All family Jewish holiday dishes have a story: recipes from your mother, grandmother or aunt. The tastes and flavors of our past are what brings us into the future. I always celebrate the traditional with a few out-of-the-box new recipes for the holidays.
Today, you can find influences of Persian, Asian and Cuban foods on holiday tables. Although meat and/or turkey are usually my entrees, it’s those side dishes that I use to surprise guests. Healthy roasted sweet potatoes can be combined with roasted apples. Add some freshly chopped rosemary, fennel, olive oil and salt and pepper.
Apples are a must, and I recommend the smallest you can get.
Here’s how I serve the tiny apples: Cut off the tops and scoop out apples. Dice the apple “meat” and season with margarine, cinnamon and sugar. Put chopped, seasoned filling back in each apple and bake until soft. After baking, generously drizzle honey over them. Extra slices of apples can surround each person’s plate to scrape up excess honey.
Your honey cake finale can be transformed by using chai tea in place of coffee — a unique and welcome flavor.
A few days before your dinner, purchase a bunch of grapes, fresh kale and curly parsley to garnish serving platters. Roast the grapes by gently coating them in a plastic bag with a little olive oil and sugar. Place on an oil-sprayed baking sheet. Bake in a 375-degree oven until they caramelize. Use as a garnish for entrees, side dishes or dessert, cold or warm.
Fish symbolizes the prosperity and knowledge that we hope will come our way in the new year. For gefilte fish, which is usually plated ahead, I like to garnish with something special. Mayonnaise can be enhanced with a variety of flavors. Try adding chipotle chili sauce or simply some lemon juice and fresh dill. Smear the sauce across each plate before adding your fish.
As for your chicken soup, you can add a plethora of vegetables to give it some color and zip. Besides carrots, celery and onion, add turnips, kohlrabi, rutabaga and celeriac. I dice them very small and parboil just to soften, adding at the beginning of soup cooking (very low simmer, of course). Now comes the best surprise. Use a spiralizer and make “carrot noodles” instead of pasta noodles as a healthier addition to chicken soup. I parboil them and add them to the last 60 minutes of simmering soup.
Recently, I watched Bobby Flay make stuffed cabbage on TV. I adapted his ideas into my classic stuffed cabbage recipe. I used savoy cabbage instead of regular and made much smaller rolls. I added finely chopped pistachio nuts and raw yellow saffron rice to the meat (ground turkey or beef) mixture. In place of regular raisins, I added smaller currants to the tomato sauce. I called it Persian cabbage rolls and got thumbs up for it.
When I have eight people or more as guests, I always use place cards. But this year, in order to stimulate some conversation, I will place an appropriate question inside each card for the guest to answer or discuss: “Why apples and honey? Why round challah?” Write them according to the ages and knowledge of guests.
When the doorbell rings, get out of the kitchen and greet each guest with a big warm welcome.
Wishing a good year to you all. May you share plenty of food and family together.
2 chickens, cut into eighths, or equivalent of boneless pieces
2 onions, cut into large chunks
12-16 sprigs fresh oregano
8 cloves fresh garlic, thin slices
Fine sea salt, to taste (I leave it out and it is still good)
Dash of freshly ground pepper
½ cup olive oil
1 cup white wine
1½ cups Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
½ cup Kalamata olives, whole, for
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place chicken in single layers, skin side up, into two 9-by-13-inch baking pans.
Add the onion chunks. Slice the lemons in half lengthwise. Squeeze the lemon halves over the chicken. Cut each lemon half into 4 pieces; add to the chicken.
Set aside 4 sprigs of oregano and strip the oregano leaves from the rest. Scatter the leaves and the stripped sprigs over the chicken. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper. Drizzle with the olive oil and wine. Toss the mixture together.
Sprinkle the chopped olives over the chicken.
Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the chicken is fully cooked.
To serve, transfer to platter and garnish with whole olives and reserved oregano sprigs.
New Persian stuffed cabbage rolls
For the cabbage rolls
1 very large head Savoy cabbage
2 pounds ground beef or turkey
2 small to medium onions, chopped small
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, shredded on coarse grater
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 cup uncooked yellow or saffron rice
½ to ¾ cup finely chopped pistachio nuts
For the sauce
2-4 tablespoons tomato paste
6-8 cups of your favorite simple tomato sauce, tomato juice or V8 (I like the V8)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup small currants, optional
Make the cabbage rolls
Cut the core out of the cabbage, but leave it whole. Place it, with the empty core area facing up, in a large bowl. Boil a small pot of water and pour the water over the cabbage, and let it sit for 10 minutes. Or, I freeze the cabbage overnight and then defrost it in the microwave before using.
Heat the oil in a very large pot. Cook the onions until they are soft, add the carrot and celery, and sauté them for a couple extra minutes — until they are also soft. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, transfer it to a bowl and let it cool a bit.
Mix in the meat, rice and pistachio nuts, and season again with salt and pepper.
Drain the head of cabbage. Pull off large leaves, and cut out the large vein; if the leaf is very large, you can make two rolls from each; if it is smaller, you can cut the vein out partially and pull the sides to overlap before you roll it into one roll. Pat the leaves dry with towels.
Roll about ¼ cup of filling in each small leaf (I like them small) and arrange/carefully layer in a very large, wide pot.
Make the sauce
Combine sauce ingredients to create a sweet and sour sauce. Taste and add more honey or some brown sugar for sweetness.
Make the dish
Pour in enough sauce to cover the rolls. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, letting them simmer, covered on the stove on very low for about 45 minutes. If sauce has thinned a bit, you can heat up any additional sauce you didn’t use and pour it over as you serve the rolls. Freezes well.
Ilene Spector is a Maryland-based consumer, food and travel writer.