh Hashana, I was invited to give a talk on healthy cooking at Merage Jewish Community Center in Southern California.
After my presentation we lunched on a Rosh Hashana menu composed of dishes from my book Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
We began with a salad of carrots and beets with cucumbers and toasted sunflower seeds dressed with a light vinaigrette, followed by a Middle Eastern entree of chicken with dates in a sauce flavored with sweet spices and honey. Rice pilaf accompanied the chicken; for a holiday touch, you could top the rice with pomegranate seeds, which have many health benefits. Ina, of Blueberry Hill Catering, also prepared grilled squashes of different colors with sweet red peppers and snow peas.
For dessert, slices of honey cake came with a refreshing compote of late summer fruit – plums, pears and papaya cubes poached briefly in spiced red wine. The compote acts as a sauce for the cake and adds color to the dessert plate. When you’re serving honey cake in small pieces, adding fruit compote makes for a more satisfying dessert.
As an extra treat, we sampled a platter of special fruits that could be candidates for the sheheheyanu blessing on the second day of the holiday. Produce maven Robert Schueller of Melissa’s Produce demonstrated how to cut a mango, using a delicious late summer variety called Keitt, and how to prepare cherimoyas (anona in Hebrew) and dragon-fruit, the striking bright-pink cactus fruit also known as pitaya (the name used in Hebrew).
With such a wonderful variety of fruit in season just in time for Rosh Hashana, why stick to one fruit for the blessing? A selection of these and other sweet fruits, like Asian pears and ripened fresh yellow dates, makes a delicious, wholesome dessert and a tasty start for a healthy New Year.
The savory-sweet sauce of this Middle Eastern main course gains flavor from the chicken and fruit, and from sweet spices, onion and a touch of honey. Serve it with long-grain rice, preferably aromatic basmati.
Using boneless chicken thighs makes the entree substantially lower in saturated fat than the classic version, which is made with lamb. If you prefer to serve chicken pieces on the bone, you can prepare the dish following the variation below.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
570 to 700 gr. (11⁄4 to 1 1⁄2 pounds) skinless-boneless chicken thighs 1 large onion, finely chopped salt and freshly-ground pepper 1 Tbsp. olive oil 1 cup chicken broth; or 1⁄2 cup dry white or red wine and 1⁄2 cup broth 1 tsp. ground ginger pinch of ground cloves 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1⁄2 cup pitted dates 1⁄2 cup dried apricots 1 Tbsp. honey, or more to taste 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted (optional)
Cut chicken in cubes of about 2.5 x 1.25 x 1.25 cm. (1 x 1⁄2 x 1⁄2 inch) and put them in a heavy stew pan.
Add onion, salt, pepper and oil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Add broth, ginger, cloves and 1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.
Add dates, apricots and honey and simmer uncovered for 5 to 10 minutes or until chicken and fruit are tender.
Taste and adjust seasoning; add remaining cinnamon and more honey if you like. If you want a thicker sauce, remove chicken and fruit with a slotted spoon to a plate and simmer sauce uncovered over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until thickened to taste; then return chicken and fruit to sauce and heat through. Serve garnished with almonds.
Variation: Instead of boneless chicken, use 1.2 to 1.4 kg. (2 3⁄4 to 3 pounds) chicken pieces on the bone. Cook as above, turning pieces occasionally, until tender, about 35 minutes for breasts or 45 minutes for leg and thigh pieces. Transfer chicken to a plate before adding the dates and apricots. Continue as above.
Whether you eat this healthy dessert on its own or with Rosh Hashana honey cake, this combination of plums, pears and papaya in spiced wine is attractive and delicious. If you want to use sweet wine, start with 1⁄3 cup sugar, and after making the syrup, add more sugar to taste. You can add pomegranate seeds to the cooked compote for a finishing touch. The compote keeps up to 4 days in a covered container in the refrigerator.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 1⁄2 cups dry red wine 1 1⁄2 cups water 2⁄3 cup sugar 2 cinnamon sticks or 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. ground cinnamon 1⁄4 tsp. ground cloves a few pared strips of lemon zest 225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) plums, ripe but firm, quartered 225 gr. (1⁄2 pound) pears 2 or 3 peaches, nectarines or some of each (optional), or additional plums 1 1⁄2 to 2 cups diced papaya or mango (optional) 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (optional)
Combine wine, water, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and lemon zest in a heavy, medium saucepan. Heat over low heat, stirring gently, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil; remove from heat.
If using peaches, peel them (see note below). Quarter peaches, nectarines and plums, keeping plums in a separate bowl.
Peel pears and halve them lengthwise. Remove flower end and core of each pear. Cut each half in two lengthwise quarters.
Return syrup to boil. Add pears and plums. Cover with a lid slightly smaller than diameter of saucepan to keep fruit submerged. Reduce heat to low and cook fruit for 4 minutes. Add peaches or nectarines and papaya and continue cooking for 3 to 5 more minutes, or until fruit is tender when pierced with sharp knife.
Cool fruit in syrup to room temperature. Taste, and add lemon juice if you like. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving. Leave in cinnamon sticks and lemon zest strips; or remove them if you like. Serve cold.
Note: To peel the peaches, add them to the syrup before adding any other fruit and cook them for 1 minute; then remove pan from the heat and remove peaches with a slotted spoon. (This is not necessary with nectarines.) Peel and quarter peaches and cook as above.
This recipe is from The Kosher Baker. Author Paula Shoyer layers the honey-cake batter with a mixture of cinnamon, sugar and crushed pecan halves, a technique that’s popular for making coffee cake.
You can keep the cake, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature up to 5 days or freeze it up to 3 months.
Makes 16 servings
Spray oil plus 2 Tbsp. flour for greasing and flouring the pan 1 cup pecan halves 1⁄2 plus 1⁄3 cup sugar, divided 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon plus 1⁄4 teaspoon, divided 2⁄3 cup brewed espresso or very strong coffee (or 1 tsp. instant coffee granules dissolved in 2⁄3 cup boiling water) 3⁄4 cup honey 1⁄2 cup canola or vegetable oil 1⁄3 cup dark brown sugar 2 large eggs 2 cups all-purpose flour 1⁄4 tsp. ground cloves 1⁄4 tsp. ground ginger 3⁄4 tsp. baking powder 3⁄4 tsp. baking soda
Preheat the oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Grease and flour a 30-cm. (12-inch) loaf pan. Place the pecan halves in a bag and crush them with a rolling-pin until the largest pieces are between 6 mm. and 1.25 cm. (1⁄4 and 1⁄2 inch) long. Add the 1⁄2 cup sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon to the bag and shake to combine.
In a large bowl, whisk together the coffee and honey. Add the oil, 1⁄3 cup of the white sugar, the brown sugar and eggs and whisk well. Add the flour, cloves, 1⁄4 teaspoon cinnamon, ginger, baking powder and baking soda and beat in a stand mixer or with a hand-held electric mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes; or mix vigorously by hand, until you have a smooth batter.
Scoop up 1 cup of the batter and pour into the pan.
Tilt the pan in a circle so the batter covers the entire bottom. Sprinkle on 1⁄3 cup of the nut mixture, covering the entire batter. Repeat with another cup of batter and 1⁄3 cup of the nut mixture. Repeat again. Pour the remaining batter on top and spread gently to cover the nuts.
Bake for 1 hour, or until a skewer inserted in the cake’s center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan and then turn out onto a rack to continue cooling.
This cake is good either warm or at room temperature.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes