This Rosh Hashanah appetizer board is full of symbolic foods and family favorites. (Photo/Faith Kramer)
This Rosh Hashanah appetizer board is full of symbolic foods and family favorites. (Photo/Faith Kramer)

This Rosh Hashanah, fill up on symbolic dips, bites and small plates

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Treat your Rosh Hashanah dinner guests to a welcoming array of appetizers that are not only tasty but also symbolic of our wishes for the new year.

Chard Tahini Dip, Honey with a Kick, Whipped Garlic Dip with Carrots, Roasted Black-Eyed Peas with Garlic and Parsley, and Pumpkin Leek Bites all include foods associated with the hopes and blessings sought during the holiday. The symbolism of these foods (known as simanim) draws from Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi and other traditions.

The recipes are parve (made without dairy or meat) and/or vegan. Prepare a holiday appetizer board (or two) featuring them, or serve them individually.

Chard Tahini Dip is based on a dish popular in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Levant where chard stalks or leaves are turned into a silky dip. Here I use both — simmering the leaves until tender and sautéing the stems with garlic. The Hebrew name for chard or beet greens (selek) sounds similar to the word for “removal,” signifying the hope for removal of our enemies.

Dipping apples and challah in honey is a traditional East European custom symbolizing our wish for a sweet New Year. I spice things up by using a bit of curry powder and hot sauce in the Honey with a Kick, which I like to serve with dried apple rings.

The Hebrew word for “carrot” (gezer) is similar to the word for “decree,” so by eating carrots —with the vegan Whipped Garlic Dip — we express our desire for the destruction of any evil decrees against us. In Yiddish, the word for “carrots” (mern) sounds a lot like the word for “more,” indicating a desire for more blessings. Carrots’ golden color signifies the wish for prosperity. The dip’s white color honors an Egyptian Jewish tradition that associates white foods with purity. (For a dairy variation, see the note following the recipe.)

Black-eyed peas are a symbolic food served on Rosh Hashanah throughout the Middle East, where they are called rubia, which also may refer to other types of beans, green beans or even the spice fenugreek. They symbolize our hope for a year filled with good deeds and merit. Roasted Black-Eyed Peas with Garlic and Parsley makes a lightly crunchy snack.

Pumpkin Leek Bites are packed with symbolism as well as challah. Pumpkin represents our wish to have our good deeds acknowledged. Leek symbolizes our hopes for our enemies to be cut off. Pumpkin seeds (and other seeds) represent our desire for prosperity, fertility and an abundance of good deeds.

Increase the symbolism of your appetizer offerings by adding seeded crackers, dates (to wish for an end to strife) and foods made from chickpeas, said to represent the “cooling down” of any adverse judgments (try Pumpkin Hummus with Za’atar Drizzle from the J. archives). I also fill out my holiday appetizer boards with beet and other vegetable chips, grapes or fresh dates, olives and other family favorites.

Chard Tahini Dip

Makes about 1½ cups

  • 1 large bunch chard with white stems, about ½ lb. (see notes)
  • ¾ tsp. salt, divided, plus more as needed
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic plus 1 medium garlic clove
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. ground cumin
  • ⅔ cup tahini
  • 2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice plus more as needed
  • 4-6 Tbs. cup cold water plus more as needed
  • Accompaniments (see below)

Trim and discard the ends of chard stalks. Cut off stalks below chard leaves and any hard parts of stalks above that.

Chop stalks into ¼-inch pieces (it’s OK if bits of leaves are still attached). This should yield about 1-1½ cups. Set aside.

Have ready a big bowl filled with ice and cold water. Bring a large pot of water to a boil with ¼ tsp. salt. Once water is boiling, submerge chard leaves (it’s okay to cut in half if needed to fit). Reduce heat to simmer. Simmer, covered, 2-3 minutes, until leaves are very tender. Use tongs to Immediately remove chard from pot and plunge into ice bath. Let cool. Drain well.

Heat large skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. Sauté 1 tsp. minced garlic 1-2 minutes, until golden. Add reserved chopped chard stalks, ¼ tsp. salt, pepper and cumin. Sauté until stalks are cooked through, about 5-7 minutes. Set aside.

Add whole garlic clove to food processor. Process until fine, stopping and scraping down as needed. Squeeze any remaining water out of chard leaves. Add chard to food processor. Process until puréed, stopping and scraping down as needed. Add tahini. Process until smooth, stopping and scraping down as needed. Add ¼ tsp. salt, lemon juice and 4 Tbs. water. Process until smooth. Add remaining 2 Tbs. water if needed for creaminess. Process. Add more cold water by the tablespoon as needed to achieve a creamy, dip-like consistency. Add salt and/or lemon juice to taste.

Scrape into a medium mixing bowl. Finely chop half of the reserved cooked chard stalks and garlic, and mix into chard-tahini dip. Transfer to serving bowl. Top with remaining cooked chard stalks with garlic. Serve with accompaniments.

May be made a day in advance and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before using. Stir in water by the tablespoonful if needed to restore creaminess.

Accompaniments: Just about anything goes, from vegetables to chips to pita to crackers or small pretzels. I also like to serve with falafel.

Notes: White-stem chard gives the best color, but chard with any stem color is fine.

Honey with a Kick

Makes about ½ cup

  • Oil for greasing pot
  • ¼ tsp. curry powder
  • ½ cup mild honey (see notes)
  • ½ tsp. hot sauce
  • Accompaniments (see below)

Lightly grease inside of a small pot. Heat pot over medium heat with curry powder about 1 minute or until fragrant. Pour honey into pot. Stir in hot sauce. Bring to a simmer, adjusting heat as needed and stirring often. Simmer 2 minutes. Pour honey into serving dish. Let cool until barely warm or room temperature, stirring occasionally (honey will thicken as it cools). If made in advance, store in an airtight container at room temperature. Serve with accompaniments.

Accompaniments: Try dried apple rings, dehydrated apple slices, fresh apple slices dipped in lemon juice to prevent browning and/or chunks of challah or other bread.

Notes: Use agave syrup in place of honey for a vegan version.

I use a vinegar-based hot sauce.

Whipped Garlic Dip with Carrots

Makes about 2½ cups

  • 3-6 medium garlic cloves
  • 8 oz. vegan feta cheese
  • 8 oz. vegan cream cheese
  • 3 Tbs. vegan sour cream
  • 1 Tbs. water and more as needed
  • 1-2 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
  • Carrots or carrot sticks for serving

Place garlic (use 3 cloves for a milder garlic flavor, 6 for a more intense one) in food processor work bowl, and process until very fine, stopping and scraping down as needed. Rinse feta if in brine, break into chunks and add to work bowl. Process until as smooth as possible, stopping and scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Add cream cheese in sections. Process again to be as smooth as possible, scraping down as needed. Add sour cream and water. Process until smooth, stopping and scraping down as necessary. Add water by the tablespoonful if needed, processing after each addition until smooth and creamy but still thick. Scrape into serving bowl. Garnish with parsley. Serve with carrot sticks or small whole carrots.

Can be made 3 days in advance: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and let come to room temperature before using. Stir in water if needed to restore creaminess. Garnish with parsley and serve.

Notes: This dip also makes a tasty sandwich spread.  To make a dairy version, use 8 oz. regular feta and 8 oz. brick-style cream cheese and substitute 3 Tbs. milk for the vegan sour cream and water. Add more milk by the tablespoonful if needed for creaminess.

Roasted Black-Eyed Peas with Garlic and Parsley

Makes about 1½ cups

  • 15 oz. can black-eyed peas or 1½ cups cooked black-eyed peas
  • 2 Tbs. oil
  • 1 tsp. salt, divided
  • ¼ tsp. paprika or cayenne
  • ¼ tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. fresh minced garlic
  • 1 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
  • 1 Tbs. minced lemon zest

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Drain the black-eyed peas, rinse and drain again. Gently pat dry with a kitchen towel. In a large bowl, mix oil, ½ tsp. salt, paprika (use cayenne for more heat) and cumin. Add black-eyed peas and mix well. Spread black-eyed peas with seasoning and oil onto a rimmed baking tray. (If doubling recipe, use 2 baking trays.) Roast 12-15 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the black-eyed peas are a bit crunchy outside but still tender inside. Immediately put black-eyed peas in large, dry bowl, and mix with remaining ½ tsp salt (or to taste), garlic, parsley and lemon zest. Serve immediately.

If making a day ahead, immediately after roasting, cool and store black-eyed peas in an airtight container at room temperature and rewarm on an ungreased baking tray in a 250-degree oven until just warm, being careful not to overcook. Toss while warm with remaining ½ tsp. salt (or to taste), garlic, parsley and lemon zest.

Pumpkin Leek Bites

Makes about 20-24

  • 5 Tbs. pumpkin seed kernels
  • ¾ lbs. leeks (about 1 very large)
  • 2 Tbs. oil plus more for baking
  • ¼ plus ½ tsp. salt, divided
  • 5 cups day-old challah (½ -to-1-inch pieces)
  • 1 tsp. rubbed sage or ½ tsp. ground sage (see notes)
  • ½ Tbs. whole fennel seeds or ½ tsp. ground fennel
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 cup pumpkin purée (canned or homemade)
  • 1 cup warm vegetable broth or stock plus more as needed

Toast pumpkin seeds in a large, heavy dry skillet, stirring often, until fragrant, lightly browned in spots and making a “popping” noise. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Remove from skillet and transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Trim, clean and chop white and light-green parts of leek into ¼-inch pieces, which should yield about 2-2¼ cups. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add leeks and ¼ tsp. salt, and sauté until browned and very soft, stirring often and adjusting heat as needed so leeks do not burn. Add cooked leeks and any oil left in pan to mixing bowl.

Add challah pieces to bowl. Mix well with leeks and pumpkin seeds. Add sage. Crush whole fennel seeds (see notes). Add crushed fennel seeds or ground fennel, black pepper and ½ tsp. salt. Mix well. Add pumpkin. Mix well. Pour in 1 cup warm broth. Mix well, and let sit 15 minutes, until bread is totally soft but not mushy or falling apart and mixture remains moist but not too wet or dry. Add more warm stock as needed.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Grease mini-muffin tin openings (or use paper liners). Using hands, stuff each muffin cup above the rim with the mix. Press down lightly to compact. Lightly brush tops with oil. Bake about 35 minutes, until tops are browned and bites are cooked throughout. Cool in pans 5 minutes before turning out on rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Can be made a day ahead: Store cooled bites in airtight layers between wax or parchment paper. Warm day-old bites in 250-degree oven 3-5 minutes for best texture.

Notes: Rubbed sage is fluffier than regular ground sage and measures differently. If not labeled,  you can tell the difference by texture and color. The rubbed version is fuzzy and pale. Ground sage is darker, coarser and resembles other ground herbs.

If using whole fennel seeds, coarsely crush in a mortar and pestle, spice grinder or clean coffee grinder. Or carefully bash inside a kitchen towel on a sturdy surface with a meat mallet or hammer.

To make the bites vegan, use a vegan challah or other bread made without eggs and/or dairy.

Special thanks to my friend Robin Cowie, whose stuffing recipe inspired these bites.

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].