For the Jewish New Year, which begins on Wednesday at sundown, fish will be on the menu in many households.
According to tradition, having fish on the table is an omen for blessings in the year to come. When the fish is served, observant Jews recite a prayer expressing the wish “that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.”
There is additional symbolism in serving fish. Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year, and it is customary to serve fish with their heads on and to recite a blessing based on a verse in Deuteronomy: “May we be heads, not tails” -- in other words, leaders rather than followers. According to Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of “Cookbook of the Jews of Greece,” in some Greek homes the head of the fish was reserved for the head of the household. “The fish,” he wrote, “also symbolizes the Great Leviathan on which Israel is to feast for eternity in Heaven.”
Another tradition is to cook a sheep’s head to stand for the head of the year; this custom is not common among American Jews. Vegetarians might display a head of cabbage or lettuce or serve a roasted onion or a roasted head of garlic.
Today many prepare fish without heads to simplify cooking, serving and eating. Often the fish is served cold or at room temperature as an appetizer.
The fish dishes on the menu tend to be the family’s holiday favorites. On many American tables, gefilte fish is served, topped with coin-shaped slices of carrot, which represent prosperity. Fish cooked with tomatoes or peppers, which are at the height of their season at this time of year, is also popular. Because the Rosh Hashanah main course is generally a meat dish, in kosher kitchens the fish is not cooked with butter or cream, because dairy foods and meat are not allowed at the same meal.
For an Italian style Jewish New Year dinner, fish might be cooked in tomato sauce flavored with garlic and parsley sautéed in olive oil. Greek recipes for the holiday call for baking fish in tomato and white wine sauce with garlic, bay leaves and onions sautéed in olive oil, or in tomato-onion-garlic sauce accented with honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and cloves.
In Moroccan Rosh Hashanah recipes, fish is stewed in a sauce colored yellow with saffron or turmeric and flavored with whole garlic cloves and cilantro; carrot slices or sweet red pepper pieces might be simmered with the fish. Some Moroccan cooks poach fish balls in tomato sauce, made by grinding fish with hard boiled eggs, garlic, cilantro and a spice blend containing nutmeg, mace and cinnamon.
For Rosh Hashanah, when the divine judgment is believed to be written for the coming year, some avoid what they consider “bad luck” foods and therefore modify their fish recipes. Cooks might exclude “black” ingredients such as eggplant, black grapes and black olives from their menus, or might refrain from using sour, bitter and pungent foods such as lemons, vinegar, pickles, horseradish and raw garlic. People who usually eat hot and spicy fish dishes might omit or cut down on the number of chiles they use when making Rosh Hashanah fish appetizers.
The result of cooking without sharp ingredients makes the food delicate and sometimes slightly sweet in flavor, to represent the hope for a “Shanah Tovah u’Metukah,” a good and sweet year.
Faye Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and of “Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.”
To make light vegetable stock: Remove the dark outer leaves and the dark green tops of the leeks and rinse them well. Cut the dark green tops and outer leaves in 1- or 2-inch slices and put them in a medium saucepan. Add the parsley stems, one-fourth cup of the sliced carrot and water to cover, about 3 cups. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain the stock, discarding the solids.
Halve the white and light green parts of the leeks lengthwise and rinse them well. Cut the leeks into thin slices, about one-eighth inch thick; you should have about 2 1/2 cups.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a sauté pan or deep, medium-size skillet (about 9 1/2 inches wide) over medium-low heat. Add the leek slices and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook, stirring often, until the leeks are tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the leeks to a bowl.
To peel the tomatoes: In a medium saucepan, boil enough water to generously cover the tomatoes over high heat. Prepare a bowl with enough ice water to cover the tomatoes. Core the tomatoes and slit the skin at the bottom of each in an X. Put the tomatoes in the boiling water and boil just until the skins start to pull away from the X, about 30 seconds. Transfer the tomatoes to the bowl of ice water. Remove the tomatoes from the cold water promptly and pull off the peel with the aid of a paring knife. Halve the tomatoes, squeeze out their juice and seeds, and chop the tomatoes; you should have about 2 cups.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to the sauté pan and heat it briefly over low heat. Add the remaining carrot pieces. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes. Add the minced garlic and cook, stirring, until it is fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add one-half cup vegetable stock, cover and bring to a boil. Simmer the mixture over low heat until the carrot pieces are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, the bay leaf and the thyme. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are tender and the sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. If the sauce becomes too thick to moisten the fish, add 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable stock.
Add the fish pieces to the sauce, drizzle them with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle them lightly with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 3 minutes. Carefully turn the pieces over, sprinkle them lightly with salt and pepper and cook until the thickest part of a fish piece becomes opaque in the center, 3 to 5 minutes; check with the point of a sharp knife. Using a fish spatula or slotted spatula, carefully transfer the fish pieces to a plate.
Stir one-fourth cup of the leek mixture into the sauce. If you would like a thicker sauce, simmer it uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes, or until it thickens to your taste. Discard the bay leaf and the thyme sprig. Stir in the pepper flakes, if using, and the olives, and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Drain any liquid from the plate of fish into the sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
You can serve the remaining leek mixture under, alongside or on top of the fish. Spoon the sauce over and around the fish and, if desired, drizzle the fish lightly with olive oil. If serving the leek mixture on top of the fish, add it after spooning the sauce over the fish. Sprinkle the sauce with parsley. Serve at room temperature.
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