Holidays are when a family’s most precious traditions are forged, and Rosh Hashanah (beginning at sundown Sunday, September 25), a solemn yet joyous holiday with its universal message of hope for a sweet new year, offers ample opportunity to pass along treasured traditions and create new ones. Such is the stuff of which memories are made.
Creating new memories was on my mind while searching for a Rosh Hashanah fish course to replace our same-old gefilte fish (not that there’s anything wrong with it!). I found what I was looking for with the Moroccan Fish Balls from “The Foods of Israel Today” (Knopf, $30) an old favorite from Joan Nathan, the award-winning author of 11 cookbooks, winner of a James Beard and IACP/Julia Child award and host of the PBS television series, “Jewish Cooking in America.”
As a child, Nathan knew it was Rosh Hashanah when the blue plums were in. “My mother would have me put the plums delicately into the cake,” she told me by phone from her home in Washington, D.C., “and that meant it was Rosh Hashanah. Maybe that’s how I started thinking seasonally about food.”
The thing I most treasure about Nathan’s books is her impeccable research and eye for historical detail. For this book she entered the kitchens of both ordinary Israelis and popular restaurants, gathering stories to accompany the 300 recipes from Jews, Christians and Moslems.
We learn in “The Foods of Israel Today” about the chicken chelou (rice) that Iranian Jews serve for the holiday with carrots, raisins, cinnamon and sugar. Libyan Jews eat seven different fruits and vegetables and seven varieties of jam as a symbol of hope for abundance in the coming year, and Jews of Eastern European descent eat dishes with carrots, apples, raisins and honey. No sour or bitter dishes appear on this table. And the traditional challah is baked in a round loaf, symbolizing the cycle of life.
Having grown up in Rhode Island in an Ashkenazic home, Nathan quickly became intoxicated with the new flavors of Israel while working there in the early ‘70’s as a foreign press attaché for the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. “Rosh Hashanah had always meant chicken and matzo balls and apples dipped in honey. Then I went to Israel and it blew my mind. I remember going to a Yemenite home for Rosh Hashanah and thinking—where’s the apples and honey? They had pomegranate. In Israel there are all these different taste sensations. That’s what got me interested in writing about food.”
When David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, declared the country’s independence in May 1948, Nathan tells us, he envisioned the infant nation as a melting pot, which would generate a distinctive “Israeli food” as it would an “Israeli dance.” While both hummus and hora typify Israel to many, neither the cuisine nor the choreography melt into a homogeneous identity in this land, roughly the size of New Jersey, teeming with over 90 nationalities and diverse cultures and religions, and rather than a melting pot, Nathan describes the cuisine of Israel as a “multicultural mosaic.”
“I don’t think there will ever be a, quote, Israeli cuisine,” she said. “There are certain foods which to me seem Israeli—Mediterranean ingredients, for example. Carrot salad is definitely an Israeli signature dish. If you go to a Sephardic restaurant, you’ll have a Libyan this and a Moroccan that. Israelis are taking the best of immigrant foods and incorporating them. When I lived in Israel, you rarely went to restaurants except for falafel stands or cafes. Today Israeli chefs are going to culinary schools around the world, coming back, and using local ingredients.” And Nathan’s enthusiasm for those ingredients is contagious. “I sprinkle za’atar (a spice combination of wild oregano, thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) on so many things. I love bulgur and frika—the parched wheat mentioned in the book of Ruth—chickpeas, pomelos, and, oh, the figs in Israel are the best in the world. They’re so fabulous, literally sun kissed.”
The flavorful fish balls (shown here with a mayo-dill sauce) originated in medieval Spain, Nathan notes, and were perhaps the precursor of the Ashkenazic gefilte fish. They can be served for any Friday night meal but are often reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Passover.
If two foods may be said to epitomize Rosh Hashanah, they would certainly be apples and honey. We dip apples in honey to express our hope for a sweet new year, a custom believed to have come to us through Ashkenazi Jews from the later medieval period. The Apple Honey Cardamom Cake from “The Baker in Me” by Daphna Rabinovitvh (Whitecap $45) featured here is a happy combination of both and a perfect way to wish each other a zeesin New Year.
Moroccan Fish Balls
Yield: 40 balls, serving about 10 people
3 pounds whiting, cod, haddock, or whitefish fillets
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 small onion, diced
8 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons cumin
¼ teaspoon mace
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and cut into tiny rounds
1 orange or red bell pepper, diced in ½–inch pieces
2 teaspoons hot paprika
2 heaping tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
- Chop fish with parsley and onion, using a grinder or food processor fitted with steel blade.
- Add 4 cloves of the garlic, the egg, cumin, and mace, mixing well with your hands. Refrigerate an hour or so.
- Heat oil in nonstick frying pan with a cover and add tomatoes and remaining garlic. Cook a few minutes, then mash tomatoes with a fork.
- Add to pan carrots, peppers, paprika, and cilantro. Sprinkle on the salt, add water, and simmer, covered, about 15 minutes, adding more water if mixture becomes too dry.
- Mold chilled fish mixture into balls the size of walnuts and place in sauce, adding more water if needed, just to cover fish. Cook 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve fish bowls immediately, covered with sauce, or refrigerate and serve later at room temperature.
Source: “The Foods of Israel Today” by Joan Nathan
Apple Honey Cardamom Cake
For a meat meal use non-dairy margarine instead of butter and non-dairy substitute for the sour cream.
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup honey
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
¾ cup sour cream or yogurt, at room temperature
1 cup peeled chopped apples (about 1apple)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease bottom and sides of 8 1/2- or 9–inch springform pan. Line bottom of pan with a round of parchment paper cut to fit. Set aside.
- Topping: In bowl, combine almonds, sugar and flour. Add butter and rub into mixture with your fingertips until crumbly.
- Cake: Whisk together flour, baking powder, cardamom, baking soda and salt in bowl until dry ingredients are thoroughly combined. Set aside.
- In bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment or using a handheld mixer, beat together honey and butter, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally, until smooth and no lumps of butter remain, about 3 minutes. One at a time, beat in eggs, beating well after first egg before adding the second. Beat in vanilla.
- Remove bowl from stand. Using wooden spoon, alternately stir in flour mixture with sour cream, making 3 additions of flour and 2 of sour cream. Gently fold in apples. Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top. Sprinkle topping evenly over batter. Place cake pan on rimmed baking sheet. Bake in center of preheated oven until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, 55 to 60 minutes. Cool cake in pan on wire rack 20 minutes. Run small knife around edge of pan to loosen cake. Remove cake from pan and cool on wire rack, parchment side down. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Source: “The Baker in Me” by Daphna Rabinovitch
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.