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Feed yourself from a Jewish global menu this Rosh Hashana

Begin Jewish New Year with culinary traditions from around the world

Andrea Abel

The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah are just around the corner.

Just as Jews spend the month beforehand preparing spiritually for what are called the Days of Awe, Jewish cooks begin the process of assembling menus for numerous festive holiday meals shared by friends and family.

Some have traditions that dictate a holiday menu. But, I like to play around with different culinary twists. One year it might be brisket, tzimmes (a sweet, stewed casserole of carrots, onions, fruit and sometimes other vegetables), potato kugel, and honey cake — typical Eastern European holiday fare. The next year it might be all Moroccan or Persian.

My current Jewish culinary love affair is with Gil Marks' cookbook "Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World" (Wiley Publications), a 2005 James Beard Foundation award winner. Marks is a Jewish food expert, cookbook author, writer, and ordained rabbi who has put together a collection that is both easily approachable for the home cook as well as intellectually fascinating. (Be on the lookout this month for Marks' new book "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food," also from Wiley Publications.)

Jewish. Vegetarian. Globally ethnic. Perfect. I am an omnivore, but some of my Jewish friends are vegetarians while other friends who keep kosher will eat vegetarian foods when eating out or as guests in other homes. Plus, in Austin it's still really hot when the High Holidays come around each fall. (This year Rosh Hashana begins the night of Sept. 8.) Vegetarian food doesn't leave me with that weighted down feeling that might follow a heavy meat-centric menu, leaving me clear-headed for connecting spiritually at synagogue later that night.

The book's first section is a historical and culinary breakdown of the Jewish communities covered in the book. From Alsace (a French region which was once the heart of the Ashkenaz Jews) to Yemen and regions alphabetically in between like Bukhara (in Uzbekistan) and Azerbaijan, Marks chronicles when Jews arrived in each region, the main ingredients used in their Jewish cooking, and religious and culinary customs. I even pulled out my trusty world atlas to help pinpoint some of these locales.

Next, Marks describes the major seasonings and flavors used in the book's Jewish cuisines such as asafetida, fenugreek, and pomegranate molasses, adding interesting tidbits on each ingredient. I learned that sumac, a tart red fruit from a Middle Eastern shrub, was used to add tartness to dishes in Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Georgia before the introduction of lemons or tamarind. And, did you know that cilantro — also called fresh coriander — most likely originated in Israel?

Major Jewish holidays, as well as the weekly Shabbat, are explained with some historical and biblical context and food customs. Each holiday is accompanied by a listing of foods served and the country of origin. Marks separately describes Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot offering recipes for each holiday and describing religious traditions.

For Rosh Hashana, for example, Jewish texts mention five foods to eat: gourds, black-eyed peas, leeks, beet greens, and dates. The Hebrew or Aramaic word for each one of these foods is similar to a Hebrew word expressing something desired in the new year. Foods symbolizing fertility also are eaten, such as seeds, fruits and vegetables with many seed. The second night of the holiday, it is customary to eat a new fruit of the season and to say a special blessing of thanksgiving.

Beyond being a cookbook, "Olive Trees and Honey "is simply a fabulous reference book.

And then there are the recipes.

Marks offers tips on how to vary the recipe to align with a different region. Syrian Spinach Soup, for example, is followed by instructions on how to make the basic recipe become Greek, Persian, Indian or French spinach soup.

Other recipes include variations within the same cuisine style. The baked Ashkenazic Potato Puffs (Bilkas) recipe can be altered with a caramelized onion filling or fried into a mini version.

I decided to prepare a menu of Indian Jewish recipes for my High Holiday table. I substituted vegetable oil for the ghee as the author suggested and came up with an entirely vegan festive meal as well. This was easy to do since Marks offers non-dairy substitutions in a number of the dairy recipes.

The recipes were simple to follow and the dishes were colorful and flavorful enough to tantalize my family's palate without being too heavily spiced.

Speaking of spices, fresh spices are a must to achieve brilliant flavors. Popular Indian markets in Austin include Ambica Foods, Taj Grocers, Gandhi Bazar, and MGM. Stores that sell spices in bulk such as Wheatsville Co-op, Central Market, and Whole Foods also sell most of the spices, enabling the cook to buy small amounts at a time.

I can't wait to try some of the other recipes, especially the wide variety of stuffed pastries like the winter-squash filled Bukharan Turnovers.

Unfortunately, the cookbook does not include sweets and other desserts. Perhaps Marks is planning a future cookbook as a companion to this treasure? We can only hope.

Indian Cabbage Salad

(Gobi Pachadi)

1 small head (about 1 lb.) green cabbage, cored and thinly shredded (about 5 cups)

21 oz. ripe tomatoes, diced, or 12 oz. carrots, shredded (about 3 cups either)

3/4 cup grated fresh coconut or packaged unsweetened coconut

3/4 cup peanut powder (See note.)

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

11/2 tsp. jaggery, brown sugar or honey

1/3 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil

3/4 tsp. mustard seeds

3/4 tsp. cumin seeds or ground cumin

1 Tbsp. seeded and minced hot green chiles

1/2 tsp. ground turmeric

Pinch of asafetida (optional) (This is a very strong-tasting condiment. Add with caution.)

1 to 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

About 1 tsp. table salt or 2 tsps. kosher salt

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, tomatoes (or carrots), coconut, peanut powder, cilantro and jaggery.

Heat the oil in a kadai (woklike Indian pan), wok, or medium, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and sauté until they begin to pop, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cumin. Add the chiles, then the turmeric and asafetida, and sauté until the chiles begin to color but do not burn.

Pour the seasonings over the cabbage mixture and toss to coat. Let stand for at least 3 hours to allow the flavors to meld. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice and salt.

Note: Peanut powder, used by Indians to thicken curries and as an ingredient in raitas and chutneys, is available in Indian markets and other specialty stores. To make your own, spread unshelled peanuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast in a 350 degree oven, shaking the pan occasionally, until light brown, about 25 minutes. While still warm, shell and skin the peanuts. Let cool. Working with a small amount at a time, use a mortar and pestle, a nut grinder, or a food processor to grind the peanuts into a fine powder. Be careful not to overwork them or you will have peanut butter. If the powder looks oily, squeeze it in a paper towel for several minutes. Four ounces of unshelled peanuts yield 1 cup peanut powder.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Gil Marks' 'Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World'

Indian Lentils with Ginger and Lemon (Dal)

1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

About 6 cups water

11/2 lb. (about 33/4 cups) brown or yellow lentils, picked over, soaked in cold water to cover for 2 hours, drained, and rinsed

4 tsp. grated fresh ginger

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

About 11/4 tsp. table salt or 21/2 tsp. kosher salt

3/4 tsp. grated lemon zest

About 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

Dash of cayenne or hot sauce

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro (optional)

In a large saucepan, melt the ghee (or oil) over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the water, lentils, ginger, lemon juice, salt, zest, pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf and cayenne. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, adding more liquid if necessary, until the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes for yellow lentils and 40 minutes for brown lentils. Serve warm. If desired, garnish with parsley.

Serves 6-8.

— 'Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World'

Indian Rice and Vegetable Casserole (Biryani)

Rice layer:

3 Tbsp. ghee or vegetable oil

2 cups white or brown basmati or other long-grain rice

4 cups water (5 cups for brown rice)

2 tsp. ground turmeric

About 11/2 tsp. table salt or 1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Vegetable layer:

1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

1/2 tsp. black or yellow mustard seeds

1 tsp. poppy seeds

1 tsp. ground coriander

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. ground turmeric

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 to 1/2 tsp. cayenne

3 small or 2 medium-small eggplants, peeled and diced, or 3 cups cauliflower florets

1 large zucchini, diced

1 large red or green bell pepper, seeded, deribbed (white removed), and diced

1 cup lima beans or green peas

2 cups tomato purée, or 1 cup water mixed with 3 seeded and diced plum tomatoes

1 tsp. sugar

About 1 tsp. table salt or 2 tsp. kosher salt

3/4 cup cooked or canned chickpeas (optional)

Nut mixture:

1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil

2/3 cup raw slivered almonds

2/3 cup raw cashews

2/3 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degree. Grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.

To make the rice layer: In a large, heavy sauce-pan, melt the ghee over medium heat. Add the rice and sauté until opaque, about 3 minutes. Add the water, turmeric and salt. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, about 18 minutes for white rice; about 40 minutes for brown rice.

To make the vegetable layer: In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the ghee over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the mustard and poppy seeds and sauté until they begin to pop, about 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the coriander, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and cayenne.

Increase the heat to medium-high, add the eggplants, zucchini, and bell pepper, and sauté for 2 minutes. Stir in the lima beans, tomato purée, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 10 minutes. If using, add the chickpeas.

To make the nut mixture: In a small, heavy saucepan, melt the ghee over medium heat. Add the nuts and sauté until golden, about 3 minutes. Stir in the raisins. Remove from the heat.

Spread half of the rice in the prepared dish and top with the vegetable mixture. Combine the remaining rice with the nut mixture and spread over the vegetables.

Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with the cilantro. Serve warm.

Variation: Omit the mustard seeds and poppy seeds and add 2 tsps. freshly grated ginger with the other spices.

Serves 6-8.

— 'Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World'

Indian Tomato Salad (Kuccha)

2 lb. ripe but firm tomatoes, seeded and diced (about 5 cups)

1-2 seeded and minced hot green chilies

6 to 8 scallions, sliced, or 1 white or red onion, finely chopped

2 to 4 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley or cilantro

3/4 cup vegetable oil or extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice

About 1/2 tsp. table salt or 1 tsp. kosher salt

Ground black pepper to taste

1 clove garlic, minced (optional)

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Serve immediately or let stand at room temperature for up to 1 hour. Do not refrigerate.

Serves 5-6.

— 'Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World'