Rosh Hashana Food: Local rabbis savor the flavor and symbolism of holiday foods

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Rabbi David Booth bakes his grandmother’s brownies. Rabbi Mark Melamut serves his children a salad full of ingredients symbolic of the blessings for the New Year. Rabbi David Cooper favors slow-cooked cholent to break the Yom Kippur fast, while Rabbi Bridget Wynne enjoys culturally rich Sephardic dishes.

These Bay Area rabbis not only like to cook, but believe the dishes they prepare for the Days of Awe can enrich the holiday experience. Though finding time to cook during the High Holy Days is challenging, the rabbis find the effort well worthwhile — and often take discussions about foods’ meanings from the dining table to the bimah.

“Cooking metaphors often come up in my teaching,” says Cooper, of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. He makes a vegan cholent for the Yom Kippur break fast. Not only is this stew the ultimate comfort food after a day of prayer and abstinence, but “its ingredients are simple,” he says. “It simmers low for a long time and as a result the flavors become entwined and enmeshed. All this is a metaphor for how communities deepen with time.”

Melamut, of Congregation B’nai Emunah in San Francisco, says the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah family service “will be built around the meal of symbolic foods, and include stories and songs.”

He likes to go “beyond apples and honey,” and share foods with physical attributes or Hebrew names that connote some aspect of meaning or intention. The practice is to pass these foods separately and say a blessing over each one as it is sampled.

“With young children,” Melamut explains, “it’s hard to serve [and wait] for each item, so we put them all together in a salad.”

Melamut’s Salad for an Auspicious New Year includes carrots for increasing merits, leeks for decreasing dangers, beets for removing hazards, dates for decreasing travails, squash for settling decrees, pomegranate seeds for increasing virtues, smoked salmon for being fruitful and multiplying like fish and a head of lettuce, so that “we will be as the head and not as the tail.”

Rabbi Bridget Wynne, the spiritual leader of Jewish Gateways (which offers Jewish programming, including High Holy Days services, to help individuals explore Jewish life and identity), grew up eating Ashkenazi basics for a sweet New Year, such as tzimmes and honey cake. But as an adult, she became interested in Sephardic practices.

“It’s fascinating to see how culture and history are expressed though food traditions,” she says. “I particularly enjoy cooking Jewish foods from around the world.”

She now serves a North African Stew with Couscous for Rosh Hashanah, since it includes beans (for increasing blessings), pumpkin or winter squash (tearing up harsh decrees) and couscous which can “also represent abundance and blessings because of the myriad tiny grains in each portion.”

Booth, of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, prepares dishes with symbolic foods, but he also bakes his grandmother’s fudgy brownies during the holidays. “It’s a way of inviting her to be part of our meal.” 


Rabbi Mark Melamut’s Salad for an Auspicious New Year

Serves 8-10

photos/courtesy of faith kramer

8 cups bite-size pieces of romaine and/or green leaf lettuce (about 1 large or 2 small heads)

1 cup chopped carrots, cut in 1⁄4-inch pieces

1⁄2 cup chopped leek (white and very light green part only), cut in 1⁄4-inch pieces

1⁄2 cup diced cooked, drained beets (canned OK), cut in 1⁄4-inch pieces

1/2 cup chopped, pitted medajool dates, cut in 1⁄4-inch bits

2 cups diced cooked winter squash, cut in 1⁄4-inch pieces

4 oz. lox or smoked salmon

1⁄4 cup pomegranate seeds

1 cup of balsamic vinaigrette, approx.

Toss lettuce, carrots, leeks, beets, dates and squash in a large bowl. Refrigerate if making in advance. Before serving, shred lox into 1⁄2-inch bits and add to salad with pomegranate seeds. Just before serving, toss with almost all the dressing, adding more if needed to taste.

Note: Melamut makes his own salad dressing by blending olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and honey to taste.


Rabbi David Cooper’s Veggie Cholent

Makes 8-10 servings

1 cup pearl barley

3⁄4 cup dried green or brown lentils (see notes below)

3⁄4 cup dried garbanzo beans

1⁄2 cup dried large lima beans

10 cups water

2 Tbs. plus 3 Tbs. olive oil

4 cups 1⁄4-inch diced potato (peeling optional)

1⁄2 cup to 1 cup couscous, optional

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground black or white pepper

2 Tbs. soy sauce

1 Tbs. sugar or agave nectar

The night before serving, pick through lentils and beans, discarding any debris. Rinse barley, lentils and beans. Place in a large slow cooker (crockpot) with water and 2 Tbs. of oil. Stir. Cover and turn cooker on to low setting. Allow the cholent to cook overnight and through the next day, stirring from time to time, adding boiling water if the mixture gets too dry.

Steam potato until almost cooked but not soft. Store covered in refrigerator until cholent is ready.

About 15 minutes before serving, add additional boiling water  to cholent if needed. Add salt, pepper and soy sauce. Stir, taste and adjust seasonings . Add cooked potatoes. If mixture is too wet, add couscous as needed. Continue cooking covered on low for about 10 minutes more until potatoes are hot and couscous is cooked. Serve with hot sauce on the side if desired.

Notes: This recipe works best with a sturdy “supermarket”-style lentil as opposed to the smaller French green lentils. Cooper does not like garlic or onions in his cholent. If you do, sauté 2 cups chopped onions in 2 Tbs. oil until softened, add 2 minced garlic cloves and sauté until garlic is golden. (Add 1⁄2 tsp. red pepper flakes at this point if desired.) Add 2 cups thinly sliced carrots. Sauté until onions are browned and carrots are cooked through but not too soft. Cover and refrigerate. Add to the cholent when adding the potatoes. Try garnishing with toasted bread crumbs and or finely chopped cilantro and parsley.


Rabbi Bridget Wynne’s North African Chickpea Stew with Couscous

Serves 8-10

2 Tbs. butter or margarine

5 cups thinly sliced onion 

2 Tbs. minced garlic 

2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh ginger

1⁄2 tsp. turmeric

1⁄4 tsp. red pepper flakes

2 tsp. cinnamon

6 cups of 1-inch sweet potato cubes, peeling optional

Vegetable or chicken stock as needed

4 cups of 1-inch cubes of peeled pumpkin, butternut squash or other winter squash (see notes below)

1⁄2 cup golden raisins

1 15 oz. can of chickpeas (see notes below)

2 Tbs. chopped cilantro

2 Tbs. chopped parsley

1⁄4 tsp. salt or to taste

1⁄4 tsp. ground black pepper or to taste

6-8 cups hot, cooked couscous

Heat butter or margarine in a very large fry or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, red pepper flakes and cinnamon and cook for 3 minutes. Stir in sweet potatoes and add stock to cover. Bring to a boil, lower heat to medium low and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Add pumpkin or squash cubes and raisins. Add additional stock if needed and continue to simmer uncovered until cooked through, about 15 minutes. Drain and rinse chickpeas, add to pan with cilantro, parsley, salt and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes until flavors meld. Taste and correct seasonings. Serve over hot couscous.

Notes: 4 cups squash or pumpkin cubes are equal to about 1 lb. of peeled squash or pumpkin. If buying a whole pumpkin or squash, figure on buying one that weighs about 11⁄2 to 2 lbs. For a heartier dish, use 2 cans of chickpeas and use an additional 1⁄8 tsp. turmeric, 1⁄8 tsp. red pepper flakes, 1⁄2 tsp. cinnamon and a dash more salt and pepper.


Rabbi David Booth’s Bubbe’s Brownies

Serves 8

1⁄2 cup butter plus extra for greasing pan

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 tsp. vanilla

1⁄3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1⁄2 cup flour

1⁄8 tsp. salt

1⁄8 tsp. baking powder

1 recipe frosting (see below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease 8 X 8-inch baking pan with butter. Melt 1⁄2 cup butter. Combine sugar, eggs, vanilla, cocoa, salt and baking powder. Mix well. Mix in melted butter and stir until well combined. Pour into prepared baking pan. Bake for about 25-30 minutes; the brownies should still be fudgy in the middle. Do not overcook. Allow to cool for 15 minutes and then frost. Let sit 30 minutes before serving to allow frosting time to set. Cut into bars.

*Do not substitute margarine for the butter

Frosting:  Melt 3 Tbs. butter. Mix in 3 Tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 Tbs. honey or agave nectar. Slowly stir in 1 cup of powdered sugar. Stir in water by the teaspoon until frosting is smooth and spreadable. (Add more powdered sugar if needed to thicken.) Spread on top of brownies as directed above.

Faith Kramer
Faith Kramer

Faith Kramer is a Bay Area food writer and the author of “52 Shabbats: Friday Night Dinners Inspired by a Global Jewish Kitchen.” Her website is faithkramer.com. Contact her at [email protected].