Winter may be the common period of time when cultures around the world ring in the new year. But for Jews around the world the new year begins in the fall on the first day of Tishri in the Hebrew calendar, which, because it’s a lunar calendar, changes annually. This year it begins on the evening of Friday, September 18. And while you may assume it marks a period of celebration, quite the contrary. In fact, it begins the 10 days of repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, confession, and asking forgiveness. Collectively, they’re known as the Days of Awe.
My not-so-religiously observant family has tended to consider Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the context of food—no surprise there. Yes, we went to temple, but we planned either with our extended family or our friends the gatherings afterwards that would feature the foods of our Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, heritage. In other words, mostly hearty, cold-weather dishes, which is deeply ironic during the inevitable heat waves of Southern California in September and October.
Nevertheless, that was our food and that was what we made and enjoyed. Chicken soup with matzo balls (matzo dumplings) was non-negotiable. So was a round challah to symbolize the repeating of the seasons and holidays, and apples dipped in honey to symbolize the hope for a sweet year. There might be gefilte fish, an appetizer of ground fish shaped into quenelles that are poached and served chilled. We loved eating it with horseradish. Then there would be one of three choices for the main course: brisket (pot roast), roasted chicken, or stuffed cabbage in a rich reddish brown sweet and sour sauce. A sweet noodle kugel, made with egg noodles, sour cream, and cream cheese, had to accompany it since it was our favorite. And, of course, we’d have to have a vegetable, like tzimmes—made with root vegetables. For dessert, there might be a traditional honey cake, or perhaps my Nana’s mandelbread, a biscotti-like cookie filled with almonds and dusted with cinnamon sugar, or slices of her apple strudel.
None of these dishes are specific to Rosh Hashanah—we ate them at other holidays (except the kugel during Passover) or at family meals during the year. But these always showed up at Rosh Hashanah.
Now, as chefs you know that chicken soup is just something every non-vegan/vegetarian home cook and professional cook should know how to make—and have on hand in the freezer. It’s especially helpful when a cold or flu strikes. There’s just nothing so comforting. Plus, it’s so easy to make. Everyone who makes it has their own style, but for those who haven’t made it before, you’re basically filling a large pot with vegetables, like carrots, celery, parsnips, onions, and garlic (my mom also likes to add zucchini for its sweetness), adding pieces of chicken (mostly drumsticks and thighs because the bones are larger and have more marrow for flavor; if you can find chicken feet from a butcher or at an Asian market add them as well for an even richer stock). Add salt and pepper, cover the ingredients with water, bring to a rolling simmer, place a lid on top, and reduce the heat and simmer for about three hours. At that point add some parsley and dill. Cook a bit more and you’re done. You can eat it with all the chicken and veggies or, what we do for the holidays, strain the liquid and put back some cooked carrots and shredded chicken meat. Of course, for the holidays, like Rosh Hashanah, we also add the best part: the matzo balls.
Matzo balls may seem like they should be tricky, but over the years watching my mom, Evie Golden, make them has been confidence building. You mix together beaten eggs, a little chicken soup, vegetable oil (or schmaltz—chicken fat), salt, pepper, and matzo meal. It’ll be goopy at first so refrigerate the dough for an hour to thicken it. From there you bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and fill a little bowl with cold water (that’s just to dip your fingers in to keep the matzo mixture from sticking to them). Now you form the balls by pulling a golf-ball amount of dough onto your fingers and then gently rolling into a ball before dropping it into the boiling water. Repeat until you use up all the dough. Let the matzo balls simmer in the pot, covered—and, my mom warns, don’t even think of lifting the cover for 30 minutes. Then you can leave them there until you’re ready to serve them, drop them into the chicken soup, or—if you make them ahead of time, freeze them.
And if you’re making these dishes for clients, wish them a Shana Tova, or Happy New Year!
Evie Golden’s Matzo Balls (Knaidlach in Yiddish)
Yield: 16 golf-ball size matzo balls
4 large eggs
¼ cup chicken soup
¼ cup vegetable oil (unless you have some chicken fat—known as schmaltz— around)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus salt for boiling water
Dash of black pepper
1 1/3 cup unsalted matzo meal
Beat the eggs in a medium size bowl. Add soup, oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well, then add the matzo meal. Stir until it just comes together and then refrigerate it for an hour to thicken.
In a large wide pot with a lid, bring a lot of salted water to a boil. Fill a small bowl with cold water to dip your fingers in to keep the dough from sticking to them. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Dip the fingers of one hand in the cold water and use it to pull out a golf-ball size amount of the matzo mixture and place it in the other hand, then gently roll into the ball without working it too much and drop into the boiling water. Repeat with each ball, including wetting your fingers.
The balls will rise from the bottom of the pot to float. When all of the balls have been made, turn the water to a low simmer (to prevent the balls from falling apart) and cover the pot. Do not lift the lid while they’re cooking. Simmer for about 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave them there until you’re ready to serve or remove with a slotted spoon and drop into the hot chicken soup.
Do not double the recipe if you need more balls. Make another batch instead. The matzo balls can be frozen. If you freeze them, either put them in the chicken soup or put them in a container, submerged in the salted water from the pot. Or, you can put them on parchment paper/wax paper on a baking sheet, freeze until hard, and then pack in a plastic bag or container.
Do you cook Jewish holiday dishes for clients? If so, what do you make?
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