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A savory Rosh Hashanah: Planning a holiday table with Sephardic tradition

  • Beet salad with chives, mint and pomegranate seeds is a colorful dish for the holiday meal. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • A fresh beet salad with chives, mint, pomegranate seeds, and light yogurt drizzle. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • A fresh beet salad with chives, mint, pomegranate seeds, and light yogurt drizzle. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • A fresh beet salad with chives, mint, pomegranate seeds, and light yogurt drizzle. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Oranges, dates, and cinammon can replace raisins to provide a Sephardic twist on the classic Challah. STAFF PHOTO/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Oranges, dates, and cinammon can replace raisins to provide a Sephardic twist on the classic Challah bread. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Oranges, dates, and cinammon can replace raisins to provide a Sephardic twist on the classic Challah bread. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Oranges, dates, and cinammon can replace raisins to provide a Sephardic twist on the classic Challah bread. —GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Pomegranate sets an intention to fill oneself with as many mitzvot (good deeds) as a pomegranate is full of seeds.



Staff Writer
Saturday, September 01, 2018

Honeycake. Brisket. The first apples of the season, dipped in honey. I can see them all laid out on my mother’s table, and my grandmother’s before her. Rosh Hashanah, which starts this year on the evening of Sept. 9, is a time of beginnings, even as the light begins to wane. It always made sense to me that the Jewish New Year happened around the start of the school year, when the pencils were sharp, and the notebooks full of blank pages of potential. It’s a good time of year to take stock of things.

Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European descent) always mark the occasion with sweetness — even the brisket is often stewed with plums and carrots.

But as much as tradition rules the season, I’ve become a fan of Rosh Hashanah’s savory potential. I will always dip the season’s first McIntosh into a jar of local honey to wish myself and my loved ones a “shana tova u’metukah” — a good and sweet year — but this year, I’m delving into some other traditions to round out the table.

The Ashkenazi Rosh Hashanah meal has very little ceremony; one may light candles, recite blessings over a few of the ritual foods (including the aforementioned apples), but it is a largely relaxed meal, enjoyed in the aftermath of five or six hours in synagogue. Some Sephardim, however, hold a much more structured meal called a seder, which makes most people think of its most famous iteration, the Passover Seder, but seder just means a meal with orderliness to it – there are seders for a variety of Jewish holidays.

A Sephardic seder, like all seders, works its way through a list of ritual foods, each symbolizing a practice or reflection to carry into the new year. Punsters might enjoy knowing that each ritual food is selected based on its Hebrew or Aramaic name, and that name’s similarities to words in the blessings. Beets, leeks and white beans offer opportunities to wish an end to violence, and a dismissal of one's enemies. Pumpkins and other gourds yield prayers for the forgiveness of our own evil impulses. Most famously, the eating of a fish head — or a broth made from fish heads — accompanies the slightly mysterious blessing, “may we be a head and not a tail.” And apples and honey, or in some cases, apples cooked in sugar, make their appearance, blessing the table with wishes for a sweet year.

I am lucky enough to be able to draw from my family’s Sephardic heritage when crafting my Rosh Hashanah menu — my father’s family originally hailed from Spain, before escaping the Inquisition, and some of the flavors and recipes, filtered through several generations of living in Greece, and then New York, have survived. Where Ashkenazim bring vinegar, Sephardim bring lemons. Where Ashkenazim bring sweet wine and apples, Sephardim bring dates. (If you make your own challah — the sweet braided egg bread that’s a staple of the Jewish table — I suggest swapping the customary Ashkenazi raisins for chopped dates, cinnamon and orange zest for an unforgettable twist.)

I’m also going to add a side dish from my father’s side of the family. It has names in many languages, and roots across the Mediterranean, but in my family, it will always be called the descriptive-if-not-appetizing “greasy red stuff.” I stew a pile of tomatoes and several heads of garlic in a bath of olive oil and salt for at least two hours, and then add small white beans (or flat Romano or Dragon’s Tongue beans, often good this time of year) to finish it off. It acts like a rich, saucy gravy, perfect for pouring over rice or roasted potatoes.

Since it’s customary in both cultures to enjoy a ‘new’ (or rarely eaten) fruit to celebrate the new year, many recipes turn to pomegran-ates to fill this custom.

Pomegranates also have a special place in Sephardic tradition — eating a pomegranate sets an intention to fill oneself with as many mitzvot (good deeds) as a pomegranate is full of seeds. Beets, just coming into season, and a traditional Sephardic Rosh Hashanah food, make the perfect complement. Herbs, lemon juice and tahini or yogurt offer a pleasant zing to counter the bitter, punchy earthiness of this red, red salad.

Whatever fills your Rosh Hashanah table — be it apples and honeycake, or a fish head soup — I wish you a shana tovah u'metukah, a gut yor, and anyada buena, dulse i alegre — the promise of a sweet year, a good year, a full year — a year of peace and joy.

Dane’s Rosh Hashanah Beet Salad

Serves 6

6 medium beets (about the size of a tennis ball; drop to 4 if larger)

1 pomegranate

3 lemons

1 bunch fresh mint (parsley is an ok substitute; cilantro if you’re daring)

1 bunch fresh chives

salt and pepper

3 tablespoons tahini (if vegan) or yogurt (if having a dairy meal)

½ cup-plus olive oil

Cut any stems or roots off the beets, and cut each beet in half, lengthwise. Toss with a little olive oil, then put in a cast iron skillet or roasting pan with half a cup of water, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 400 for 45 minutes to an hour, until a paring knife goes easily into the beets.

Pull them out and let them cool. Rub the skin off with your fingers, or, if you want less pink fingers, peel with a paring knife. Cut into bite-size cubes and set aside.

While your beets are roasting….

Now it’s time to de-seed the pomegranate my favorite way: a good spanking.

Slice the pomegranate in half across its width. Grab a wooden spoon and firmly strike the skin of the pomegranate with the flat of the spoon. Do this over a large bowl; the seeds will fall into the bowl and the juice will spatter a bit. This is actually the fastest, easiest, and pith-free way to de-seed a pomegranate.

Now chop the mint and chives, combine, and divide into two piles — a big one for mixing, and a small one for garnishing. Set aside.

Juice all 3 lemons. Whisk together or put in blender with half a cup of olive oil and some salt and pepper. Gently stir in the bigger of your herb piles.

Take 3 tablespoons of yogurt or 1 tablespoon of tahini and mix with a tablespoon of olive oil. If using tahini, stir in an additional 4 tablespoons of water until it thins out. Set aside.

When your beets are done and chopped…

Gently toss cubed beets, chopped herbs, pomegranate seeds and lemon dressing. Taste a few times and add more salt and pepper as needed.

Put into serving bowl and top with the rest of your chopped herbs. This can wait in the fridge for a few hours, covered. Drizzle with yogurt or tahini right before serving.

Dane Kuttler has taught cooking lessons all over the Valley. She can be reached at dkuttler@gazettenet.com.