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.”
Cut each pepper half in half crosswise, then lengthwise in strips of about 2 inches by 1/4 inch; you will have a total of about 2 cups pepper strips.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a sauté pan or deep, medium-size skillet (about 9 1/2 inches wide) over medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion and cook to soften it slightly, 2 minutes. Add the pepper strips and a pinch of salt and cook until the peppers are nearly tender, about 10 minutes; do not brown the onions. Remove the mixture from pan and set aside. Wipe the pan if necessary.
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 tomato 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 and squeeze out their juice and seeds, reserving the juice. Chop the tomatoes very fine; you should have about 1 cup. Strain the tomato juice.
Cut each tilapia fillet in half lengthwise along the center line.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in the sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the minced garlic and cook until it is fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes, saffron, turmeric, paprika, oregano and a pinch of salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes soften, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 3 minutes to blend flavors.
Add about half the tilapia fillets, or enough to make one layer, to the sauce. Sprinkle each fillet lightly with salt and pepper. Return the sauce to a simmer over high heat. Cover and cook over medium-low heat until the fish becomes opaque in its thickest part, about 4 minutes for thinner pieces or about 5 minutes for thicker ones; check with the point of a sharp knife. Using a fish spatula or slotted spatula, transfer each piece gently to a plate. Repeat with the remaining tilapia fillets. .
Add the onion-pepper mixture to the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the peppers are tender, about 5 minutes. If the pan becomes dry during simmering, add 2 or 3 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons garlic, stir and remove from the heat.
Drain any liquid from the plate of tilapia into the sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the reserved tomato juice. Add cayenne pepper if desired and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Stir in 2 tablespoons cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Put the tilapia on a serving platter or on plates and top each piece with some of the pepper sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining cilantro. Serve at room temperature.
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