NEW YORK (Sep. 25)
I am settled on the sofa surrounded by gourmet magazines. Seeking something spectacular to serve on Rosh Hashanah, I am marking pages displaying apple salsa and honey-wasabi chicken. Part of me is happily creative, but another part wishes I had a file of food-stained family recipes. During the 1950s, my mother erased our Ashkenazi heritage, chasing the American dream cuisine: roast beef, vegetable casseroles, Waldorf Salad, and Jell-O.
Decades later, I dabbled with Indian, Greek, Japanese, and Chinese cooking, cuisines I discovered in restaurants and magazines. But on Rosh Hashanah this glut of options left me spinning. Searching for culinary identity, I adopted the cuisine of my husband’s Italian Jewish family. His Israeli cousin shared her recipes too.
Like Jewish cooks throughout history, I was influenced by my environment. For thousands of years, Jews moved around the globe with their recipes, adapting to indigenous foods and local cuisine. But when Jewish stockpots met the great American melting pot, it sparked a culinary revolution. Nowhere in the world has Jewish cooking undergone the dramatic transformation that occurred in this country. Likewise, Jewish food has left its mark. Where would the average American be without his morning bagel?
It seems that to be American means to savor dishes from every ethnic group. Cuisines such as Mexican and Mediterranean come and go with the seasons, and many Jews indulge in this feast of possibilities. Like Jewish eating habits, the Rosh Hashanah menu is in flux, swayed by cooking crazes.
“Because of the mass media, magazines want to be up to date,” says Nathan. To sell issues, publishers feature the latest incarnation of upscale cuisine, Jewish food included. Think of articles that have featured matzo brie with portobello mushrooms or latkes with Thai dipping sauces.
“That’s not what I like at holidays,” says Nathan, who is Ashkenazi. “Holidays are a time to return to our roots and maintain tradition. We need consistency and so do our children.”
After morning services on Rosh Hashanah, she invites a crowd to her house for a buffet of Moroccan salads, gefilte fish molds, and other delicacies, all culled from the canon of Jewish cuisine.
“Cooking traditional recipes is a way of saying, ‘This is my family, these are our customs,’” she says.
Of course, over the decades, she has tried new recipes, but they have entered her repertoire organically. For several years Nathan lived in Israel, where she experienced Sephardic cuisine. Drawn to fresh vegetables and piquant seasoning, she embraced Mediterranean cooking. She feels recipes should reflect someone’s life and not the glossy pages of magazines.
“Holiday cooking should show Jewish people where we came from,” says Nathan. “Our roots are important to us. Without roots, you can’t go anyplace.”
Every Passover, she prepares her mother-in-law’s gefilte fish recipe. “I’ll make it for the rest of my life,” she says, explaining that she tweaked the recipe by lowering the cooking time from 2 1/2 hours to 20 minutes and adding parsley, which wasn’t available in Eastern Europe.
Yet this kind of tweaking is initially what altered Jewish food when it reached American shores, where cooks sought substitutions for unavailable ingredients and relished others never seen before. Because carp and pike do not swim in every part of the country, the first generation of immigrants used local varieties to make gefilte fish. Nathan explains that in Florida, red snapper was the fish of choice. In Maine, it was haddock; in Hawaii, mahimahi. In the Northwest, salmon turned gefilte fish pink.
Another staple of Ashkenazi cuisine, brisket, was changed forever by processed ingredients, such as ketchup and chili sauce. Furthermore, the liquid the meat simmers in varies by region. In New England, apple cider rules, while in Dixie smoky barbecue flavor is king, and in California, peppers and tomatoes simmer in the pot with meat.
Kansas City Barbecued Brisket is especially delicious. “The sauce is very American, guaranteed to satisfy barbecue lovers,” says Nathan. In this country, Jewish side dishes have gone local too. Newish-Jewish Southwestern Tsimmes Stuffed with Chiles is a gem created by Chef Lenard Rubin of Phoenix, Arizona.
There’s also a Rosh Hashanah potluck salad that is served on the holiday’s second night by Rita Michaelson of Providence, R.I., who celebrates at informal beach gatherings with Jewish professors from Brown University.
Of course kugels are the crowning glory of American Jewish cuisine. Besides the more common sweet cheese varieties, consider a recipe calling for coriander and corn. And consider San Antonio kugel, a fabulous pareve recipe that won a kugel contest sponsored by a Jewish magazine in Philadelphia.
“Jewish food is so dynamic,” says Nathan, explaining that it’s a reflection of world events, migrations of people, local produce and cuisine, the media, and cross influences.
While Nathan honors Jewish heritage, she doesn’t scoff at hosts who on holidays serve recipes created by celebrity chefs. She feels people are seeking one new dish, a fantastic kicker to dazzle their guests.
“Change is the nature of the world, and we can’t stop it,” says Nathan, aware that Jewish food has been evolving since the onset of kosher cooking. “The thing that worries me is if we don’t use our traditional recipes, we’ll have nothing left of our culinary past.”
She recommends dusting off old family recipes. Even if they are high in sugar or fat, they can be adjusted to comply with modern thinking on health.
In Nathan’s family, it wouldn’t be Rosh Hashanah without the plum tart she recalls from childhood and bakes every year. “It’s what makes my family special,” she says. “I want my children to know this.”
For that reason, Nathan bakes challah with her children too. At Rosh Hashanah she is preparing her mother’s brisket recipe. While her mother served it with farfel, Nathan may instead choose the Sephardic alternative, couscous. By exposing her children to these dishes, she is teaching them about the foods that sustained the Jews through history.
“As parents, our job is to create holiday memories and to pass them on to our children,” says Nathan. “Rosh Hashanah is a time to remember who you are. To remember who is gone in your family and to cherish them by keeping their recipes alive.”
MARYLAND SPICY GEFILTE FISH WITH SHAD
16 cups water or to cover fish bones
4 onions, peeled and left whole
1 stalk celery, left whole
Salt to taste
4 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning
3 large eggs
1/3 cup water
1/2 to 1 cup matzo meal
Accompaniments: red horseradish, pickled beets, carrot slivers, and parsley for garnish
1. Wash shad heads and tails, and place with the bones along with the water in a large pot.
2. Add to the pot 2 of the onions, the celery, 1 tsp. salt, the peppercorns, and 3 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning. Bring to a boil and skim the foam off the top. Simmer, partially covered, while preparing the fish, about an hour.
3. Grind the remaining onions in a food processor. Add the fish and continue to process, pulsing on and off, but not to a mush.
4. Add salt, the remaining 1 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning, the eggs and 1/3 cup water and process briefly. Add a half cup of matzo meal and process, then continue adding more until the mixture feels tacky, not mushy. Refrigerate for 15-20 minutes, or until fish mixture is stiff enough to handle.
5. Strain the broth, discarding the fish bones. Return the broth to the pot and bring to a boil.
6. Keep a bowl of cold water nearby, dip your hands in cold water, and mold the fish mixture into rounds the size of a squash ball, about 2 inches in diameter.
7. Place the fish balls in the broth and simmer, covered for 1 hour, adding more water if needed. Let fish cool in broth, then, with a slotted spoon, remove to a platter. Reduce the liquid by half, cool, and then refrigerate fish and the stock separately. Serve covered with the jellied sauce and accompaniments.
Yield: about 36 servings
KANSAS CITY BARBECUED BRISKET
1 5-6 pound brisket of beef
4 Tbsp. liquid smoke
3 medium chopped onions
1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 tbsp. brown sugar
1 16-ounce bottle ketchup
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. dry mustard
6 tbsp. pareve margarine
1. Wash and dry the brisket and sprinkle with 2 Tbsp. of the liquid smoke. Wrap in heavy duty aluminum foil and marinate overnight.
2. The next day, open the foil, sprinkle on the chopped onions, garlic and pepper. Rewrap everything in the foil and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 5 hours.
3. Meanwhile combine the remaining 2 Tbsp. liquid smoke, brown sugar, ketchup, water, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, margarine, and salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered, for about 30 minutes.
4. Remove foil, slice the brisket thinly, and pour the sauce over all. Raise the oven to 350 degrees and reheat, covered for 30 minutes.
Yield: 10 servings
1 pound of broccoli
2 cups canned chick-peas
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tbsp. fresh parsley
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, mashed
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 cups lentils
2 red peppers
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, mashed
Dash of sugar
1 tsp. French mustard
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup fresh mint
Fresh lettuce for garnish
1. Cut the broccoli into florets, cook briefly in boiling salted water, and plunge into iced water.
2. Drain chick-peas and mix with lemon juice, parsley, 1/4 cup olive oil, garlic clove, and salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Clean the lentils and cook in boiling salted water for about 20 minutes or until al dente. Drain.
4. Place the red peppers in a preheated 450-degree oven for 20 minutes. When charred, place immediately in a brown paper bag to cool down for about 30 minutes. Peel, remove seeds and membranes, and slice into thin strips about 1/2 inch wide.
5. To make the vinaigrette, mix balsamic vinegar, garlic clove, sugar, and mustard in a small bowl. Whisking constantly, pour in 1/4 cup of oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with mint. Set aside in an attractive bowl.
6. Using a large platter, place all the vegetables and grains in individual sections, using lettuce as a garnish. Serve as a salad or first course, with the vinaigrette in a bowl with a spoon on the side.
Yield: at least 12 servings
SAN ANTONIO KUGEL
1 1-pound pkg. broad egg noodles
1 stick pareve margarine
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
2 Winesap apples
1/2 to 1 cup orange juice
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 to 1 cup white raisins
1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water.
2. Add the margarine to the noodles and mix until melted.
3. Add the sugar, eggs and cinnamon. Grate the peeled apples and pears and add with the juices and raisins. Mix gently.
4. Pour into a greased 9 by 13 by 2-inch rectangular casserole. Bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours, depending on the degree of crustiness desired. Serve warm or cold as a side dish with poultry or brisket.
Yield: 10-12 servings