One of the best meals I ever had was just before Rosh Hashana (which this year begins Sunday evening) a year ago at a backyard barbecue while in production for a television series on American Jewish cooking. I was visiting Israel-born caterer Hava Volman and her husband, Greek-Israeli sculptor Artemis Schwebel, at their row house in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The dinner with Volman and Schwebel was just one visit in more than 80 days of shooting for the series. For filming, I visited chefs, home cooks, markets, kosher butchers and many more places and people as we traveled the country exploring the culture and history of Jewish food in America.
This has been a year of cross-cultural culinary exploration for me. I learned in Miami, for example, that Cuban Jews originally from Poland make a holiday mandelbrot with guava; and I learned from Volman about the flavor explosions inspired by the food of Israel.
"This food is part of my history. It is part of what I am," Volman said. "When I came to America, I needed to use these ingredients to help find my own identity."
The fall holidays provide a wide spectrum of Jewish customs to explore--all linked with food. A few days before the fast of Yom Kippur (Sept. 29), for example, we visited Crown Heights in Brooklyn to watch the custom of kapparot. We saw members of ultra-orthodox families swinging a live fowl around a child's head three times, repeating the following words in Hebrew, "This fowl is my substitute, this is my surrogate, this is my atonement."
The ancient custom of kapparot replaces the Temple Yom Kippur sacrifice in which a goat, bearing the sins of the nations, was sent out into the wilderness to die. Like so many other traditions, kapparot came to replace a tradition lost with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. After the chickens were swung, they were slaughtered and given to the poor.
The fall holidays are an especially busy and rich time for Jews all over the world, coinciding with the ancient harvest time. In the ancient world, the fall harvest culminated in Sukkot (which starts the evening of Oct. 4), one of three pilgrimage periods when Jews brought fall crops to the temple in Jerusalem. One of these very important crops is the pomegranate, considered the new fruit of the fall in the Middle East and often served in huge bowls. Volman used its juice as a splash on her eggplant salad, a sine qua non in Israeli homes.
The Grilled Quail With Poached Quinces, sometimes served over the Egyptian frik (a burnt wheat-like bulgur), is as biblically rooted as a dish can be. When the Jews were wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, God sent quails for food as a sign that they were a chosen people.
Volman made a marinade that included a dry rub of za'atar, a spice combination of hyssop, sesame seeds and sumac. It is mixed with halek, the biblical jam made by slowly reducing dates to their essence. This is probably the way date jam, a common sweetener before sugar and considered the "honey" from the land of milk and honey, was made in the ancient world. Today you can buy halek or dibis, as it is called by Syrians, in Middle Eastern stores in the United States.
While Volman cooked in her Greek-inspired stucco kitchen, Schwebel broiled the quails over an Argentine grill that he designed and built himself near their lone mulberry tree in the backyard.
After Yom Kippur, many Jews throughout the country gather together to assemble the lattice walls of their Sukkah or huts for Sukkot, the biblical fall harvest festival that marks the first rains of the season.
We visited Mort and Miriam Steinberg of Highland Park, Ill., who dine in their 15-foot by 23-foot sukkah, the kind of hut in which the children of Israel dwelt for seven days "in order that your generations may know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in tabernacles when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:42-43).
In 1982, Mort designed and built the collapsible structure. Its roof is covered with evergreens open to see the sky, according to the biblical injunction. Outside, the Steinbergs arrange cornstalks; inside, they hang strings of plastic apples, pears, peaches and grapes, wooden cranberries and walnuts, all reminders of the harvest period in ancient Israel.
At their synagogue, the Steinbergs hold the four species mentioned in the Bible, which include the palm, the myrtle, the willow and the etrog (citron), representing "the fruit of a goodly tree." The etrog, according to Leviticus 23:40, must be in perfect condition, with the stem attached.
"In addition to being a time of thanksgiving for the produce that has been harvested," said Mort, "Sukkot is probably our most family-intensive festival. In our home, everyone gets involved in some aspect."
Like the Steinbergs, other families have harvest customs which they shared with us. Here are some of the recipes learned coast to coast, which I now use not only for holidays but year round.
Nathan is the author of "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf). Her public television series, "Jewish Cooking in AMerica" premiers this week on many PBS stations.
GRILLED QUAIL WITH POACHED QUINCES
Date syrup, sumac and za'atar are available in Middle Eastern grocery stores.
Although quail is kosher, it is very difficult to find a shohet (ritual slaughterer), who is willing to slaughter them. Therefore, I include Cornish hens as an alternative. It is very important to work fast when grilling the quail, otherwise, Volman said, "The bird will die twice."
2 tablespoons (about) za'atar
2 tablespoons sumac
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cumin
Freshly ground pepper
8 quails or 2 Cornish hens, butterflied, backbone removed, hens flattened
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
1 1/2 cups balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar, or to taste
4 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Grated zest of 1 orange
5 quinces, pears or 4 Asian pears, peeled and cored
1/4 cup date syrup
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
Bulgur pilaf or couscous
Mix za'atar, sumac, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, cumin and salt and pepper to taste and rub into quails. Cover and refrigerate about 8 hours or overnight.
In small saucepan, stir together wine, vinegar, sugar, star anise, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns and lemon and orange zest. (You may want to wrap spices in cheesecloth, although Volman does not because she likes to see "the beauty of the spices.") Bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, 15 minutes until sugar is dissolved and liquid becomes slightly syrupy.
Cut quinces into wedges. Add to liquid and simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes until fruit is soft but not falling apart. Remove fruit with slotted spoon. Cook until liquid is reduced to 2 cups. Set aside about 10 minutes.
To prepare glaze, drain poaching liquid and pour 1/2 cup poaching liquid, date syrup and lemon juice into bowl of food processor along with shallots, remaining 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste and puree. If needed, glaze may be diluted with additional poaching liquid.
Broil herb-encrusted quails, breast side down, 3 to 4 minutes. Brush both sides with glaze and grill 3 to 4 minutes longer on second side until cooked. You will need to cook Cornish hens about 7 minutes longer on each side until juices run clear at leg joints.
Serve over bulgur pilaf and garnish with poached fruit.
4 servings, with 2 quails or 1/2 Cornish hen per person. Each serving contains:
527 calories; 129 mg sodium; 44 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 98 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 2.21 grams fiber.
EGGPLANT SALAD WITH POMEGRANATE JUICE
Tahini is available in Middle Eastern stores or by mail order from Soofer. Sweetness varies, so taste as you go along.
3 cups cilantro leaves
1/4 cup olive oil (about)
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
4 large white Chinese or purple Italian eggplants (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 tablespoon grated ginger root
Juice of 1 lemon
3 cloves garlic, grated
Dash white pepper
2 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon Cilantro Puree
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
Pita bread wedges
Wash and dry cilantro leaves. Pulse in food processor, gradually adding oil, salt and cumin until pesto-like in consistency. (Any leftover Cilantro Puree is great over hot pasta.) Makes 1/2 to 3/4 cup.
Pierce eggplants with fork. Over open flame, char eggplants on all sides. You can do this on gas stove top, using tongs to turn eggplants to char on all sides. You can also pierce eggplants, place on baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees about 20 minutes until soft. Let eggplant cool slightly before peeling. Place pulp in large bowl and discard skin.
Mash eggplants with fork. Add pomegranate juice, ginger, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, tahini and Cilantro Puree, mixing well. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Garnish with pomegranate seeds. Serve with pita bread wedges.
2 cups. Each 1/4-cup serving contains:
108 calories; 185 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 7 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 1.13 grams fiber.
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup orange juice
4 3/4 to 5 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups guava paste or preserves
1/2 cup finely chopped almonds
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Beat eggs and 1 cup sugar with electric mixer until pale yellow. Add 3/4 cup oil, vanilla and orange juice, beating well after each addition.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add to egg mixture, mixing on medium speed or with wooden spoon until soft dough forms.
Divide dough into 4 equal portions. Roll out each into circle about 1/8 inch thick and 12 inches in diameter.
Brush additional oil over 1 circle. Using spatula, spread about 1/2 cup guava over dough, a little thicker than you would spread jam for a sandwich, leaving 1/2-inch border. If paste is difficult to spread, soften it in food processor fitted with steel blade.
Process almonds and walnuts in food processor until finely chopped but not powdered. You should have about 1 1/4 cups. Sprinkle 1/4 cup nuts over circle. Roll dough up lengthwise into tight jelly roll, fold ends under and place on greased baking sheet. Repeat with other 3 dough portions. Brush rolls with remaining oil.
Mix together remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over each roll, then sprinkle with 1 teaspoon chopped nuts. Press down slightly on each roll to make half-moon shape.
Bake at 350 degrees 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove mandelbrot from oven. Using sharp, heavy knife, slice diagonally halfway through into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Don't worry if top crumbles slightly. Return to oven to bake 10 to 15 minutes longer until golden. Remove again. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then slice through completely.
48 cookies. Each cookie contains:
154 calories; 48 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 24 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams protein; 0.13 gram fiber.