Local chef and author Joyce Goldstein selects fresh vegetables for her holiday menu. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Local chef and author Joyce Goldstein selects fresh vegetables for her holiday menu. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Forget brisket! Start the new year with delicious symbolic Mediterranean dishes

We associate specific foods with many Jewish holidays. For Passover — always the major culinary event because the house has to be cleaned of hametz (leavened foods) and matzah takes over the pantry for a week — it’s matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, brisket and flourless cakes. Hanukkah is always joyfully celebrated because, face it, everyone loves fried foods: Latkes and fritters are irresistible.

But Rosh Hashanah food seems to fly under the culinary radar. Maybe the fasting at Yom Kippur takes psychological precedence. And other than apples dipped in honey, very few specific dishes are associated with celebration of the Jewish new year. Many home cooks fall back on the inevitable roast chicken or brisket and honey cake.

Yet Rosh Hashanah comes at the best time of the year for fruit and vegetables, the first two days of the month of Tishrei, usually in late September or early October. This year it begins at sundown Sept. 20.

Figs, plums, tomatoes, corn and peppers are still hanging on. Quince, pomegranate, grapes, pears and apples are in season. The market is so exciting I want to focus on our abundant fresh produce whenever possible, not brisket!

Although my family on both sides is Ashkenazi, my palate is not. Having lived in Italy and traveled extensively in the Mediterranean, I am predisposed to embrace the food of the Mediterranean Jews: Sephardic (Spanish), Maghrebi (North African) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern). In their traditional kitchens, abundant sweets heralded the new year. Fruits were added to meat and poultry stews, even to sauce fish. Symbolic foods were displayed on the table: figs, quince, dates, apples in honey — all representing a wish for a sweet new year. Also pomegranate, because its many seeds are symbolic of the good deeds to be done in the new year; sesame seeds, to inspire numerous virtues; and pumpkin squash for protection. Garlic and leeks symbolically cancel all bad deeds, and spinach or beet greens keep enemies away. A whole fish was often served, its head representing the start of the New Year.

With all this powerful culinary tradition, it’s no wonder Mediterranean Jewish food is on my table for the holiday celebration. What follows are some of my family’s favorite Rosh Hashanah dishes that use these traditional symbolic foods.

Spinach Salad from Thrace (Photo/Courtesy Joyce Goldstein)

Spinach Salad from Thrace

Serves 4

Most Mediterranean spinach “salads” are really cooked spinach dressed with oil and vinegar or lemon. Sometimes garlic is added to the dressing and chopped nuts or pomegranate seeds used as a garnish. This Greek Sephardic salad from Thrace is unusual in that is made with uncooked spinach. The recipe comes from my friend Nikos Stavroulakis, author of “Cookbook of the Jews of Greece” and former director of the Jewish Museum in Salonika.

The egg yolks in this dressing make it rich and creamy, but if you are worried about using raw eggs, leave them out and whisk in a tablespoon or two of mayonnaise instead. The mixture of two acids, lemon juice and vinegar provides a perfect balance between the bitter walnuts, the earthy mushrooms and the sweeter spinach.

1 lb. baby spinach or 2 medium bunches spinach, stems removed
1/3 lb. white mushrooms
1/2 cup walnut halves
4 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. vinegar
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 egg yolks
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

If using large spinach leaves, remove stems, wash and dry well. Tear large leaves into smaller pieces. For baby spinach just dry the leaves well. Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel and cut them into thin slices.

Toast the walnuts in a 350-degree oven until they are fragrant, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Chop walnuts coarsely, leaving large pieces. You need to be able to pick them up with a fork.

Whisk olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, egg yolks and mustard in a bowl and add salt and pepper to taste. You may want a bit more lemon juice or vinegar.

Put spinach, mushrooms and walnuts in a large salad bowl and toss with this dressing.

Rosh Hashanah Seven Vegetable Soup

Serves 6 to 8

In her book “Marrakech la Rouge, Les Juifs de la Medina,” Helen Ganz Perez reminisces about the soup that was part of her family’s Rosh Hashanah tradition. I could not get over how closely it resembles the Andalusian soup called Olla Gitana (Gypsy Stew), which uses pears instead of quince. I suspect that the “gypsy” title was added as a cover, after the Jews had left Spain and the recipe remained in the culinary pipeline. You may add diced cooked brisket to the basic vegetable soup for a more filling soup. For a meatless version, use vegetable stock.

3 onions, chopped
1/4 of a pumpkin, peeled and diced (about a 2-lb. piece) or butternut squash
2/3 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight
3 zucchini squashes
1 small gourd or vegetable marrow (if not available you might want to use turnip or rutabaga)
2 apples, quince or pears, peeled and diced
1 bunch Swiss chard greens, cut in strips
Beef broth or bouillon cube and water (or vegetable stock)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon or to taste
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper or more to taste
1 tsp. cumin, optional
Sugar if needed

Cut all the vegetables and fruit into rounds, quarter rounds or large dice, depending upon size and shape. Simmer chickpeas and onions gently in salted water or beef broth until almost tender, about 45 to 60 minutes. Add the rest of the vegetables and simmer until tender. Season to taste.

Meat variation: Gilda Angel refers to a sopa de la siete verduras y carne where 3 to 4 lbs. of fatty meat (like brisket or beef shank) are cooked along with the soaked chickpeas (or dried favas), 2 chopped onions, 1 piece pumpkin, diced, 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1 Tbs. sugar, and 1 tsp. pepper, covered with 2 liters (about 8 ½ cups) of water. Bring to boil, skim and simmer for 3 hours. Remove the meat and set aside. Some cooks purée the soup. Cut the meat into dice and return it to the soup. Reheat gently. Serve hot.

Note: I prefer to cook the vegetables so that they hold their shape and I add diced meat to the broth after the vegetables are tender.

Fish with Sun Sauce Algerian Tagine of Chicken with Quince (Photo/Courtesy Joyce Goldstein)
Fish with Sun Sauce  (Photo/Courtesy Joyce Goldstein)

Fish with Sun Sauce

Serves 4

The turmeric and saffron in the sauce create the illusion of fish bathed in golden sunlight. This dish is often served in Morocco at Rosh Hashanah. A variation on this recipe adds 1/2 pound of green olives at the end of cooking.

4 fish steaks or fillets, each about 6 oz. (swordfish, halibut, sea bass, cod, etc.)
2 small lemons, peel and pith removed, cut into thin rounds
1 Tbs. turmeric
4 cloves garlic, green sprouts removed, chopped
1/2 tsp. saffron steeped in 1/4 cup warm water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
Olive or peanut oil
2 lbs. boiled little new potatoes
Flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 lb. pitted green olives, optional

Place the lemon slices in a shallow bowl or platter and sprinkle with turmeric and salt. Press down on them with a fork to extract some juice. Drizzle with a bit of olive oil.

In a large wide sauté pan, over medium heat sauté the garlic in a Tbs. of oil for a few minutes but do not let it color. Deglaze with the saffron infusion and then arrange the lemon slices on the bottom of the pan, reserving all of the accumulated juices in a bowl. Sprinkle with half the chopped coriander. Arrange the fish fillets on top of the lemons.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper, the reserved lemon juice, the rest of the coriander, and the olives if using.

Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until fish is done, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cumin. Serve hot or warm, with boiled parslied new potatoes.

Note: You may also layer the fish and lemon in a baking dish at bake at 450 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

Algerian Tagine of Chicken with Quince

Serves 6

In her book “150 recettes et mille et un souvenirs d’une Juive d’Algérie,” Leone Jaffin recommends this fragrant stew of chicken and quince as the ideal dish for Rosh Hashanah. Quince are thought to have been the apple in the Garden of Eden. When in season, quince add a perfumed sweetness to any dish. Ideally they should cook until their Venetian red color comes up. (I’ve noticed that most European quinces turn red quickly but ours become tender well before they take on color. As added insurance you may want to add a bit of pomegranate syrup to the poaching liquid.) If you want the quince slices to retain their shape, you cannot cook them too long. Because of this I prefer to cook the quince separately, then add them to the chicken stew during the last 20 minutes of braising. That way every part of the dish is well cooked and not mushy.

2 lbs. quince, peeled and cut into eighths (apples may be substituted for quince)
Water to barely cover
1 large chicken or 2 broilers cut into serving pieces (or can use all thighs)
1/2 cup peanut oil
3 onions, chopped
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 tsp. cinnamon

Cook the quince in water until they are tender and perhaps have turned pink. Set aside in their poaching liquids. Add a bit of pomegranate syrup if the color has not come up.

Sear the chicken pieces in oil over high heat in a large sauté pan. Set aside. Sauté the onions in the fat remaining in the pan, cooking them over medium heat until they are golden, about 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in the spices and cook 5 minutes longer. Add the chicken and its accumulated juices, cover pan and braise for about 20 minutes. Then add the quince and some of the quince liquids. Simmer 15 minutes longer or until chicken is tender. Season with salt and add a bit more spices if you’d like them to be more intense.

Note: This dish also can be made with 3 lbs. of cubed lamb shoulder. Brown the meat, cook the onions and spices and braise the two together with just a bit of water or broth until meat is tender. Stir in the cooked quince and cook for about 15 or 20 minutes longer. The lamb stew might require more seasoning as it is more intense in flavor than chicken.

Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Honey

Serves 6 to 8

Called lham lhalou in Algeria, this is often served on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, when a sweet new year is celebrated with sweet food. It is not served on the first night as prunes are black and no black food is permitted on the first night. Simy Danan adds a mixture of dried fruits such as apricots, pears and raisins along with the prunes. You could serve this on the first night by omitting prunes and using the apricots and raisins. One cup of toasted blanched almonds may be added instead of sesame seeds. You may also make this with beef.

4 lbs. lamb shoulder, cut in 1 1/2 to 2 inch cubes
3 yellow onions, chopped
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. crushed saffron filaments
Oil to film the pan
3 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds
1 lb. prunes, soaked in water
1/3 cup dark honey or to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 cups water or lamb stock to barely cover the meat

Brown lamb in oil. Put in casserole. Sauté the onions in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 8 minutes. Add spices and cook three minutes. Pour over lamb, adding enough stock or water to barely cover meat and onion mixture. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes. Drain the prunes and add to the stew. Simmer 20 more minutes or until done. Add honey, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Serve with couscous.

Rice with Carrots and Lemon (Photo/Courtesy Joyce Goldstein)

Rice with Carrots and Lemon

Serves 6 to 8

Méri Badi’s Judeo-Spanish recipe was originally prepared with grated carrots cooked for 30 minutes and then 30 minutes longer along with the rice. By then they probably will have disintegrated. So I have shortened the cooking time, added a bit of grated lemon zest and suggest a sprinkling of parsley or mint for a contrast. This is a pretty dish and the strips of golden carrots and grains of rice are about equal. Leftovers would make a great rice pudding!

2 lbs. carrots, or about 2 bunches
4 Tbs. olive oil
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
3 cups water
2 tsp. salt
1 cup long grain rice, washed and drained
2 to 3 Tbs. chopped flat leaf parsley or fresh mint (optional)

Wash and peel the carrots and grate them on the largest holes of a box grater or with the shredded disk in a food processor (should yield approximately 6 lightly packed cups).

Warm the oil in a large saucepan over moderate heat. Add the carrots, lemon juice and zest, water and salt. Cook over low heat for about 8 to 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.

Add the rice, stir well, cover the pan and cook over low heat until rice is tender and all the liquids have been absorbed, about 18 to 20 minutes. Let rest for a few minutes. Top with parsley and mint if desired and serve.

Note: Add 1/3 cup plumped raisins or currants if you’d like this to be sweet and sour. Toasted almonds or pine nuts would be another nice addition.

Caramelized Figs

Serves 8

Here’s a simple baked fig dessert based on a recipe from Donatella Pavoncello. Pears can be prepared the same way: Peel, halve and core, then poach in syrup or wine with strips of lemon zest or vanilla bean. They will take longer to cook than the figs.

2 lbs. ripe figs
Lemon zest strips, 1-inch long and ¼-inch wide
2 cups sugar
Rum, as needed (optional)
Vanilla bean

Arrange whole figs in a deep, wide saucepan. Cut a small slit at the top of each fig and insert a lemon zest strip into each slit. Sprinkle the sugar over the figs and add enough water (or part water and part rum) to a depth of 1/4 inch in the pan. Put a vanilla bean in the center of the pan.

Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the sugar caramelizes, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.

Almond Cigars
Almond Cigars (Photo/Courtesy Joyce Goldstein)

Almond Cigars

Makes 24 pastries

Moroccans and Tunisians are fond of these flaky nut-filled sweets. In Algeria they are served after the Yom Kippur fast but the filling omits ginger, cloves and flower water and uses simply almonds, sugar, lemon and cinnamon. Some are filled with walnuts instead of almonds. These may also be called briouats.

1 lb. blanched almonds, toasted and chopped coarsely, about 4 cups
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 eggs, separated
1 Tbs. orange flower water
1 lb. filo dough
6 oz. melted butter or margarine
9 oz. orange blossom honey
Peanut oil for frying

Measure equal parts almonds and sugar and pulse in processor to a paste. Pulse in the spices, egg yolks and orange flower water. If the paste is too dry, add 1 egg white. Divide into 24 balls of almond paste. (Tunisians add a bit of semolina to the filling.)

Use 2 or 3 layers of filo, cut into 6-by-12-inch strips, brushing with oil or butter between layers. Add filling, tuck in the ends of the filo and roll up like cigars.

Pour oil to the depth of 3 inches in a deep saucepan or wok. Heat the oil for frying to 375 degrees.

In a small saucepan warm the honey.

Fry the cigars in batches, drain on paper towels then dip in warm honey.

Joyce Goldstein
Joyce Goldstein

Joyce Goldstein is a renowned chef, restaurateur and author in the Bay Area. Former owner-chef of Square One in San Francisco, she is a restaurant and food industry consultant. Her most recent book is “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home.”