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Gather 'round for a Rosh Hashanah feast

Three dishes that will satisfy your hunger for a simple, traditional meal for the High Holy Days.

Andrea Abel
Andrea Abel's Rosh Hashanah meal includes salmon, stuffed peppers and tomatoes, and a spinach salad with pomegranate. Tradition dictates no cooking on the Rosh Hashanah holiday, so everything must be prepared ahead of time. These dishes are delicious at any temperature.

The Jewish High Holidays are a time for spiritual reflection, rejuvenation, celebratory meals and enjoying family and friends. Notice that the list of holiday priorities does not include spending hours in the kitchen. I want to have a delicious meal to share with those dear to me, but also want to arrive at synagogue without the heavy feeling of exhaustion from standing on my feet for hours, and I certainly want to enjoy the company of family and guests.

This year, I had three ideas in mind when planning a post-synagogue Rosh Hashanah luncheon menu. I wanted dishes I could prepare ahead of time. I looked for recipes that remained true to traditional foods and customs with a contemporary twist. Given the Central Texas heat, I wanted food that could be served cold or at room temperature.

With this menu, I scored on all three counts.

Food traditions abound in Judaism, especially at the High Holidays, from the color, shape, taste or name of a food to "gematria" \u2013 the practice of assigning a numerical value to the Hebrew letters and words. Customs differ from community to community and can get rather elaborate. Some avoid dark or bitter foods, such as olives. Others avoid nuts since the gematria for the Hebrew word for "nuts" is the same as "sin." One tradition includes a baked sheep's head adorning the holiday table to symbolize the desire to be leaders instead of stragglers.

There are some general themes though. Round foods represent the circle of life. Stuffed foods are common and are meant to symbolize our desire for a year filled with peace and prosperity. Then, there are seeds and fish for fertility (though Algerian Jews avoid fish) and sweet foods for a sweet new year. Another common tradition is to partake of unusual fruits not usually eaten or fruits that are eaten for the first time of the season. Pomegranates are a popular choice. They are a round-shaped fruit that ripens in the fall, we eat the seeds, and the number of seeds within is said to equal the 613, the number of commandments in the Torah.

I kept these culinary traditions in mind as I paged through stacks of Jewish cookbooks. For the main course, I turned to one of my favorite go-to cookbooks in my collection, Marlene Sorosky's "Fast & Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays," a compilation of modern recipes with terrific plan-ahead tips. Although out of print, the book readily is available online. The Salmon Stuffed with Mushrooms, Potatoes, and Dill, served with a greens-packed Emerald Sauce caught my eye. The fish makes for an elegant presentation and is succulent served warm, room temperature or chilled, and can be completely prepared the day before. In fact, I found that the fish slices more easily after resting.

For my second dish, I found inspiration from my dear friend Esther Mizrachi, who presents the most colorful and exotically tasty spread for Rosh Hashana, leaning on her family's Syrian roots and the dishes learned from her mother, Sophie. Unfortunately, Sophie died suddenly a few years back, leaving Esther without many written recipes and some key ingredients that her mother would send from Brooklyn around the holidays. Esther lost those annual phone calls to Sophie while preparing each dish, asking questions about ingredients and technique — connecting generations and culinary traditions.

One of Esther's most impressive holiday dishes, a recipe learned from her mother, is a groaning platter of rice-stuffed vegetables — tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and onions — that my family and I look forward to each year. It is another make-ahead recipe that tastes even better the next day, and is good warm, room temperature or cold. Esther says she finds the methodical process of prepping and stuffing the various vegetables to be therapeutic. I don't have her patience. As I sought to create a similar recipe, I limited it to tomatoes and bell peppers to reduce the prep time.

Seeking another twist on tradition, I envisioned rounding out the meal with a moist, aromatic apple cake for dessert. I paged through stacks of Jewish cookbooks, placing sticky notes on the recipes I wanted to try. My mouth watered as I envisioned afternoons greeted by the sweet smell of apple cake emerging from the oven. I was craving cake.

As luck would have it (lucky for my thighs, unlucky for my lust for apple cake), I struck gold and picked a winner on my first try, Mrs. Davis' Apple Cake from The New York Times Jewish Cookbook, a recent gift from my daughter Syd. Despite my pleas to my family taste-testers that I try more recipes, they deemed my maiden attempt absolutely delicious and let me know my work was done. Sigh.

The cake is delicious served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of softly whipped cream.

Complete the meal by serving a simple green salad with pomegranate and toasted sunflower seeds, tossed with a light honey-citrus vinaigrette; a round challah; and, of course, apples dipped in honey or sugar, depending on your tradition.

Shana Tovah Umetukah - A Good and Sweet Year!

Salmon Stuffed with Mushrooms, Potatoes, and Dill

Perplexed by the actual cut of fish, I consulted with Sorosky. She advised asking the fishmonger to skin and remove the spine and bones from a center cut (whole) salmon. The filling is then stuffed into the cavity and baked. Alternately, Sorosky said that sandwiching the filling between two skinned and boned fillets of equal size works as well and might be easier.

2-4 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil

1 onion, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)

1 light, thin-skinned potato, peeled and chopped (about 1 cup)

8 oz. sliced mushrooms (about 11/4 cup)

1/2 cup regular, low-fat, or nonfat sour cream

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 (3 to 4 pounds) whole or center-cut salmon, skin and center bone removed

1 to 2 cups dry white wine or imported dry vermouth

Juice of 1 lemon

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet, preferably non-stick, over moderately high heat. Add onion and potato and sauté, turning often, until golden brown and potato is nearly done. Add mushrooms and sauté until soft. If mixture is too dry, add more oil. Remove from heat and stir in sour cream, dill, and salt and pepper to taste. Cool to room temperature. Oil or spray with nonstick spray a large sheet of heavy foil, and place salmon in center. Open salmon out, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and spread stuffing over half the fish. Fold the other half over to enclose it.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer salmon to a shallow roasting pan and turn the foil up around it to hold in juices. Pour in enough wine to come 1 inch up the sides of the fish. Squeeze lemon juice over. Fold edges of foil together to seal.

To determine the cooking time, measure the height of the fish by holding a ruler perpendicular to it at its thickest point. The salmon should be cooked for 20 minutes per measured inch. Bake fish; it is done when the flesh looks opaque when flaked with the tip of a sharp knife. Remove fish from pan, open foil, and cool slightly. Pour off juices and remove fish to platter. (Salmon may be refrigerated, covered, overnight.) Serve warm, chilled or at room temperature with Emerald Sauce.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, allowing 1/2 pound of fish per person.

— Marlene Sorosky, "Fast & Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays"

Emerald Sauce

If you can't find watercress, Sorosky recommends adding more spinach. Another option might be to substitute arugula.

5 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry (1/2 cup)

5 sprigs fresh parsley

1/4 cup watercress leaves

2 Tbsp. chopped green onions (about 3 medium)

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (1 medium)

1/4 tsp. dry mustard

1 tsp. dried basil or 2 teaspoons fresh basil, finely chopped

1/2 cup regular, light, or nonfat sour cream

1/2 cup regular, light, or nonfat mayonnaise

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 Tbsp. capers, rinsed and drained (optional)

In a food processor with a metal blade, process spinach, parsley, watercress, green onions, lemon juice, dry mustard and basil until pureed. Add sour cream and mayonnaise, and process until blended. Remove to a bowl and, if desired, season with salt and pepper. Stir in capers, if using. Serve chilled or at room temperature. (Sauce may be refrigerated up to a week.)

Yield: 2 cups sauce; about 10 servings.

— Marlene Sorosky, "Fast & Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays"

Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes and Peppers

Recipe by Andrea Abel, inspired by Esther Mizrachi

4 large tomatoes

4 small-medium green bell peppers (select peppers that will stand up)

2 Tbsp., plus 1 tsp. olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 Tbsp. raw sunflower seeds

11/4 cups short grain rice

11/2 -21/2 cups water

2 Tbsp. fresh mint, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh dill, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh parsley, finely chopped

2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. sugar or honey

Juice of 1 medium lemon

1/2 lb. small potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks

Sauce:

1 cup water

1/2 cup olive oil

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

Juice of one lemon

1 Tbsp. honey

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut a circle around the stem end of peppers. Slice off excess membrane on cap and reserve caps. With a pointed spoon, scrape out membranes and seeds, being careful not to pierce the skin.

Cut a circle around the stem end of tomatoes. Slice off excess membrane on cap, reserving caps. With a pointed spoon, scrape out flesh and seeds, reserving pulp. Lightly puree pulp. Rub outsides of pepper and tomatoes, including caps, with 1 tsp. olive oil.

In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Add onion and sunflower seeds. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until lightly golden.

Add rice, stirring until thoroughly coated with olive oil. Add reserved pureed tomato with enough water to equal 21/2 cups. Add fresh herbs, salt, pepper, sugar (or honey) and juice of one lemon. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cover. Simmer 15 minutes, stirring and checking frequently, adding more water if necessary. When rice is just tender, remove from heat, keep covered, and let the rice rest for 5 minutes.

Stuff tomatoes and peppers with rice mixture. Do not over-stuff or pack the filling in too tightly. Cover with reserved caps.

Whisk together all sauce ingredients until smooth.

In a baking dish, arrange the tomatoes and peppers. Wedge the potato pieces into the spaces in between. Pour sauce around the vegetables. Bake for 30-45 minutes until vegetables and potatoes are tender, making sure tomatoes don't break open. Remove from oven. For extra flavor, spoon about a tablespoon of sauce into each vegetable. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature with the potato pieces.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Mrs. Davis' Apple Cake

Cake:

2 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 Tbsp. baking powder

Dash of salt

1/2 cup soft butter

1 egg

Filling:

5 tart apples

1/2 cup sugar

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup raisins (or substitute dried cherries or craisins)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into a mixing bowl. Add butter and egg. Alternately, the dough can be mixed in a food processor until it forms into a ball. Knead until dough is firm and shapes easily into a ball. Wrap in wax paper; refrigerate 1 hour.

Meanwhile, peel apples and cut into small pieces. Add sugar, lemon juice, raisins and cinnamon and let mixture steep until dough is ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter or use Baker's Joy to grease a 9-inch springform pan. Divide the dough into thirds. Roll out one-third of dough and line bottom of form. I found the dough to be a bit brittle, so I rolled it out partway and then patted it into place. Roll out another one-third of dough into a strip and line inside of form about 2 1/2 inches high, pressing along bottom rim to seal bottom and sides.

Drain fruit mixture and pour into pastry-lined pan. Dot the top of fruit with dabs of butter. Roll out remaining dough and use a pastry cutter to make long strips. Place strips crisscross on top of filling. Bake until cake is golden brown and fruit is crisp/tender, 45-55 minutes.

Yield: 6 servings

— Adapted by Andrea Abel from "The New York Times Jewish Cookbook," edited by Linda Amster