An array of traditional symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Photo/Faith Kramer)
An array of traditional symbolic foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Photo/Faith Kramer)

A three-course menu that honors the symbolic foods of Rosh Hashanah

We Jews pray with our food, certainly at Rosh Hashanah, when what we eat and serve reflects tradition but also adds intention and meaning.

From the Ashkenazi custom of dipping apples in honey (to wish for a sweet new year) to the Sephardic and Mizrachi tradition of eating black-eyed peas (to wish for increased blessings) to the displaying of a fish or lamb’s head at the table (to symbolize the start, or head, of the new year), Rosh Hashanah food customs are diverse and evolving.

Using food to amplify our prayers for the new year evolved from the Talmud’s exhortation to eat certain foods on Rosh Hashanah because of the names’ phonetic similarity to the actions for which we prayed. For example, we eat tamar (dates) to ask for yitamu (may our enemies be removed).

Other food customs followed.

Carrots are eaten for several reasons. In Hebrew, gezer (carrot) is also the verb “to tear,” which relates to the Talmudic injunction to “tear up any evil decrees” that God or others might have made against you. In Yiddish, carrots are mehren, which sounds like multiply. Moreover, with its sweet taste, and when sliced into shapes of golden coins, carrots transform into wishes for a sweet and prosperous new year.

One emerging tradition is using a head of cauliflower or cabbage as a symbol for the head (rosh) of the new year.

The following recipes incorporate a variety of these symbolic foods.

However, because your guest list might be smaller this year, the recipes are designed to serve only four people (though they can be halved or doubled, as needed). Everything can be made in advance, and any leftovers will keep well.

For many, no Jewish holiday meal would be complete without gefilte fish (regardless of the fact that in Judaism fish are symbolic of luck, plenty and fruitfulness). The recipe for steamed gefilte fish adds zing to the traditional flavors and uses a Chinese technique for steaming to ease preparation. Try it with the “spiked” horseradish for extra kick.

The stew recipe combines black-eyed peas (which are actually beans), beets, greens or chard, carrots and spices to make a fragrant dish that can be made parve and vegan and served hot, warm or cold. Try it with bulghur dumplings as a starter or a main course.

The lamb recipe (with pumpkin, dates and leeks) adds North African spices and honey to slow-cooked lamb — a reminder of the ram in the “sacrifice” of Isaac. Pumpkin is a type of gourd (kraa), a word that’s similar to yikara, which means to be called out or recognized by God for our good deeds. Also similar to yikara is karti, the word for leeks. And we’ve already learned that tamar (date) is similar to yitamu (may our enemies be removed), so on with the recipes!

Steamed Gefilte Fish with Herbs

Serves 4

  • 1 small carrot
  • 1 small onion
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, dill or a combination)
  • 1 to 2 tsp. coarsely chopped jalapeño or serrano chili pepper (seeded if desired), optional
  • 8 oz. boneless, skinless fillet of fresh red snapper, rock fish or similar mild, white fish
  • 1 tsp. oil
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • Cabbage or lettuce leaves for steaming
  • Spiked Tomato Horseradish (recipe below), or other horseradish

Peel carrot. Slice into ¼-inch rounds. Add ¼ cup to food processor. Save rest for another use. Chop onion into ¼-inch pieces. Add ½ cup to processor. Reserve remainder for another use. Add herbs to the processor, as well as jalapeño (if using). Process until finely chopped, scraping down the sides of the processor bowl as needed. Rinse fish and pat totally dry with paper towels. Remove any bones. Cut into 1-inch chunks and add to the processor with oil, egg, sugar, salt and pepper. Process until very finely chopped, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Refrigerate 30 minutes. See notes to test for seasonings.

Prepare your steamer (see notes.) Line the bottom of a large steamer basket with a single layer of cabbage leaves. Set aside. Fill a steamer pot with several inches of water. Cover. Bring to boil.

Shape fish while waiting for water to boil. Rinse hands with cold water. Roll and or press fish into 8 balls, each about 1½ inches in diameter. Place in steamer basket (steam in batches if necessary). Place the basket in a steamer. Cover. Reduce heat to keep water in the pot at a simmer. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes, until the fish is firm. Cut into one of the balls to make sure it is cooked through. Remove from the steamer immediately. (Overcooking will toughen fish.)

It is best to make this a few hours or up to two days in advance (keep refrigerated). Serve cold, room temperature or reheated in a steamer. Serve Spiked Tomato Horseradish, or horseradish of your choice. Try serving on a bed of spinach steamed with mint or dill. Recipe doubles well.

Notes: To test seasonings, fry a 1-inch patty of the fish mixture in oil. Taste. Add salt, sugar or other seasonings to the mixture as needed … To improvise a steamer, place 8-oz. or larger heatproof ramekins or custard cups upside down in the center of the bottom of a large pot. Add boiling water to about an inch below the top of the inverted ramekin. Put a heat-proof plate on top of the ramekin that allows some clearance from the sides of the pot all around. Cover plate with leaves. Place fish on leaves. Cover pot. Bring and keep water to a simmer (do not let it reach full boil). When fish is done (timing will vary), remove with tongs.

Spiked Tomato Horseradish

Makes about ¼ cup

  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste, or to taste
  • 2 to 3 Tbs. prepared white horseradish in vinegar, or to taste
  • ¼ tsp. cumin
  • ¼ tsp. paprika
  • ⅛ tsp. sugar

Mix together tomato paste, 2 Tbs. horseradish, cumin, paprika and sugar. Taste. Add additional horseradish for more heat. For milder, add tomato paste as desired. Add additional sugar if needed. Store in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Black-Eyed Pea Stew with Beets

Serves 4 to 6 as main course (8 to 10 as starter)

  • 1½ cups dried black-eyed peas
  • 9 cups water, divided
  • ½ plus ¼ tsp. salt, plus more as needed
  • 3 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 2 cups chopped onions (¼-inch pieces)
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped garlic
  • 2 cups sliced carrots (¼-inch rounds)
  • 1½ Tbs. Yemenite spice mix for soup (hawaij) or curry powder (see notes)
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp. paprika
  • 2½ cups beet chunks (½-inch pieces) (see notes)
  • 2 cups cubed peeled potatoes (½-inch pieces)
  • 2 cups chopped fresh or drained, canned tomatoes (¼-inch pieces)
  • 4 cups (packed) chopped beet greens and/or chard leaves (1½-inch pieces) (see notes)
  • Bulghur Dumplings (see recipe below), optional
  • Garnishes (see below)
Black-Eyed Pea Stew with Beets and Bulghur Dumplings
Black-Eyed Pea Stew with Beets and Bulghur Dumplings

Prep black-eyed peas (beans). Rinse and place in a large soup pot. Add 6 cups water and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil; boil for 2 minutes. Cover and turn off heat. Let sit for 1 to 2 hours. Drain beans, discard soaking water and rinse pot.

Return black-eyed peas to the pot. Add 3 cups of water and 3 cups of broth. Bring to a simmer. Add onions, garlic and carrots, ¼ tsp. salt, soup spice, pepper and paprika. Return to simmer. Add beet chunks and potato cubes. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until beets are softened but not cooked through. Stir in tomatoes. Return to simmer and cook covered until beans and vegetables are tender. Stir in greens. Return to simmer. Simmer covered for 10 minutes until greens are tender. Taste and correct seasoning, adding more salt, soup spice, pepper and/or paprika as needed. Simmer covered a few minutes more, then serve in bowls with dumplings (and/or other garnishes) hot, warm, room temperature or chilled. (If it’s either of the latter two, taste and adjust seasoning again just before serving.)

As the stew cooks, add water by ¼ cup if needed. If there is too much liquid, simmer with the lid off after adding greens. The final result should be a slightly soupy stew or an extremely thick soup. Stew can be made several days ahead and kept refrigerated.

Garnishes: Try swirls of tahini paste, dollops of nondairy or regular sour cream, sliced hard-boiled egg, finely grated lemon zest, or chopped fresh mint, dill and/or parsley.

Notes: Hawaij for soup is available online and in some specialty stores. Curry powder makes a good substitute. Since the intensity of spice mixes varies, taste and add more as needed. Use plastic gloves when handling beets. Peel larger, older beets but not baby beets. To use fresh beet greens in the soup, cut off and discard stems and chop leaves. Cut chard the same way, but trim stems (cut into ¼-inch pieces) and add with tomatoes.

Bulghur Dumplings

Makes 20 dumplings

  • ¾ cup boiling water
  • ½ cup fine- or medium-grain bulghur
  • ½ cup matzah meal
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • ¼ cup finely chopped herbs (mint, dill, parsley or a combo)
  • ½ tsp. salt, divided
  • ⅛ tsp. paprika
  • ⅛ tsp. cumin
  • Pour boiling water over bulghur. Stir. Let sit for 10 minutes or until water is absorbed. Mix with matzah meal, egg, herbs, ¼ tsp. salt, paprika and cumin. Refrigerate 30 minutes. Bring a large pot of water to boil.

Shape dumplings. For each, use 1 Tbs. batter and roll in hands to form an egg-shape dumpling about 1½ inches long. Compress dumplings slightly as you shape them. Once water is boiling, add ¼ tsp. salt then the dumplings. Lower heat to a simmer. Simmer covered for 20 to 25 minutes, until dumplings are firm and when one is cut open there are no raw spots. Serve or refrigerate and serve at room temperature or reheated (in steamer or simmering water).

Lamb with Pumpkin, Dates and Leeks

Serves 4 to 6

  • ¼ tsp. crumbled saffron threads (see note)
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • ½ tsp. plus 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper, divided
  • ½ tsp. plus 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 2 lbs. cubed lamb (1-inch cubes)
  • 2 Tbs. oil, plus more as needed
  • 2 cups chopped onions (¼-inch pieces)
  • 3 cups chopped white and light green parts of leeks (¼-inch pieces)
  • ½ tsp. ground cardamom
  • ½ tsp. ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne or paprika
  • 1½ cups pitted, quartered dried Medjool or other dates, divided
  • 4 cups cubed, peeled pumpkin, butternut squash or sweet potatoes (1-inch pieces)
  • About ½ cup fresh lemon juice, divided
  • About 2 to 3 Tbs. honey
  • 1 Tbs. grated lemon zest
  • 3 Tbs. finely chopped mint or dill
Lamb with Pumpkin, Dates and Leeks
Lamb with Pumpkin, Dates and Leeks

Combine saffron threads with boiling water. Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir ½ tsp. salt, ½ tsp. black pepper and ½ tsp. cinnamon together. Add meat and toss in spices. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven or similar heavy pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, brown meat on all sides. Transfer meat back to the bowl.

Add more oil if needed. Add onions. Sauté, scraping up any browned-on bits, until onions are softened and golden. Add leeks. Sauté until softened. Stir in remaining salt, pepper and cinnamon and the cardamom, allspice and cayenne. Sauté 1 minute. Pour in water with saffron. Add lamb and accumulated juices and half the dates. Bring to a simmer. Stir in ¼ cup lemon juice. Cover and lower heat to keep at simmer, stirring occasionally.

Simmer for 30 minutes, then add pumpkin and remaining dates. Return to simmer. Cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about another hour, or until meat is very tender and can be easily pierced through with a dinner fork; timing will vary. (If necessary, add ¼ cup water at a time. If sauce is thin, simmer with cover off. Sauce should be very thick.)

Add 2 Tbs. of remaining lemon juice and 1½ Tbs. of the honey. Simmer for a few minutes, then taste and add remaining lemon juice and/or honey, if needed. Adjust salt to taste. Serve garnished with zest and mint. Can be made ahead, refrigerated for several days and reheated. Serve over couscous, rice or noodles.

Note: If saffron is not available, omit and just add 3 cups room temperature water to lamb.

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 Contact her at [email protected].