Rosh Hashana typically is a solidly autumnal holiday, falling sometimes as late as October. But this year, the Jewish New Year comes early — at sundown on Sept. 4, a time when summer's bounty is still fresh for much of the country.
"It's a gift," says kosher chef Laura Frankel, executive chef for Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering in Chicago. The holiday falling at the height of the harvest season presents an abundance of culinary opportunities for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur cooking, she explains. The new year celebration is followed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which begins at sundown on Sept. 13.
The timing presents cooks with completely different choices in terms of what foods — particularly produce — are in the markets.
Frankel says her cooking theme this year is clean and simple because the produce will be fresh and ripe. Rather than the traditional cooked borscht soup made with late season beets, she'll be serving salads with thinly sliced raw beets. For desserts, she'll do simple fresh fruit galettes with an olive oil and egg yolk pastry crust. Whatever looks best in the markets will help guide her in developing the menu.
Because the holiday is early, for example, there will be fewer varieties of apples (a staple of the holiday) than usual, but more stone fruits, tomatoes and eggplants, she says. Rosh Hashana ends at sundown on Sept. 6.
The careful choice of Rosh Hashana foods is significant, because like most Jewish holidays, which are all in some way tied to the agricultural calendar, foods are an important part of the celebration and are loaded with symbolism.
The typical Rosh Hashana meal is filled with sweet foods, such as apples and honey, to represent the hope for a sweet year to come. Enjoying newly harvested fruits is also important, as is offering a round challah loaf studded with sweet dried fruit, which some think symbolizes the cyclical nature of life or perhaps the crown that marks God as the king of the world.
Frankel sees the Jewish high holy days — which start with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur — as a time for reflection, new beginnings and always an opportunity for learning something new.
This year, rather than relying on culinary creativity to turn late harvest produce into a great meal, she's committed to letting the foods speak for themselves. She sees this holiday as an opportunity for cooks to learn to do less to their foods rather than rely on complicated recipes.
Her Rosh Hashana lamb or brisket will be roasted and served with a "butter" made by cooking down fresh beets and apples. To break the Yom Kippur fast she might offer an heirloom tomato gazpacho soup.
Frankel encourages home cooks to take advantage of whatever fruits, vegetables and herbs are at the height of freshness in their area.
This Caramelized Onion, Eggplant and Tomato Tart is made with an olive oil crust and can be served alongside meat or poultry for Rosh Hashana, or served cold or at room temperature as part of a Yom Kippur fast breaking.
Date and Honey Zucchini Bread has dual holiday suitability as well. Serve it as a Rosh Hashana dessert, or perhaps spread with a little cream cheese as part of a light Yom Kippur break-fast dairy meal.