I consider Yom Kippur eve the sandwich holiday. Not because I would ever serve my family and friends sandwiches before going to synagogue on the eve of a solemn fast. I see the start of Yom Kippur this way, because it’s sandwiched between two days of Rosh Hashanah celebrations and the Day of Atonement. Not to mention the eight-day festival of Sukkot, which rushes in four days later.
With the emphasis that night, as it should be, on getting to Kol Nidre services on time, sometimes little thought is given to this very important meal whose menu should be in perfect balance to ready people for the fast ahead. Ideally dinner on Yom Kippur eve should be hearty but light, nourishing but satisfying, tasty but not too luxurious. The challenge is daunting at a time when school and fall activities have just begun, and the Jewish calendar is so full.
I recall one year when I was still peeling potatoes an hour before eight people were expected for dinner on erev Yom Kippur. I panicked, fearing that we’d never get to Kol Nidre services on time.
Fortunately my husband always comes to the rescue whenever I’m in a jam. He microwaved the potatoes, threw together a salad and broke into a sweat basting the chicken. I set the table, barking orders, as our 9-year-old daughter scampered to her room to avoid my tension. I swore I’d never do that again. Since then, I’ve given much thought to organizing this special dinner to save time, lower stress and serve foods that will facilitate a meaningful fast.
With Yom Kippur beginning this year on a Sunday night, people who observe the Sabbath have additional considerations. If possible, they should complete the bulk of their organizing and food preparation by Thursday, leaving Friday free to focus on Shabbat cooking. After Friday evening, their next opportunity to address the Yom Kippur eve meal is Sunday morning, when the countdown begins. Although I’m embarrassed to admit it, I’ve solved this dilemma by imitating a staple of women’s magazines — the make-ahead menu. The day after Rosh Hashanah, while I’m sipping coffee and drizzling honey over a piece of challah, I start planning for Yom Kippur eve. I fine-tune my menu and compose a shopping list.
On each of the following days, I prepare a dish and freeze it, or I make most of the steps in the directions, refrigerating foods until I’m ready to proceed. On the day of Yom Kippur eve, I have only a few last-minute touches to handle. I glide into the holiday with a sense of serenity, a far cry from the frenzied person I used to be. For peace of mind, I now serve the same menu every Yom Kippur eve. It meets my most important criteria: healthy, appealing and easy to execute. This menu can be expanded to include additional dishes, but it’s filling enough to stand alone.
Inspired by Greek Jews, who often partake in stewed chicken and tomatoes before the Yom Kippur fast, I created my own version of this traditional dish. The chicken is sautéed and then poached in plum tomatoes, which simmer into a sauce that moistens the chicken. However, this dish is fairly bland and doesn’t cause undue thirst the next day. The ample tomato sauce calls for a bed of rice. Throughout the world, chicken and rice are served on Yom Kippur eve, because they are filling and easy to digest. However, many people, particularly when pressed for time, have difficulty finessing rice, which needs some tender loving care. They end up with a sticky ball of starch, rather than a pot of fluffy rice. My recipe, relying on a bit of olive oil, comes out perfectly every time.
Roasted Autumn Root Vegetables are a medley of seasonal produce flash-cooked at a high temperature. You can prepare this dish three days in advance, finishing it quickly just minutes before serving dinner.
Filled with dried fruits, flakes of oatmeal and a dollop of honey, Baked Stuffed Apples is not an indulgent dessert. For that reason, it’s a nutritious and appropriate way to end the pre-fast meal.
When it comes to Yom Kippur eve, my motto is to do as much as possible as soon as it’s feasible. On the morning after Rosh Hashanah, finalize your Yom Kippur eve guest list. Decide what you want to serve. Select which linens you will place on the table. White is traditional on Yom Kippur. If you’re using the tablecloth and napkins from Rosh Hashanah meals, make sure they’re washed and ironed or back from the dry cleaner on time.
If you’re expecting a crowd, you may have to expand your dining table. Know in advance how many leaves you’ll require. If you need a folding table, make sure it’s clean and in good condition. If you have to borrow a table and chairs from a family member or friend, organize this well in advance.
I suggest setting the table after breakfast that morning. Eat lunch in your kitchen or on the living room coffee table. To make life easy, order a pizza. Although it goes against my creative nature to be repetitive, under certain circumstances, it makes sense.
On Yom Kippur eve, I’m a big proponent of the preset menu, one you can follow year after year. Select a combination of recipes you can manage. Of course you can make reasonable substitutions, such as casseroles or other make-ahead dishes. But with so much going on, Yom Kippur eve is not the time to strike a new course or leave things to chance. It’s the time to be methodical and calm, to guide yourself and your family into a peaceful fast.
Poached Chicken Breasts and Tomatoes
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more if needed