HIGH HOLIDAYS FEATURE Dinner before the Yom Kippur fast: Hosting an important, difficult meal
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HIGH HOLIDAYS FEATURE Dinner before the Yom Kippur fast: Hosting an important, difficult meal

NEW YORK, July 7 (JTA) — While preparing for Yom Kippur, many people focus on buying break-the-fast foods, not realizing that partaking in the meal preceding the holiday is a mitzvah. Yet anyone who has hosted this occasion, squeezed between workday and holiday, knows it is fraught with logistical problems. Known as the seudah mafseket, or closing meal, this dinner by daylight must be concluded in time for people to arrive at their synagogue for the Kol Nidre service, which begins at sundown. “Because the timing is tricky, eating beforehand is always a quick affair,” says a fund-raiser from Manhattan, who scrambles to get several courses on the table. A career woman and mother of two children, she can’t juggle cooking for a crowd larger than her immediate family. Selecting appropriate and practical dishes, hosts face menu-planning challenges. Although scheduling tempts throwing together a meal in haste, Yom Kippur is hardly an occasion for fast food. The eve prior to the fast should have a festive character, advises rabbi and chef Gil Marks in his cookbook “The World of Jewish Entertaining.” The table should be set as nicely as it is for the Sabbath. In other words, the evening should have an elegant tone, another issue for busy hosts to consider. While seeking a menu more exalted than everyday fare, they must steer clear of rich foods, which undermine the solemnity of the holiday and can cause indigestion. For health reasons, the menu should be plentiful and sustaining. According to the sages, just as Jews must fast on Yom Kippur, they should also eat heartily before sunset in order to participate fully the next day. Because quenching thirst is forbidden while fasting, bland foods are recommended to prevent undue discomfort during prayers. Unaware of the consequences, a Manhattan special education teacher once served The Silver Palate Cookbook’s famed Chicken Marbella before the holiday. Although it’s the book’s most popular recipe, the chicken is marinated in garlic, oregano, olives and capers. “Such a spicy, salty dish created a nightmarish fast for my guests,” she says, still guilty for what she served. Respecting the holiday’s significance and its special needs, the balanced, refined main course below combines holiday traditions with today’s food trends. Easily assembled during crunch time, it is as dignified as the occasion. The menu features a succulent chicken dish that is bursting with mushrooms. The entree of choice on the Sabbath, when families enjoy the best meal of the week, chicken is also a Yom Kippur tradition, dating back to the medieval custom of kaparot. Not often practiced today, the ritual entails swinging a fowl over a person’s head, transferring his sins to the chicken. Although chicken is a good choice because it is low in fat and high in protein, many people wonder what to serve with it. “I’m always in a quandary,” says a nurse who works in the World Trade Center in Manhattan, claiming she usually resorts to buying prepared food, but feels that a home-made meal is more fitting for the holidays. Although rice is the starch of choice on Yom Kippur Eve, couscous, a staple of Moroccan Jews, is a less labor-intensive choice that cooks up in minutes. The arugula salad below, brimming with apples and tomatoes, can be tossed together quickly. While extravagant desserts are discouraged on Yom Kippur, fruits of all kinds are a pre-fast tradition the world over. Poached pears and raspberries end the meal on a light note, one that is both nutritious and thirst quenching. Whether you are serving your immediate family or a larger crowd, it is possible to slow down the pre-fast rush. With some advance planning, you can create a peaceful segue into the year’s most important holiday, a blessing to everyone at your table.

(Recipes serve six people) SAUTEED PORCINI CHICKEN (Can be made two days ahead)

1 cup dried porcini mushrooms (about 1 ounce) 2 cups hot water 2 tsp. sesame seeds 5 tbsp. olive oil 24 white mushrooms, sliced 3 boneless split chicken breasts (six halves) 1/3 cup white wine Salt to taste

1. Place porcinis in a medium bowl, adding water. Soak until soft, about 30 minutes. 2. Place seeds on aluminum foil. Broil in toaster oven until brown, about two minutes. Reserve. 3. On a low flame, heat 3 tbsp. of the oil in 4 1/2 quart pot. Adding sliced mushrooms, saute and stir for three minutes. 4. Using a slotted spoon, add porcinis, reserving soaking liquid. Stir three minutes. Remove all mushrooms from pot. Reserve. 5. Saute chicken in pan juices and remaining oil, turning until browned. Add wine, one-third of a cup of soaking liquid and salt. Simmer on medium flame for about 20 minutes, until chicken cooks through and plenty of mushroom-wine sauce remains. (Recipe can be prepared to this point and warmed when serving.) 6. Place chicken on a rimmed platter, covering with mushrooms and sauce. Sprinkle with seeds.

COUSCOUS Follow package instructions.

ARUGULA SALAD 2 bunches arugula 1 pint cherry tomatoes 2 green apples 1/4 cup olive oil 1 tsp. lemon juice

One day ahead: 1. Wash arugula, removing stems. Wrap in paper towels and refrigerate in a plastic bag. 2. Clean tomatoes. Store. Right before serving: 3. Peel, core and slice apples. 4. Whisk oil and lemon juice. 5. Gently toss all ingredients together in a bowl.

POACHED PEARS & RASPBERRIES (Can be made a day ahead)

3 pears 2 tsp. sugar 2 cups water 1 cup raspberries

1. Cut pears in half. Peel and core. Place in a pot. 2. Mix water and sugar, pouring over top of pears. 3. Simmer covered on medium flame until pears soften, about 10 minutes. 4. Sprinkle raspberries on pears and simmer covered another minute. 5. Gently move fruit and liquid to a flat-bottomed bowl and chill.