Filled treats: the ‘stuff’ of Sukkot

Yossi  Ludmir, left, sorts etrogs with Israeli Arab workers for Sukkot on one of his orchards near Kfar Saba on Sept. 17. (Brian Hendler)

Yossi Ludmir, left, sorts etrogs with Israeli Arab workers for Sukkot on one of his orchards near Kfar Saba on Sept. 17. (Brian Hendler)

NEW YORK, Sept. 25 (JTA) — "Have you ever noticed how plump autumn foods are?" asked my 9-year-old daughter two decades ago, as we passed a sukkah, a leafy hut, locked behind the gate of a Manhattan synagogue. "You mean the peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, apples and squash?" I said, staring at a farmers market worth of produce dangling from the sukkah’s flimsy walls. Outside the synagogue’s iron bars, we looked from afar but could not touch or smell the year’s final harvest, a sight more brilliant than fall foliage in New England. Dwarfed by high rises in a city lined with concrete, we were still attached to Judaism’s agrarian roots. This scene was a far cry from what I recalled from my childhood. During the 1950s, the sukkah at my suburban synagogue was open all day to people who wanted to step inside. Each evening, the sisterhood women carried steaming pans of stuffed peppers, squash and eggplants to the backyard sukkah, where members of the congregation shared a communal meal. Many of the dishes they prepared entailed stuffing one plump vegetable inside another. Were these women merely paying homage to the garden’s last blast of the season, or was there a deeper, perhaps unconscious meaning to the traditional Sukkot fare they prepared year after year? "The most common Sukkot dishes are filled foods, particularly stuffed vegetables and pastries, symbolizing the bounty of the harvest," wrote chef and Rabbi Gil Marks in his cookbook, "The World of Jewish Entertaining" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Over the centuries, Jewish cooks have gutted and chopped nearly every edible plant species, mixing the pulp with onions, breadcrumbs, matzah meal, meat, spices and assorted vegetables and fruit. They then stuffed these aromatic concoctions inside the vegetables’ cavities, roasting them to create heavenly results. During the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, people eat their meals in sukkot, or temporary huts, and holiday recipes call for seasonal produce. My favorite dish among the array of foods the sisterhood women prepared was stuffed cabbage leaves, because of the tang of its sweet and sour tomato sauce. A symbol of plenty, stuffed cabbage is such a staple on Sukkot menus that Jews call this dish by many names, depending on what country their families came from. These delectable morsels are called dolmas in Armenia, galuptze in Russia, sarmali in Romania and holishkes in the rest of Eastern Europe. The highlight of the dish is its piquant sauce whose seasonings vary from country to country. As multi-faceted as the produce the earth yields, there is no end to the imagination when it comes to what vegetables to stuff for Sukkot. Syrian Jews fill carrots with rice and ground beef or lamb. Polish Jews stuff calves liver into tomatoes. In India, Jews partake in a dish of eggplants stuffed with grated coconut, tamarind paste, coriander and other spices. The Jews of Lebanon stuff onions with rice, ground beef and pomegranate juice — not to mention the stuffed artichoke stew popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Besides this cornucopia of filled produce, there is an entire genre of Sukkot recipes calling for pastries to be stuffed with either sweet or savory foods. In Eastern and Central Europe, Jews wrap strudel dough around apples, pears and plums, or chopped meat and a variety of vegetables, particularly cabbage. In the Sephardic countries of the Middle East, recipes abound for filled phyllo dishes. Often migrating throughout their history, Jews both shared and borrowed cooking techniques from local people wherever they settled. "In the Hellenistic world of Greek and Roman dominance, stuffed foods were prominent features at banquets," says Corrie Norman, Chair of the Department of Religion and Director of the Rome Program at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Filling an already full-looking food, such as a fig, was a double way of indicating celebration and abundance. A common sweet throughout the Sephardic Middle East is a nut-filled date. "Jews picked up on and advanced the significance and artistry of celebratory stuffed foods," says Norman. "For example in modern Rome, stuffed fried vegetables are associated with Jewish origins." This group of recipes is called "alla Giudia," or in the Jewish style. While this vegetable stuffing technique has fused with Roman cuisine, its name credits its Jewish origin. A former "semi-professional" cook, Norman is currently combining her enduring passion for food with her studies in religion and history. As an affiliate of the Harvard Pluralism Project, she coordinates student research on food, meaning and gender. "Fruits, vegetables and their harvest are the realities of fertility," says Norman. "Roundness or fullness also signify fertility, which also means life." Throughout time, there has been a link between agriculture and fertility, the harvest and birth. Stuffing one food inside another at the end of the growing season underscores this point. "Stuffed squash is full and round," says Norman. "It is full of mysterious, wonderful ingredients, hidden initially but eventually bursting forth." She explains that whether most people are aware of it or not, they understand the significance of a symbolic food, such as stuffed cabbage, by its taste and its presence — or absence — on the Sukkot table. They may associate that sweet apple strudel of their youth with their mother or grandmother. "That form of embodied knowing — often not rational or conscious — is key to sustaining symbolic meaning." This is one reason why many people continue to prepare family recipes on holidays, when they could more easily order the entire menu from a deli or restaurant, explains Norman. "I wouldn’t be surprised if a Jewish grandmother making her stuffed eggplant from scratch felt that going to all that trouble in a day of convenience foods, somehow helped make Sukkot special for her family," she says. No doubt, after she is gone, her family will savor their memories of her and the special eggplant dish that she prepared, which connects them to their Jewish ancestry and the mystery of the harvest. This must be why when the season’s first chill penetrates my sweaters, I reach for a booklet of holiday recipes that my grandmother gave me in desperate hope that I’d keep a Jewish home. That autumn of 1968, I was a 20-year-old in miniskirts, indifferent to her concern. I must have hurt her feelings when I left that booklet on her coffee table. But undeterred, she mailed it to me anyway. Today as withered leaves blow across the sidewalks of New York, I think of my grandmother as I head to the nearest Korean market, where at Sukkot, the onions are their most pungent, the squash bulging and beautiful, and the cabbage ranging in color from green to purple. I wish she were still alive so I could tell her that I make the stuffed cabbage and squash recipes from that booklet, which is now wrinkled and yellowing with age. I remember her as a portly woman with a kind heart who urged her family to eat more than they cared to. Spiritually connected to Sukkot, she was a good Jewish grandmother who insisted that her loved ones leave the table completely satisfied, if not a little stuffed.HOLISHKES: STUFFED CABBAGE1 large cabbage: Freeze cabbage overnight. Defrost completely (about 4 hours). Gently pull off leaves from half of the cabbage, about 12. (Save remaining cabbage for soup or other recipes.) Don´t worry if leaves tear. Cut away their course center spines and discard. Cut larger, outer leaves in half.Sauce:2 15-ounce cans tomato sauceJuice of 2 lemons2 Tbsp. white vinegar11/2 cups honey1 cup red wine4 cloves garlic, minced fineSalt and pepper to taste2/3 cup raisinsPlace all of the sauce ingredients, except the raisins, in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on a medium flame. Remove from heat and stir in raisins. Reserve.Meat Stuffing:1/3 cup raw rice1 lb. chopped beef1 egg, beaten1 Tbsp. dill, mincedToothpicksNo-stick spray1. Prepare rice according to directions on package.2. Combine first four ingredients in a bowl, mixing well.3. Place a heaping tablespoon of meat mixture on cabbage leaves, selecting a spot away from tears and where it nestles well. 4. Gently roll leaves around stuffing, tucking in edges and sides. Fasten with toothpicks in strategic places.5. If stuffing mixture remains, roll it into meatballs.6. Coat a large roasting pan with no-stick spray. Place cabbage rolls and meatballs inside, layering if necessary. Pour sauce over the top, making sure it dribbles between all cabbage rolls. Simmer on a low flame for 11/2 hours, until sauce thickens slightly and meat is well done. Serve hot. Recipe can be prepared ahead and reheated on a low flame.Yield: About 12 entree sized portions, plus several meatballsVEGETABLE CURRY STUFFED PEPPERS2 potatoes, peeled1 cup walnuts, chopped8 peppers: Select ones with flat bottoms so they don´t topple during cooking. For eye appeal, choose red, yellow, green, and orange peppers.3 Tbsp. cooking oil3 large onions, diced8 cloves garlic, minced19-ounce can Cannellini (White Kidney Beans), drained in colander4 tomatoes, seeds removed and diced4 Tbsp. parsley, minced3 tsp. curry powder2 tsp. cumin3/4 tsp. tumericSalt and pepper to tasteno-stick cooking spray15 ounce can vegetable broth1/2 cup white wine1. Cut potatoes into chunks and boil until soft. Drain.2. Roast walnuts at 350 degrees until light brown, about 2-3 minutes.3. With a knife, cut a circle around pepper stems, large enough to insert stuffing. Discard stems. Cut away interior fibers. Rinse with cold water to flush out seeds. Place upside down to drain. Dry skins with paper towels.4. In a large pot, heat oil on medium flame. Saute onions and garlic for one minute. Mix in potatoes, walnuts, beans, tomatoes, parsley and spices. Stir for three minutes. 5. Coat an ovenproof pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.6. Spoon enough vegetable mixture inside peppers so it bulges into a dome over their tops. Arrange peppers in pan. Gently pour broth and wine into pan, surrounding but not saturating peppers.7. Roast for 45-60 minutes, until peppers soften and pucker and vegetables on top turn golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.Yield: 8 servingsSTUFFED ZUCCHINI, ITALIAN-STYLE2 zucchini, scrubbed clean3 cloves garlic, minced1/4 cup breadcrumbs1 tsp. dried rosemary, crumbled2 mushrooms, diced fine1/8 cup olive oilNo-stick spray1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.2. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise and then again horizontally, so you have 8 boat-shaped pieces. Scoop out half the flesh and dice fine. Place in a medium-sized bowl.3. Add garlic, breadcrumbs, rosemary, mushrooms and oil. Mix until blended. Spoon this mixture into zucchini boats and press into place.4. Coat a baking pan with no-stick spray. Place stuffed zucchini in pan. Bake for 25 minutes, or until top browns and zucchini softens. Serve hot or at room temperature.Yield: 8 servingsAUTUMN HARVEST ACORN SQUASHNo-stick spray21/2 lb. acorn squash5 carrots, peeled and coarsely diced1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted for 2 minutes until brown1/2 tsp. cinnamon1/4 tsp. cardamom1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg1/3 cup dried cherries3/4 tsp. salt or to taste1/4 cup brown sugar1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray Pyrex baking pan with no-stick spray.2. Cut squash in half along one of the grooves on its skin. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash in pan flesh side down and skin side up. Pour water into pan 1/2 inch deep. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until flesh is soft. (While baking, check water level and add more if too much evaporates.)3. Meanwhile, steam carrots until soft, about 3-5 minutes.4. When squash is ready, cool for 5 minutes and remove from pan. Gently scoop out flesh with a spoon, being careful not to rip skin. Place in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well. 5. Spoon mixture into squash shells and serve immediately.Yield: 6-8 servings

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