September 22, 2018

A Feast of Two Worlds: Celebrating the new year by blending Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions

I was raised Ashkenazi. I knew about apples and honey, and I knew about the Passover seder, but I’d never heard about a simanim (meaning signs or symbols) seder for Rosh Hashanah. That was all before I married my husband, Jacob. His family came from Salonika, Greece, yet here he was, my Sephardic pasha, eating gefilte fish, rugelach, lox and bagels, and loving it all. 

My grandma’s kitchen in Silver Lake was heaven for a kid like me, as I watched her roll out strudel dough, fill blintzes and roast chickens. Later, I had the privilege of watching fine Sephardic cooks like my friends Kaye, Linda, Leona and Lilly turn out boyos (Turkish pastry), kibbe (Middle Eastern dish of spiced meat and grain), sambusak (Middle Eastern stuffed pastry) and other wonders. Both streams of cuisine flowed into my imagination, through my kitchen and onto my table. Broadening, enriching and savory, Ashkephardic food isn’t just a cuisine, it’s a lifestyle, it’s an adventure. 

I’m a designer, so I bring my art to the table. I present my Rosh Hashanah simanim seder on an artist’s palette set before each guest. Each palette holds bite-sized tastes of the colorful and brilliant simanim. As we go around the table and read about the symbolic value of each food, we bless it and we connect it to our goals for the coming year, with vivid wishes for good deeds, protection, prosperity, potential, sweetness, life and light in the new year.


Roasted Beet Salad

For salads, let’s start with beets. I love borscht, especially its color. But here is another use for the mighty beet, which seems to be the nutritional darling of the hour. Beet greens are a siman for beating our enemies and those people (or those things!) who cause us trouble. In this recipe, I cook with the beetroot itself. I season beets with the classic Sephardic dressing of lemon and olive oil. I add a dash of pomegranate molasses for sweetness and pomegranate seeds for beauty.

4 medium-size red and/or yellow beets of similar size and shape (about 2 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses (optional, available at kosher markets)
1 clove of garlic (optional)
Salt, cayenne pepper and cumin, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 F.

Scrub the beets clean and double wrap them in aluminum foil. (If you use both colors of beets, wrap, cook, dress and keep the two colors separate until serving or the red beets will bleed into the yellow beets.) Bake beets for about 1 1/2 hours or until they cut easily with a sharp knife.

If it’s easier, scrub the beets and place them in a Pyrex container with a small amount of water. Cover and microwave until they cut easily with a sharp knife

If you prefer a subtler garlic flavor, cook the garlic clove when you bake the beets. If not, leave the garlic raw.

Cut the cooked beets into thin slices, wedges or 3/4-inch chunks, whichevver you like. Mix the dressing ingredients according to taste, adding the minced raw or cooked garlic clove. Pour half of the dressing over the beets and toss gently to coat. Save the remaining dressing in a jar or container. Refrigerate the beets and the dressing. Fifteen minutes before serving, bring the beets and dressing to room temperature. Immediately before serving, toss beets with the remaining dressing.

Garnish with parsley, Thai or Persian basil, or tarragon. If you use the pomegranate molasses, sprinkle beets with fresh pomegranate seeds.

Serves 12.


New Year Siminam Salad

My Simanim Salad is a classic among my family and friends. It’s vividly colorful and just plain yummy. This dressing is unique in that it uses leeks, a new taste for many and a siman.

The pumpkin seeds can share that 350-degree oven, too. This is also a nice salad dressing for the whole year.

1 large head butter lettuce
1 bunch tender spinach leaves
1/4 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 yellow apple
1/2 red apple
8 pitted dried dates
Seeds of 1/2 a pomegranate, rind and white membrane removed

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Thoroughly clean lettuce and spinach leaves and tear into bite size pieces. (Spinach is another version of lubiya, a symbol of a purified heart.)
Toast pumpkin seeds until some begin to plump, about 10 minutes.
Core apples, leaving on the colorful skin, and cut into 1/2-inch chunks.
Cut dates into 1/4-inch rings.

Honey Leek Vinaigrette

1/4 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white vinegar (Dressing made with vinegar lasts longer)

1 tablespoon minced leek, white part only
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 /4 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper

Combine all ingredients until emulsified.

Refrigerate at least 4 hours before using.

Arrange lettuce leaves and most of the seeds, dates and apples in a large bowl.
Toss with vinaigrette just before serving.
Place remaining seeds, apples and dates on top of the salad.

Serves 12 as a first course.


Roasted  Tomatoes with Cannellini 

Beans and peas are simans of prosperity and plenty. Although black-eyed peas are often used here, I just couldn’t pass up the beauty of cannellini beans.

2 large fennel bulbs
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 pints grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, halved
4 large, fresh oregano, rosemary, tarragon or thyme sprigs
4 large shallots, peeled and trimmed
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper
2 15-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney beans), rinsed and drained
One sprig of tomatoes on the vine (tomatoes should be not larger than 1 inch)

Preheat oven to 425 F.

Heat a large and deep ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until hot.
Trim fennel bulbs and cut in half vertically. Cut each bulb half into 1/2-inch-wide wedges, leaving some of the core attached to each wedge.
Add about 1/4 cup of olive oil to the pan.
Carefully place the fennel wedges on the bottom of the pan in a single layer; sprinkle with 1 teaspoon kosher salt.
Cook until fennel begins to brown and soften, turning once for a total of 10 to 12 minutes.
Add tomatoes, herb sprigs, shallots, garlic, crushed red pepper and sprinkle with remaining teaspoon of kosher salt and ground pepper.
Stir in cannellini beans.
Cover the skillet and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake 20 minutes.
Uncover the pot and, if desired, place the vine of tomatoes on top of the bean mixture.
Continue baking about 10 minutes more, or until the sprig of tomatoes just barely begins to soften and color.
Remove the herb sprigs (if desired) and serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 6-8.


Pomegranate Chicken

For a main course, it’s hard to beat Pomegranate Chicken, also cooked at 350 degrees. Pomegranates, another siman, are full of seeds, and we pray that our year will be just as full of mitzvot!

This recipe features pomegranate molasses, a bittersweet, deep-red syrup beloved by Jews from many lands. I use Cortas Pomegranate Molasses, available at local kosher markets. A dramatic dish, with a rich, mahogany skin, the chicken presents beautifully on a bed of baby kale and pomegranates.

Marinade:

1/2 cup pomegranate molasses
2 tablespoons brown sugar or agave syrup
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Chicken:

2 red onions, peeled and quartered
A 3 1/2-pound whole chicken

Combine marinade ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes, until slightly reduced. Allow the marinade to cool. Place the marinade, chicken and onions in a large bowl or zip-close bag. Refrigerate 8-10 hours, rotating occasionally.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Place the onion wedges in a small roasting pan and place the chicken on top of the onion, breast-side down. Discard excess marinade.

Roast the chicken, covered, for an hour, and then uncovered for half an hour, or until the juices from the thigh run clear when pierced with a fork.

On a platter, arrange the chicken on a bed of fresh baby kale or rainbow Swiss chard leaves. Garnish with pomegranate seeds. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 6-8.


Rustic Apple Frangipane Fruit Pizza

I learned to love marzipan at beautiful and festive Moroccan mimouna, right after Passover every year.

Thin slices of cooked apples recall the classic Ashkenazi apple cake of my childhood, but the base of this frangipane has the subtle aroma of marzipan. To serve a big holiday crowd, I’ve scaled a rustic apple tart up to pizza size. This dessert can be frozen, too. Cool completely and double wrap in foil.

Crust:

1 1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 4-ounce stick margarine, cut into 8 pieces
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

Filling:

1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
1/3 cup sugar
One pinch salt
1/2 cup unsalted, room-temperature margarine, butter or canola oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 or 3 drops almond extract
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 medium-size Gala or Golden Delicious apples, cored and thinly sliced
Egg wash (1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons of water)
Sugar, cinnamon sugar or turbinado sugar for dusting (optional)
1/4 cup warm apricot or peach jam, all chunks of fruit removed

Crust:

In a food processor**, place the flour salt and margarine. Pulse off and on until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add 3 tablespoons of ice water and pulse again, just until the mixture forms a ball. Place the ball of dough on a long piece of plastic wrap, flatten the dough into a disc, and wrap with the plastic wrap.

Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes.

** The dough and the fruit pizza filling can be made by hand. The food processor just makes it a little easier.

Filling:

Place the almonds, sugar and salt in a food processor or blender,  and process until fine in texture. With the motor running, add the margarine, butter or oil; then the eggs, one at a time; followed by the extracts, flour and baking powder. Reserve.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Between two large pieces of plastic wrap, roll out the crust gently until uniformly thin, creating a circle that is 16 inches across. Line a pizza pan with baking parchment and carefully place the dough on the pan.

Gently spread the almond mixture over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Place the apple slices in a fan pattern on top of the almond mixture.

Fold the 1-inch edge of the dough over the last inch of the apples, and paint the edge with the egg wash. Sprinkle the egg- washed edge with sugar, cinnamon sugar or turbinado sugar if desired.

Bake the fruit pizza in the center of the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. Remove the fruit pizza from the oven, and use the parchment to slide the fruit pizza onto a cooling rack to cool. Gently paint the jam over the baked apple slices.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a small scoop of parve ice cream (for a meat meal) or regular ice cream, if desired.

Makes one 14-inch pizza.


Caramel Apple Honey Upside-Down Cake

Apple-and-honey desserts are timely because fall is the beginning of the apple season. I grew up with honey cake, lekach, so I’m always nostalgic for it, but I mainly liked the gooey top of the loaf. Tarte Tatin came to me via the French patisserie influence of my Moroccan friends. I just couldn’t help putting that Ashkephardic touch of caramelized apples on top of classic honey cake.

Voila! Caramel Apple Honey Upside-down Cake!

Upside-Down Topping:

6 tablespoons canola or grape seed oil, divided (2 tablespoons in each of the 3 pans)
3 large Gala or Golden Delicious apples, cored and cut into thin wedges
1/2 cup brown sugar, divided (3 tablespoons in each of the 3 pans)

Honey Cake:

1/3 cup canola or grape seed oil
1 cup light brown sugar
4 eggs
1 cup honey
3/4 cup corn syrup or agave syrup
1 cup strong coffee
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each of ground allspice, ground ginger, ground nutmeg

In a sauté pan, warm the oil and gently sauté the apple slices in a single layer until they begin to soften. Reserve.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Line the bottom of three 9-inch round cake pans with baking parchment. In each lined pan, pour 2 tablespoons of oil and sprinkle one-third of the brown sugar; then place the pans in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the brown sugar has melted.

Arrange the apple slices on the brown sugar at the bottom of each pan like the petals of a flower.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the oil and brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time. Stir in the honey, corn or agave syrup, coffee and vanilla extract until combined. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and spices. Mix until well combined.

Gently pour the batter evenly over the apple slices. Bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in each cake comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes.

These cooled cakes can either be served at room temperature or frozen for up to a month. To serve, invert the cake pan onto a cake stand and carefully peel away the baking parchment. To freeze, wrap in plastic wrap and then double-wrap in foil.

Makes three 9-inch round cakes.

Debby Segura designs dinnerware and textiles, teaches cooking classes, and lives in Los Angeles with her husband Jacob.