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ROSH HASHANAH : Beyond Apples and Honey

Many time-honored culinary customs turn out to be amazingly up to date. Food traditions for the Jewish New Year (which begins this year Wednesday evening) are a perfect example. Dishes for the holiday that have been popular for ages are in harmony with the latest nutritional guidelines. Rosh Hashanah menus usually begin with fish, for instance, an ancient symbol of abundance--and a modern element of healthful diets.

Vegetables and fruits play a major role in Rosh Hashanah dinners, as an expression of thanks for a plentiful harvest. The holiday ritual highlights the appreciation of the season’s bounty. There is a blessing said over a fruit that is tasted for the first time in the year, often a pomegranate or other exotic fruit.

The customary New Year greeting, “have a good and sweet year” is echoed on the menu. On most tables, sweet vegetables, especially carrots, winter squash or sweet potatoes, appear in soups, stews, salads or side dishes.

A taste of honey also symbolizes the wish for a sweet year. In biblical times honey was the sweetener. Besides, honey represented good things, as in the Bible’s romantic references to Israel as “the land of milk and honey.” These days, many health-minded people choose honey over sugar as a sweetener. Apple slices and bowls of honey for dipping them appear on the table at the beginning of the Rosh Hashanah dinner.

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The hope for a sweet year also affects seasoning customs. In some houses, hot and spicy dishes are toned down so they taste mild and “sweet”; sour ingredients such as lemon juice and vinegar are omitted or used only with a light touch.

In Israel, I discovered Rosh Hashanah specialties from different Jewish communities. My favorites are dishes that are naturally healthful--not contrived or watered down for the sake of nutrition. These are dishes that rely on interesting seasonings for their fine taste.

A holiday dinner could begin, for instance, with sea bass with garlic and sweet peppers, a bright and zesty Moroccan-Jewish appetizer. It’s delicious--and a revelation to anyone who thought that gefilte fish is the only Jewish way of preparing fish. For a Rosh Hashanah main course, serve roast chicken stuffed with rice and fruit, which combines savory and sweet flavors. Sephardic side dishes--vegetable pancakes made of winter squash, leeks and spinach, and an easy salad of diced tomatoes, golden peppers and cucumbers sprinkled with a little oil, lemon juice and cilantro--make a lively complement to the chicken. From the Ashkenazic, or Eastern European Jewish kitchen, come carrot kugel, a popular holiday treat, as well as a traditional cinnamon-and-ginger-flavored honey cake for dessert.

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At other holidays, some families use dried hot peppers, but for Rosh Hashanah spicy peppers are omitted to make the dish “sweet.” The appetizer is often served cold or at room temperature, which makes it easier to prepare ahead.

SEA BASS WITH SWEET PEPPERS, GARLIC AND TOMATOES

1 1/4 pounds Chilean sea bass or halibut fillets, about 1-inch thick

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

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2 sweet red peppers, diced

8 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced

Salt, pepper

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1 teaspoon paprika

1 cup water

1/2 cup chopped parsley

Cayenne pepper

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Cut fish in 4 pieces. Heat oil in medium skillet, add sweet red peppers and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook over low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes. Add fish and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add paprika. Add water to skillet. Bring to simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 10 minutes or until fish is tender. (When checked in thickest part, fish color should be opaque.)

Transfer fish to deep platter, using slotted spatula. Add peppers to platter. Boil cooking liquid, stirring occasionally, until only about 3/4 cup remains. Stir in parsley and dash cayenne pepper. Taste liquid and adjust seasonings if needed. Spoon over fish. Serve hot or cold. Makes 4 appetizer servings, or 2 to 3 main course servings.

Each appetizer serving contains about:

204 calories; 163 mg sodium; 91 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.85 gram fiber.

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A light stuffing of rice pilaf studded with apples and raisins cooked in orange juice lends a festive touch to this easy roast chicken.

ROAST CHICKEN WITH RICE AND FRUIT STUFFING

2 tablespoons oil

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1 small onion, minced

1 cup long-grain white rice

1 1/2 cups hot water

1/2 cup orange juice

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Salt, pepper

1 small apple, peeled, halved and diced

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken

Orange slices, halved, optional

Heat oil in deep skillet. Add onion and cook over low heat 5 minutes. Add rice and saute over medium heat 2 minutes. Add hot water, orange juice and salt and pepper to taste, then bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes. Add apple and raisins to rice and stir lightly with fork. Cover and cook 5 more minutes or until rice is nearly tender. Stir in cinnamon. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sprinkle chicken to taste with salt and pepper on all sides. Spoon enough stuffing into chicken to fill, without packing too tightly. Reserve extra stuffing at room temperature. Set chicken in roasting pan. Roast at 400 degrees about 1 hour, or until juices run clear when skewer is inserted into thickest part of leg. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

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Heat remaining stuffing in nonstick skillet over low heat until very hot. Serve chicken with stuffing on platter, and extra stuffing on side. Garnish with orange slices. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

767 calories; 217 mg sodium; 148 mg cholesterol; 40 grams fat; 63 grams carbohydrates; 39 grams protein; 0.72 gram fiber.

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These vegetable pancakes make a tasty accompaniment for roast chicken or can be served as an appetizer.

LEEK, SPINACH AND WINTER SQUASH PANCAKES

1 (10-ounce) piece winter squash, such as banana squash

Salt

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1 (3/4-pound) bunch spinach, rinsed thoroughly, stems removed

2 large leeks, white and light green parts

4 to 5 tablespoons oil

Pepper

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1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon flour

2 eggs, or 1 egg plus 2 egg whites

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cut squash in 2 to 3 pieces. Put in medium saucepan of boiling salted water. Cover and simmer over low heat 15 minutes or until tender. Drain and cut off peel. Cut squash in smaller pieces and mash with fork. Press gently in strainer to remove excess liquid. Transfer to bowl.

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Cook spinach in large pan of boiling, salted water 3 minutes or until tender. Drain and rinse with cold water. Squeeze spinach to remove excess liquid. Chop finely and transfer to separate bowl.

Split leeks twice lengthwise and rinse well to remove sand between layers. Cut in thin slices crosswise. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large heavy saucepan, add leeks and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until tender. Transfer to separate bowl.

In medium bowl mix 1/2 cup flour, eggs, sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and dash pepper to very thick batter. Add about 1/3 of batter to each bowl of vegetables and mix well. Taste to adjust for seasonings. Stir 1 tablespoon flour into squash mixture.

Heat 3 to 4 tablespoons oil in heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat. Form pancakes with vegetable mixtures, 1 tablespoon batter each, flattening each after spooning out, and fry about 2 minutes or until golden brown on each side. Transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve hot. Pancakes can be kept warm in low oven on paper towel-lined baking sheets about 1/2 hour. Makes 22 to 24 small pancakes, 4 to 6 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

300 calories; 187 mg sodium; 106 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 2.71 grams fiber.

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Carrots are a favorite for the Rosh Hashanah table because they are sweet and because their golden color makes them a symbol of prosperity.

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SWEET CARROT KUGEL

3 extra-large eggs, separated

5 tablespoons sugar

4 medium carrots, peeled and grated, about 1 2/3 cups grated

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1/4 cup ground blanched almonds

1/4 cup matzo meal

3 tablespoons flour

Salt

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1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sweet red wine

2 teaspoons lemon juice

1 3/4 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Beat egg yolks with 3 tablespoons sugar in large bowl about 2 minutes or until thick and light. Stir in grated carrots, almonds, matzo meal, flour and salt. Add wine, lemon juice and lemon zest. Mix well.

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Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and continue beating at high speed 30 seconds or until glossy. Fold 1/4 of whites quickly into carrot mixture. Spoon mixture over remaining whites and fold together quickly but lightly. Transfer to oiled 4- to 5-cup baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes, or until firm and golden brown. Serve hot or warm. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

263 calories; 148 mg sodium; 159 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 1 gram fiber.

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Traditional honey cakes often call for walnuts, but this one makes use of pecans, which are as popular in Israel as they are in the United States. This cake tastes even better when it is made one or two days ahead.

HONEY CAKE

1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee granules

6 tablespoons hot water

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1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

Dash ground cloves

2 large eggs

1/2 cup sugar

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1/2 cup honey

1/3 cup oil

1/2 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

Dissolve instant coffee in cup with hot water. Let cool. Sift flour with baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

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Beat eggs lightly. Add sugar and honey and beat until mixture is very smooth and lightened in color. Gradually add oil and beat until blended. Using wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture alternately with coffee mixture, each in 2 batches. Stir in pecans.

Pour batter into 8-x4-inch loaf pan, lightly greased and lined with greased parchment or wax paper. Bake at 325 degrees 50 to 55 minutes, or until cake tester inserted in cake comes out clean. Cool in pan about 15 minutes. Turn out onto rack and carefully peel off paper. Wrap in foil when completely cool. Serve at room temperature. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

326 calories; 70 mg sodium; 53 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 48 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.16 gram fiber.

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