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(UNDATED) For Jews the world over, Rosh Hashana heralds a time of prayer and hope. Hope for a sweet new year. Hope for peace in the year ahead.
Nowhere would such prayers and hope seem more poignant than in Israel, the Jewish homeland. Since earliest history, Israel has been one of the earth’s great crossroads, yielding a rich mosaic of cultures and cuisines.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that in time for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Israeli author and magazine editor Janna Gur has created a beautiful compilation of that culinary pastiche. “The Book of New Israeli Food” is an enticing 304-page tribute to that land’s gastronomic legacy and promise.
Gur’s project expresses a great deal of affection throughout. Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, the author immigrated to Israel in 1974. What did it mean to her to assemble these pages?
“I love my country, which is obvious to anyone who reads this book,” she said in a series of e-mails from her home in Tel Aviv. “But I really tried not to get overly sentimental and not to pretty things up. If I had a motto for the book it would be: `Forget all you know about Israel, for better and for worse, foodwise and otherwise, and just have a look–or, better still, a taste.’
“Most of all I wanted to project this uniquely Israeli polarity — ultrareligious vs. flamboyantly secular, traditional vs. cutting edge, Tel Aviv vs. Jerusalem. I believe that all this complexity is reflected in the way people eat, drink, cook and entertain.”
Of course, living at the crossroads of so varied a mix of ethnic cultures, Gur and her colleagues who produce Al Hashulchan Gastronomic Monthly, a leading Israeli food and wine magazine, are in the vortex of culinary diversity. The heritage of many of U.S. Jews is Ashkenazi — born of Central and Eastern Europe. Sephardic traditions or food ways (most often from Mediterranean, frequently Spanish, origins) sometimes seem somewhat foreign to many of them.
Many of the dishes popular for Rosh Hashana in Israel have Sephardic roots, so traditional Ashkenazi Jews may view such dishes with skepticism for the new year dinner.
“Eastern European Ashkenazi cooking became synonymous with Jewish cooking, because of the waves of immigrants that fled Russia and Poland in the beginning of the 20th century and spread their culinary tradition in the Americas and in Western Europe. But there is an immense wealth of dishes and cuisines wherever Jews lived. Some of them cannot even be called Sephardic. … Jews had been living in Iraq (Mesopotamia) since the destruction of the First Temple, over 2,000 years before the expulsion from Spain.
“We ran a poll on our Web site a few years ago, trying to find out which ethnic Jewish dishes are the most popular ones on the Israeli Rosh Hashana table. The results were unequivocal — Ashkenazi Jews love Sephardic fare (especially Moroccan, Balkan and Iraqi), while Sephardic Jews do not hold the Ashkenazi kitchen in a very high regard — to put it mildly. … The reason is quite obvious — Polish or Russian food doesn’t agree with this hot and sunny place. Sephardic cuisines, some of them truly exquisite, are perfectly suited to the weather, the local temperament, the abundance of fresh fish, vegetables, herbs and spices.”
The few dishes that Gur spotlights on her Israeli new year menu are grounded in tradition but cross the ages and the continents. Popular conventions (such as serving gefilte fish or honey cake) are observed, but Moroccan-Style Hot Fish and Lamb and Quince Casserole, a popular Bulgarian dish, are included as entrees.
Other traditional regional dishes, many of them appropriated for Rosh Hashana, are cited throughout the pages.
Gur’s book is also an intriguing visual chronicle of modern-day Israel — photographer Eilon Paz captures family scenes, landscape images, street vendors thrusting stuffed pitas toward the camera, fishermen on the Sea of Galilee — as well as a compendium of plain luscious food photographs.
Gur doesn’t isolate any significant ways in which the “average” Jew in Israel observes the food traditions of Rosh Hashana. Rather, it is the evolving face of an ever-changing culture that makes the celebration so dynamic — and hopeful.
“Cross marriages among various ethnic groups is the norm today, and the festive table reflects it beautifully — you will see both gefilte and hot Moroccan fish, followed by meat pie (Balkan), or chicken with dried fruit (Moroccan) or the lamb with quince casserole — Balkan again. Or tabbouleh salad with pomegranate seeds (Palestinian). The list goes on and on. This mixture is in fact the very soul of this evolving and delicious cuisine.”
Here are a few Rosh Hashana recipes from “The Book of New Israeli Food.”
Hot peppers and plenty of garlic fuel this delectably fiery entree for Rosh Hashana. High-quality saltwater fish, usually grouper, is the central ingredient.
Makes 8 servings
8 portion-size (each about 6 ounces) chunks of grouper or other saltwater fish
4 hot red peppers, cut into strips (see cook’s notes)
2 sweet red peppers, cut into strips
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped coarsely
1 cup fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped coarsely
20 cloves garlic, peeled
Seasoning mix:
8 tablespoons paprika
1 cup olive oil
Cook’s notes: If you cannot abide fiery hot dishes, substitute an equivalent amount of mild peppers in their place.
Prepare the seasoning mix: Combine the paprika, salt and oil in a bowl.
Assemble the casserole: Line a wide saucepan with the peppers and herbs (except the garlic). Dip the fish chunks in the seasoning mix and arrange in the saucepan. Mix the remaining seasoning mix with the garlic and 3 to 4 cups of water and pour over the fish.
Cook the casserole: Cook for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the fish chunks, over high heat. Lower the heat and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, until the sauce thickens.
Presentation: Serve hot, with steamed rice offered on the side if you wish.
Here’s a traditional lamb casserole for Rosh Hashana that features quince, the autumn fresh fruit Bulgarian Jewish cooks love.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
2 pounds, 4 ounces lamb cut into large cubes
Water to cover the lamb
4 tablespoons salt (or to taste)
3 large quinces, peeled, cored and cut into 6 wedges each (see cook’s notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 level teaspoon sweet paprika
4 to 5 teaspoons sugar
Steamed rice
Cook’s notes: Because quince (a tree fruit with a distinctive flavor and looks like the cross between an apple and a pear) are not commonly available in many supermarkets, call ahead to check for availability, or to order them.
Cook the lamb: Heat the oil in a large saucepan and brown the meat.
Cover with boiling water, add paprika and salt and pepper to taste, put on the lid and cook for an hour or more, until the meat is tender and almost ready to eat. Add the quince wedges and cook for another 10 minutes.
Prepare caramel syrup: In the meantime, dissolve the sugar in 2 to 3 tablespoons of water in a frying pan and cook to a light-colored caramel.
Add caramel syrup to lamb: Add some of the lamb-cooking liquid to the caramel and stir well. Pour the caramel into the saucepan and cook for another 10 minutes, until the lamb is completely tender and the quince wedges are soft but retain their shape.
Presentation: Serve casserole with steamed rice.
“Do you have a really good recipe for a honey cake?” is a standard query of the pre-Rosh Hashana rush. This recipe has been our favorite for years. Pay attention: The cake should “mature” for seven days before serving. (However, it’s quite delicious served even a day or two after it has been baked.)
Makes 3 loaves
6 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 heaping teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
2 tablespoons instant coffee
2 level teaspoons baking soda
1/3 cup raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
Preliminaries: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease three loaf pans.
Prepare the batter: Combine the flour, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl.
Add the honey, oil and eggs and beat into a smooth batter with a whisk or a mixer. Dissolve the instant coffee in 1 cup boiling water. Stir the baking soda and then the coffee into the batter. Gently fold in the raisins and the walnuts.
Bake the loaves: Pout the batter into prepared pans and bake for about 45 minutes, until the top of the cake is dark brown and a toothpick comes out dry with a few crumbs adhering.
Age the loaves: Allow the cakes to cool completely, wrap with aluminum foil and place in a cool, dry place (not in the refrigerator) to mature for 7 days.
Presentation: Slice into thick pieces and serve.
Variation: If you don’t like the taste of coffee in your honey cake, replace it (including the boiling water) with one cup of strong dark tea.
By JOE CREA c. 2008 Religion News Service (Joe Crea is food and restaurants editor for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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