Rosh Hashanah, symbolic foods include honey and apples for a...

Rosh Hashanah, symbolic foods include honey and apples for a sweet new year.  Credit: Fotolia

With two nights of full-on feasting, Rosh Hashanah is a way for Jewish cooks to shine.  But the holiday is more than an excuse to indulge in  brisket and honey cake. The opposite of mindless noshing, dinner on these two nights should be intentional and full of meaning. Rabbi Mendel Teldon   of Chabad of Mid-Suffolk says, because people are affected by their surroundings, symbolic foods help get everybody at the table in the right frame of mind for the New Year. “Talking about and eating these foods is a way of engaging and communicating with God.” Through food, says the rabbi, “we become part of the conversation instead of sitting on the sidelines." 

Here are some symbolic foods of the holiday and ideas on how to serve them: 

APPLES AND HONEY The Rosh Hashanah meal begins with the dipping of apple into honey, and a special blessing for “a good and sweet new year.”  To mirror the blessing at the end of the meal and take its message away from the table, serve an apple and honey tart, or an apple and honey Bundt  cake for dessert. Honey-baked apples stuffed with dried fruits are also a delicious option.

ROUND CHALLAH Rosh Hashanah challah is not the usual braided loaf, but a round one. The shape is a reminder of the circle of life. For those baking challah for the first time, take comfort in the fact that a perfectly round shape is easier to make than a braid. Simply roll the dough into a long rope, then coil it, fitting it into a round baking pan.

POMEGRANATE  Teldon   quotes a saying in the Talmud, “Even the wicked amongst us are packed full of good deeds like a pomegranate is full of seeds.” There are many ways to incorporate pomegranate seeds into the meal. Make a salad with orange segments, pomegranate seeds and mint; or a side dish of kasha with pomegranate seeds and butternut squash . Use pomegranate molasses to marinate a brisket or short ribs before braising, then garnish the sliced meat with pomegranate seeds.

THE HEAD OF A FISH While not the most appetizing symbol, the head of a fish appears on the Rosh Hashanah table to remind celebrants that, just as a fish’s eyes are always open, God does not sleep and is always watching and protecting the Jewish people.   Ashkenazi-style cooks can stuff gefilte fish, which is made with ground and filleted carp, back into the whole fish with its skeleton removed (ask a fishmonger to do this). For a contemporary take on the custom, roast a whole fish,   about 3 pounds, that’s been stuffed with lemon, garlic, leeks and herbs and drizzled in olive oil in a 425-degree oven until flaky and cooked through, about 30 minutes.

CARROTS  At the Rosh Hashanah table, carrots are a way of asking for additional goodness in the coming year.  Tzimmes, a dish of carrots stewed in honey, is a staple. For a less cloyingly sweet side dish, toss baby carrots with a little honey, cumin, salt and pepper, and roast until soft and browned in spots. A dish of boiled and pureed carrots seasoned with harissa is an exotic alternative to mashed potatoes, served with chicken. For a side dish with crunch, make a carrot and apple slaw with a honey, mustard and cider vinegar dressing.

GOURDS With the gourd, Jews are asking God to have their merits announced. Make pumpkin or squash hummus to serve with pita chips (a vegetarian alternative to chopped liver) by pureeing cooked squash with garlic, tahini, lemon juice, spices and some chickpeas. Tiny pumpkins, seeded and drizzled on their insides with olive oil, then roasted make pretty individual side dishes. Another side dish option: Cube and roast butternut squash, then sprinkle with pomegranate seeds. Or toss roasted cubes of butternut squash or pumpkin with baby spinach, fennel, apples and a honey vinaigrette.

BEETS Eating beets reminds celebrants to ask God to banish their enemies. Now that beets are available already cooked and peeled (look for vacuum-packed beets in the produce aisle) they are convenient and much less messy to work with. Use them in salads: They combine well with oranges, roasted squash and spinach. Dress with orange juice, olive oil and honey. Or bake a moist chocolate-beet cake to serve alongside a more traditional honey cake.

DATES  Dates on the table express hope that all enemies will be finished. Elevate the chopped liver game by making chicken liver pate with date jam on challah toast. A salad of baby kale, diced apples and chopped dates might begin the meal. Chicken braised with dates is another way to go. Or make a spicy honey and date cake with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg for dessert.

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