“Have you ever noticed how plump autumn foods are?” asked my 9-year-old daughter two decades ago as we passed a sukkah, a leafy hut, locked behind the gate of a Manhattan synagogue.
“You mean the peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, apples and squash?” I said, staring at a farmers market worth of produce dangling from the sukkah’s flimsy walls.
Outside the synagogue’s iron bars, we looked from afar but could not touch or smell the year’s final harvest, a sight more brilliant than fall foliage in New England. Dwarfed by high rises in a city lined with concrete, we were still attached to Judaism’s agrarian roots.
This scene was a far cry from what I recalled from my childhood. During the 1950s, the sukkah at my suburban synagogue was open all day to people who wanted to step inside. Each evening, the sisterhood women carried steaming pans of stuffed peppers, squash and eggplants to the backyard sukkah, where members of the congregation shared a communal meal. Many of the dishes they prepared entailed stuffing one plump vegetable inside another. Were these women merely paying homage to the garden’s last blast of the season, or was there a deeper, perhaps unconscious meaning to the traditional Sukkot fare they prepared year after year?
“The most common Sukkot dishes are filled foods, particularly stuffed vegetables and pastries, symbolizing the bounty of the harvest,” wrote chef Rabbi Gil Marks in his cookbook, “The World of Jewish Entertaining” (Simon & Schuster, 1998).
Over the centuries, Jewish cooks have gutted and chopped nearly every edible plant species, mixing the pulp with onions, breadcrumbs, matzah meal, meat, spices and assorted vegetables and fruit. They then stuffed these aromatic concoctions inside the vegetables’ cavities, roasting them to create heavenly results.
During the weeklong celebration of Sukkot, people eat their meals in a sukkah, or temporary hut, and holiday recipes call for seasonal produce.
Often migrating throughout their history, Jews both shared and borrowed cooking techniques from local people wherever they settled.
“In the Hellenistic world of Greek and Roman dominance, stuffed foods were prominent features at banquets,” said Corrie Norman, chair of the department of religion and director of the Rome Program at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Filling an already full-looking food, such as a fig, was a double way of indicating celebration and abundance. A common sweet throughout the Sephardic Middle East is a nut-filled date.
“Jews picked up on and advanced the significance and artistry of celebratory stuffed foods,” Norman said. “For example in modern Rome, stuffed fried vegetables are associated with Jewish origins.”
This group of recipes is called alla Giudia (in the Jewish style). While this vegetable-stuffing technique has fused with Roman cuisine, its name credits its Jewish origin.
A former “semiprofessional” cook, Norman is currently combining her enduring passion for food with her studies in religion and history. As an affiliate of the Harvard Pluralism Project, she coordinates student research on food, meaning and gender.
“Fruits, vegetables and their harvest are the realities of fertility,” Norman said. “Roundness or fullness also signify fertility, which also means life.”
Throughout time, there has been a link between agriculture and fertility, the harvest and birth. Stuffing one food inside another at the end of the growing season underscores this point.
“Stuffed squash is full and round,” Norman said. “It is full of mysterious, wonderful ingredients, hidden initially but eventually bursting forth.”
She explains that whether most people are aware of it or not, they understand the significance of a symbolic food, such as stuffed cabbage, by its taste and its presence — or absence — on the Sukkot table. They may associate that sweet apple strudel of their youth with their mother or grandmother.
“That form of embodied knowing — often not rational or conscious — is key to sustaining symbolic meaning,” Norman said.
This is one reason why many people continue to prepare family recipes on holidays, when they could more easily order the entire menu from a deli or restaurant, Norman explained.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a Jewish grandmother, making her stuffed eggplant from scratch, felt that going to all that trouble in a day of convenience foods somehow helped make Sukkot special for her family,” she said. No doubt, after she is gone, her family will savor their memories of her and the special eggplant dish that she prepared, which connects them to their Jewish ancestry and the mystery of the harvest.
This must be why when the season’s first chill penetrates my sweaters, I reach for a booklet of holiday recipes that my grandmother gave me in desperate hope that I’d keep a Jewish home. That autumn of 1968, I was a 20-year-old in miniskirts, indifferent to her concern. I must have hurt her feelings when I left that booklet on her coffee table. But undeterred, she mailed it to me anyway.
Today as withered leaves blow across the sidewalks of New York, I think of my grandmother as I head to the nearest Korean market, where at Sukkot, the onions are their most pungent, the squash bulging and beautiful and the cabbage ranging in color from green to purple. I wish she were still alive so I could tell her that I make the stuffed cabbage and squash recipes from that booklet, which is now wrinkled and yellowing with age.
I remember her as a portly woman with a kind heart who urged her family to eat more than they cared to. Spiritually connected to Sukkot, she was a good Jewish grandmother who insisted that her loved ones leave the table completely satisfied, if not a little stuffed.
Holishkes: Stuffed Cabbage
1 large cabbage
Freeze cabbage overnight. Defrost completely (about 4 hours). Gently pull off leaves from half of the cabbage, about 12. (Save remaining cabbage for soup or other recipes.) Don’t worry if leaves tear. Cut away their course center spines and discard. Cut larger, outer leaves in half.
2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
Juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 cups honey
1 cup red wine
4 cloves garlic, minced fine
Salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup raisins
Place all of the sauce ingredients, except the raisins, in a saucepan and bring to a simmer on a medium flame.
Remove from heat and stir in raisins. Reserve.
1/3 cup raw rice
1 pound chopped beef
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon dill, minced
Prepare rice according to directions on package.
Combine first four ingredients in a bowl, mixing well.
Place a heaping tablespoon of meat mixture on cabbage leaves, selecting a spot away from tears and where it nestles well.
Gently roll leaves around stuffing, tucking in edges and sides. Fasten with toothpicks in strategic places.
If stuffing mixture remains, roll it into meatballs.
Coat a large roasting pan with no-stick spray. Place cabbage rolls and meatballs inside, layering if necessary. Pour sauce over the top, making sure it dribbles between all cabbage rolls. Simmer on a low flame for 90 minutes, until sauce thickens slightly and meat is well done. Serve hot. Recipe can be prepared ahead and reheated on a low flame.
About 12 entree-sized portions, plus several meatballs.
Vegetable Curry Stuffed Peppers
2 potatoes, peeled
1 cup walnuts, chopped
8 peppers: Select ones with flat bottoms so they don’t topple during cooking. For eye appeal, choose red, yellow, green and orange peppers.
3 tablespoons cooking oil
3 large onions, diced
8 cloves garlic, minced
19-ounce can Cannellini (white kidney beans), drained in colander
4 tomatoes, seeds removed and diced
4 tablespoons parsley, minced
3 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons cumin
3/4 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
no-stick cooking spray
15-ounce can vegetable broth
1/2 cup white wine
Cut potatoes into chunks and boil until soft. Drain.
Roast walnuts at 350 F until light brown, about two to three minutes.
With a knife, cut a circle around pepper stems, large enough to insert stuffing. Discard stems. Cut away interior fibers. Rinse with cold water to flush out seeds. Place upside down to drain. Dry skins with paper towels.
In a large pot, heat oil on medium flame. Sauté onions and garlic for one minute. Mix in potatoes, walnuts, beans, tomatoes, parsley and spices. Stir for three minutes.
Coat an ovenproof pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350 F.
Spoon enough vegetable mixture inside peppers so it bulges into a dome over their tops. Arrange peppers in pan. Gently pour broth and wine into pan, surrounding but not saturating peppers.
Roast for 45-60 minutes, until peppers soften and pucker and vegetables on top turn golden brown. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Autumn Harvest Acorn Squash
2 1/2 pounds acorn squash
5 carrots, peeled and coarsely diced
1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted for 2 minutes until brown
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup dried cherries
3/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 cup brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray Pyrex baking pan with no-stick spray.
Cut squash in half along one of the grooves on its skin. Remove and discard seeds. Place squash in pan flesh side down and skin side up. Pour water into pan 1/2 inch deep. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until flesh is soft. (While baking, check water level and add more if too much evaporates.)
Meanwhile, steam carrots until soft, about three to five minutes.
When squash is ready, cool for five minutes and remove from pan. Gently scoop out flesh with a spoon, being careful not to rip skin. Place in a bowl. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well.
Spoon mixture into squash shells and serve immediately.