Many holiday foods have a symbolic meaning

Jews around the world will be observing the High Holy Days, a 10-day period of celebration, repentance, and atonement beginning with Rosh Hashanah at sundown Sept. 22 and ending with the sounding of the shofar — Tekiah Godolah — at sundown on Yom Kippur, Oct. 2. As with other Jewish holidays, families and friends will gather together around a specially set table to share a festive holiday meal.

If I were to ask 10 Jewish families about their High Holiday food traditions, I would get a wide variety of responses. Almost all would include some foods with honey — honey cake, apple slices dipped in honey, a savory dish cooked with honey, a round, raisin-studded challah. Most would know that we include honey in our meal to guarantee a sweet year. And most would know that the challah is round instead of braided to symbolize the life cycle and the beginning of a new year.

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Recently, I learned that many other foods on the holiday table have symbolic meaning. For example, carrots symbolize abundance, coming from the Yiddish word for carrot, “meirin,” meaning more. And, when carrots are sliced into rounds, those rounds resemble coins which symbolize prosperity. And, carrots are naturally sweet — hence a sweet and prosperous year.

One of my favorite parts of our Rosh Hashanah meal is my mother’s gefilte fish, which, like all gefilte fish, in no way resembles a fish (or anything else that lives in water). But in my research I learned that our tradition teaches that fish — a whole fish — should be brought to the table with its head intact to symbolize the leadership and wisdom that is necessary to build a righteous community. Of course, the challenge to get my kids to eat gefilte fish was hard enough without a fish head gracing our table. Our oldest daughter, Hanna, who happened to turn 6 months old on Passover, was introduced to solid foods with gefilte fish. To this day, she cannot be seated near a platter of fish, with or without a head. What were we thinking!

Pomegranates are another food traditionally served during the High Holy Days. The seeds number in the hundreds and are a symbol of fertility. There is even some lore suggesting that there are exactly 613 seeds in every pomegranate, matching the number of commandments in the Torah. Other sources, including the National Pomegranate Council, put the number closer to 800. Regardless, they have many health benefits, taste great, and add depth and character to so many dishes.

My mouth is watering as I run through all the luscious foods I associate with the High Holy Days. How to choose for you, my readers? I chose the following recipes because they include symbolic ingredients and won’t take an entire day to prepare, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy your family and friends. Best wishes for a splendid holiday feast and for a year of good health, happiness, and prosperity.

Jeweled Salad

Honeyed almonds:

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 cups whole blanched almonds

1 1/2 tablespoons honey

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil paper. Generously oil aluminum foil with vegetable oil or with no-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

Combine the sugar, cinnamon, cloves, paprika, and cayenne pepper in a medium bowl. Add almonds and honey and stir mixture well to coat almonds. Spread almonds onto prepared foil-lined baking sheet. Place pan in oven and bake for 15 minutes, stirring and separating almonds halfway through. Transfer the hot pan to a cooling rack. When almonds are cool enough to handle, break almonds apart and place onto a cool plate. (Once completely cooled, almonds can be stored in a zip-lock freezer bag at room temperature for three days or frozen for up to two months.)

Salad dressing:

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

2 1/2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons chopped shallots

1/2 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Combine vinegar and honey in a small bowl. Stir in shallots. Slowly whisk in olive oil, mixing until dressing emulsifies. Season dressing with salt and pepper, as desired. (Dressing can be made three days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.)

Salad:

6 cups torn romaine lettuce

6 ounces fresh baby spinach

2 ears of fresh corn, shucked, and cut off the cob

2 fresh tomatoes cut into 1-inch pieces

In a large salad bowl, combine romaine lettuce, spinach and corn. Add tomatoes. Toss salad with desired amount of dressing and sprinkle with almonds.

Makes 6 servings.

Baked Carrots with Thyme

2 bunches of smaller carrots, tops removed and carrots lightly scraped, washed, and patted dry with paper towels

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt, or to taste

12-18 fresh thyme sprigs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Lightly spray a baking pan or oven-proof dish, large enough to hold the carrots in a single layer, with cooking spray. (Carrots can be divided between two pans, if necessary.) Place carrots in the prepared pan. Drizzle olive oil over carrots and shake pan to evenly coat carrots with the oil. Sprinkle carrots with kosher salt, as desired. Remove thyme leaves from 12 sprigs by sliding your thumb and index finger along the stem, beginning at the top and moving down. Sprinkle thyme leaves evenly over carrots.

Bake carrots for 25-30 minutes or until tender, turning the carrots every 7-8 minutes for even cooking. Serve the carrots from the dish or transfer onto a serving platter. Scatter remaining thyme sprigs decoratively over carrots and serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 6-8 servings.

Pomegranate Poached Pears

Pomegranates are used most often in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. Pomegranate juice can be purchased in most grocery stores. The concentrated form, pomegranate molasses, can be found in markets that carry Middle Eastern foods, markets such as Jay International Food, 3172 South Grand in the city and Global Foods Market, 421 North Kirkwood Rd. in Kirkwood. Fresh pomegranates are available through the fall at most grocery stores. The hard shell and the white pith of the pomegranate should be removed and discarded. The edible seeds can be stored in a plastic container in the refrigerator for three-five days.

These elegant poached pears can be served alone or accompanied by your favorite rugelach or biscotti.

1 cup pomegranate juice plus 1/2 cup water

Or

4 tablespoons pomegranate molasses plus 1 1/4 cups water

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cinnamon stick

2 whole cloves

4 ripe, firm medium-sized Bosc pears, peeled, halved, and cored

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds from 1 pomegranate, for garnish

Combine either the juice-water mixture or the molasses-water mixture with the sugar, cinnamon stick, and whole cloves in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately turn down the heat to keep the mixture at a simmer.

Add the prepared pears to the simmering liquid and cook over low heat for 15 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pears to a bowl. Turn the heat under the pan to medium-high and continue to simmer the liquid for an additional 5-10 minutes or until it is slightly thickened and syrupy. (Pears and poaching syrup can be stored in 2 different containers in the refrigerator for up to two days. Before serving, gently heat syrup and spoon over cold or warmed pears.)

To serve, place two pear halves in a small bowl. Spoon equal amounts of syrup over each serving and garnish with a handful of pomegranate seeds.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from: Feast From the Mideast, by Faye Levy. Published by Harper Collins, 2003.

Holiday Challah

3/4 cup sweet wine

3/4 cup golden raisins

2 cups milk or water

1/3 cup granulated sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine

1 – 1/4 oz. package active dry yeast or its equivalent, 2 1/2 teaspoons

3 eggs, lightly beaten

Approximately 6-7 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vegetable oil for oiling bowl

Egg wash — 1 egg mixed with 1 tsp. water

1-2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Heat wine in a glass measuring cup or bowl in the microwave oven. Add raisins, cover, and reserve at room temperature until needed.

In a small saucepan, heat milk or water, sugar, and butter or margarine over low heat just until butter or margarine is melted. Transfer to a large bowl and let mixture cool to 110-120 degrees. Sprinkle yeast over mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon to combine. Cover bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and allow to rest 5-10 minutes at room temperature until mixture begins foaming. (If the mixture does not foam after fifteen minutes, your yeast is expired. Discard the mixture, purchase a new package of yeast, checking the expiration date on the back of the package, and start the process again.)

With a large wooden spoon or a dough whisk, mix eggs into yeast mixture. Add 1 1/2 cups of flour and 1 teaspoon salt, stirring to combine.

Drain raisins over a sieve or in a colander. Add raisins to mixture, along with 1 1/2 cups of flour. Stir to combine. Continue adding flour, a handful at a time, stirring well after each addition. When dough begins to leave the sides of the bowl and becomes too stiff to stir, lightly flour counter top.

Turn dough out onto counter top and sprinkle the top of the dough with additional flour, Knead the dough, pushing it away from you with the heels of your hands, and folding it back over itself toward you. Repeat motion, lightly dusting with additional remaining flour to keep it from being sticky. Knead the dough for a total of 10-15 minutes, or until dough becomes smooth and just slightly sticky.

Lightly coat the bowl, in which dough was mixed, with 2 teaspoons of vegetable oil. Place dough into bowl, turning dough to lightly coat all sides with oil. Cover bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and set aside to rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 1 _-2 hours. (Alternatively, dough may be placed overnight in the refrigerator, where it will rise very slowly. When you are ready to continue making the challah, remove bowl with dough from the refrigerator and allow it to reach room temperature, 1-1 1/2 hours.)

Lightly oil a large baking sheet with vegetable oil or cover it with parchment paper.

Turn the dough out onto a very lightly floured counter. Roll the dough into a long rope, approximately 24-28 inches long. Lightly roll the rope of dough around itself. Transfer the circle of dough to the prepared baking sheet. Cover the dough with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let the challah rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Brush challah lightly with egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Place challah into preheated oven and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until challah is golden brown and hollow-sounding when tapped. Transfer challah from baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool at room temperature before serving.

The challah, once completely cooled, can be stored in a plastic bag at room temperature for one day or frozen in a large freezer bag for up to one month. Leftover challah can be used to make delicious French toast or bread pudding.

Challah will generously serve 12-15 people.