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No, not the upcoming Halloween and Thanksgiving.  I'm talking about the autumn holidays we just finished: the cluster of holidays in the Jewish month of Tishrei, from Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah.

"What's for dinner?" can be an extremely complicated question during the holiday season.  On the one hand, all the evening and midday meals are expected to be festive -- a cut above the everyday, ideally with multiple courses -- and it's traditional to invite guests, especially for the holiday of Sukkot.  On the other, the restrictions of not doing certain types of work on the holidays (similar to the types of work prohibited on the Sabbath*) mean that we have to do all the grocery shopping at least a day or two in advance, along with any food preparation that requires use of electrical appliances: food processors, immersion blenders, and so on.  And this year, as happens every so often, it's further complicated by the fact that each of the two-day holiday periods falls on Thursday and Friday (each day officially starting at sunset the night before), and goes directly into Sabbath.

*Restrictions and prohibitions in Judaism vary according to denomination.  The ones I describe here are according to Orthodox tradition.

Which means that by the Sunday before the holiday, if not sooner, we start raising the question of "what's for dinner?" for every meal between Wednesday night and Saturday, to give us enough time to prepare.  And we've had to do this three out of four weeks of the month of Tishrei.  I tend to keep a chart: which meals we are hosting, what items we're contributing to meals we're not hosting, which guests are coming on which day, what we're serving for each meal -- which depends on who's coming; X can't eat gluten, Y doesn't like mushrooms, Z is allergic to mint -- and when each item has to be cooked, baked, or bought.

So that's what I've been doing this past month ... which is why this diary is happening after the fact, instead of while the holidays are actually going on.  :)

But enough about logistics.  We're here for the food!  Follow me below the curly orange-rind garnish for some discussion of traditional foods, some recontexting of traditional foods into new dishes, and of course some recipes.

Edible Symbols: Why Stop at Honey?

As many already know, there is a tradition of eating apples dipped in honey on the night of Rosh Hashanah to represent our wish for a sweet new year.  This tradition extends to putting honey on the challah that accompanies any festive meal (instead of the year-round tradition of putting salt on it); some do that only for Rosh Hashanah, while others extend it all the way through Simchat Torah.

But honey isn't the only symbolic food associated with Rosh Hashanah, and many families (mine included) have a tradition of serving a little assortment of these foods prior to the main meal.  In contrast with the symbolic foods at the Passover Seder, where each commemorates a particular aspect of the Exodus story, each of these foods represents a hope for the year to come.  So we serve pomegranate in the hope that our merits may be as many as its seeds, and fish in the hope of fertility and abundance ... and a handful of other items -- carrot, beet, date, leek, black-eyed peas/beans, gourd (squash or pumpkin) -- whose symbolism is entirely bound up in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Yiddish puns.  Mostly on the themes of increase/prosperity, a favorable decree in divine judgment, and (sorry) smiting of our enemies.

(People have added to these over the years, and some rabbis encourage the adding of more.  Which means that there are some who add celery stuffed with raisins to the lineup, as a wish for a raise-in-salary.  I do hope God likes puns.)

So when I've got over a dozen fancy meals to cook within the space of four weeks, and I'm looking for inspiration for something different to make so we're not just eating the same roast chicken every night, I like to experiment with recipes incorporating those items.

Butternut Squash & Chestnut Soup
1 large onion, chopped
olive oil or butter/margarine for sauteeing
1 cup (approx.) roasted chestnuts, peeled and chopped
1 very large or two small-to-medium butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into chunks
chicken or vegetable broth (or water), plus almond milk to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Sautee the onion in the oil over medium to low heat until golden and starting to brown.  Add chestnuts, stir, and cook another few minutes more.  Add squash, stir until thoroughly mixed, then add enough liquid (broth or water) to cover the vegetables.  Cover pot and simmer until squash is soft enough to break up with the side of a spoon.

Allow to cool slightly, then puree until smooth. (I like to use an immersion blender; a food processor should work too, in small batches.)  If soup is very thick, add almond milk (or more broth or water) until soup reaches desired consistency.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot or cold.  Can be refrigerated and reheated.  For a fancier presentation, garnish each bowl with a sprinkle of your favorite seeds or slivered nuts; I generally use chia seeds, but pumpkin seeds would make an excellent visual and flavor combination.

Leek & Celery Soup
2 fat cloves garlic, chopped finely
3 medium-sized leeks, washed carefully and chopped
1 large pack of celery, chopped finely -- all of it, including the leaves
1 32-ounce container of chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
1 can coconut milk
olive oil for sauteeing (any flavorful oil will do)
salt, pepper, onion powder to taste

Saute the garlic and leek in olive oil over medium-high heat. Add in the celery. Stir-fry until the celery has brightened and gone a little translucent, and then leave on a low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add in the broth, then the chopped herbs and seasonings. Simmer until the celery is soft all the way through.

Allow to cool slightly, then puree until smooth. Stir in the coconut milk. Serve hot (though it would probably be pretty good cold, too). Can be refrigerated and reheated.

Pomegranate Chicken
(This recipe is from Foremost Caterers, by way of Susie Fishbein's cookbook Kosher by Design, modified only slightly by myself.)
6 chicken breasts with skin (or 1 chicken cut in eighths)
2 to 3 cups pomegranate juice
1 to 2 cups pomegranate syrup
8 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 tbsp black pepper
2 tbsp margarine
1/2 large fresh pomegranate, de-seeded (optional)

Combine the juice, syrup, garlic, mint and pepper in a large tupperware container or a ziplock plastic bag. Pierce each piece of chicken with a long skewer several times, and add to the container. Marinate chicken in refrigerator at least four hours or overnight; shake bag or turn container every so often.

Preheat your oven to 350°.  Prepare a large baking pan by spraying it with a very little cooking oil (and, if using fresh pomegranate, scattering about half the seeds evenly over the bottom) and have it ready to hand.  Remove chicken from refrigerator. Pour off the marinade into a small saucepan and put it aside.

In a frying pan, melt margarine over high heat. Add the chicken skin-side-down (carefully, as the melted margarine may splatter). Sear chicken 4-6 minutes or until skin is crisp and brown. As long as the heat is right, the chicken skin may seem to stick but will release once perfectly seared.

As each piece of chicken finishes searing, remove it from the frying pan to your prepared baking pan. If you are using fresh pomegranate, scatter the remaining half of the seeds over the chicken.

Bake chicken skin-side-up for about 40 minutes, or until cooked through and oozing clear juices when pricked with fork. Meanwhile, boil the marinade over medium heat for 30 minutes, skimming to remove any impurities that rise to the surface, until reduced by half into a syrupy sauce.

Serve the chicken hot with the sauce dribbled over it (or with sauce and pan juices presented in separate gravy boats).  Optional presentation: garnish with wedges of pomegranate and/or sprigs of mint.

Squash Soufflé
(Adapted from Elana Amsterdam's Squash Pie.)
2 medium butternut squash, cut in quarters or eighths, seeded
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon maple extract (optional)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt

Put squash skin side down in a baking pan, drizzle with water, cover loosely with tinfoil, and bake in oven at 350° for 40-60 minutes or until soft.  Allow to cool until safe to touch, then scoop squash out of skin, discarding skin.

Place squash in food processor with all the rest of the ingredients.  Puree until smooth.  Pour pureed squash into a tart pan or a casserole dish, sprinkle the top with additional cinnamon if desired, and bake at 350° for 40 minutes or until starting to pull away from the sides of the dish.  Serve hot as a side dish.

Black Bean Chocolate Cake
(I got this recipe straight from the Healthy Indulgences recipe blog, which I heartily recommend.  I frosted this cake with a basic chocolate ganache -- melted sugar-free chocolate mixed with almond milk and a touch of vanilla -- and topped it with a sprinkling of cinnamon.)

1 15-ounce can unseasoned black beans
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon stevia extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine
3/4 cup erythritol or xylitol (or combination of both)
6 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Spray a 9″ cake pan with cooking spray, or just grease it with a thin layer of butter. Dust cocoa all over the inside of the pan, tapping to evenly distribute. Cut a round of parchment paper and line the bottom of the pan, then spray the parchment lightly.

Drain and rinse beans in a strainer or colander. Shake off excess water. Place beans, 3 of the eggs, vanilla, stevia, and salt into blender. Blend on high until beans are completely liquefied.

In a small bowl, whisk together cocoa powder, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a larger bowl, beat butter with xylitol/erythritol until light and fluffy. Add remaining two eggs, beating for a minute after each addition. Pour bean batter into butter-egg mixture and mix. Finally, stir in cocoa mixture and water, and beat the batter on high for one minute or until smooth. Scrape batter into pan and smooth the top. Grip pan firmly by the edges and rap it on the counter a few times to pop any air bubbles.

Bake for 40-45 minutes. Cake is done when the top is rounded and firm to the touch. After 10 minutes, turn out cake from pan, and flip over again on to a cooling rack. Let cool until cake reaches room temperature, then cover in plastic wrap or with cake dome. For best flavor, let cake sit overnight before eating.

Of course, there's only so much you can do with those ingredients -- especially since almost nobody in my family likes beets or dates, or carrots in any form other than raw.  So here are a few other new things I tried over the past few weeks, and I'm happy to report they came out excellent.

Creamy Mushroom Soup
(I adapted this from a recipe for Brown Butter Mushroom Soup from another favorite recipe blog, All Day I Dream About Food.  Someday I will try the dairy version, but I needed this one to go with a meat meal.  Alas, browning margarine doesn't work.)

6 tbsp butter or margarine
2 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
1.5 lb white mushrooms, sliced
2 large portobello mushroom caps, diced
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
Salt, pepper, and dried thyme to taste
1/2 cup almond milk

In a large pot, melt butter or margarine over medium heat . Add sage and cook one minute, stirring.  Add mushrooms and stir to coat, then add thyme and cook until mushrooms are tender and lightly browned, 4 to 5 minutes.

Stir in stock and bring to a simmer. Cook 4 to 5 minutes more.  Blend until smooth, using an immersion blender or by transferring in small batches to a food processor.  Stir in almond milk.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot; may be refrigerated and reheated.  Garnish suggestion: sprigs of fresh thyme leaves.

Turkey Breast with Blood Orange Marinade
1 turkey breast, skin on, rolled and tied
2 to 3 tbsp minced garlic
3 to 4 long sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 handful of fresh basil leaves
1 handful of fresh thyme
1 ripe blood orange (you could probably use a regular orange)
salt and pepper to taste
enough olive oil to make a paste
white wine or chicken stock for basting

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Remove rosemary leaves and thyme leaves from stalks.  Combine with garlic, basil, salt, pepper, and olive oil in the bowl of a blender.

Zest the orange into the bowl.  (I did this using a vegetable peeler to cut long strips of zest; this method works but can occasionally cut off too much pith along with the zest.)  Cut the remaining white peel off the orange, remove the membranes that divide the segments (or remove the pulp from inside the membranes), remove all seeds, and put the orange pulp into the bowl.  Blend to a coarse paste.

Lay turkey breast in roasting pan.  Rub all over with the seasoning paste, working some of it under the skin if possible.

Roast for 45 minutes to an hour, basting with wine or stock at the first two fifteen-minute intervals.  When meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of turkey reads 155°F, remove from oven and allow to rest for at least ten minutes before carving and serving.  Can be refrigerated and reheated, though is best fresh.  Any pan juices can be poured over sliced turkey before serving.

Raspberry Bars
(Adapted from another Elana Amsterdam recipe, this one from her first cookbook.)

3 cups blanched almond flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup grapeseed oil
2 egg whites
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.  Blend crust ingredients until smooth.  Press dough into a greased 13 x 9 baking dish and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly golden.

While the crust bakes, prepare the crumb topping:

1¾ cups blanched almond flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup grapeseed oil
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 large egg, whisked
1 cup rolled oats

Combine the dry and wet ingredients separately, then mix together.

When the crust is baked, remove it from the oven and spread 1 cup of raspberry jam evenly over the hot crust.  Distribute the topping evenly over the jam.  Bake again for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the topping is lightly golden.  Let cool in the baking dish for 1 hour.  Cut into bars and serve.

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