In an era when most marriages were arranged by parents, my grandparents were a romantic match.
He was dashingly handsome; she was beautiful with dark, curly hair and ruby-red lips. He was from the bustling city of Baghdad, the son of a doctor; she was from the tiny village of Azair, the daughter of the keeper of the keys to the Tomb of Ezra the Scribe. He studied at the American University in Beirut; she learned her life’s wisdom from her mother and grandmother. He was the cosmopolitan city boy who loved books; she was the country girl who knew how to have fun.
They fell in love, were married and blessed with children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Rosh Hashanah in their home had a sacred air: The house was filled with floral arrangements and fruit baskets sent by family and friends; the many candles glowed with their amber light; and the table was set with the red, pink and yellow florals of Royal Doulton English Country Roses. Everyone dressed in light colors in order to resemble angels, and everyone knew my great grandfather Yosef’s rule that we mustn’t break a glass or a plate, so that we would have a good year.
My grandfather sat at the head of the table and led the seder with all its Yehi Ratzons in his distinctively sonorous voice. We would all recite the blessings with him and eat the symbolic foods lovingly prepared by my grandmother.
Based on Rabbi Abaye’s talmudic interpretation that we “should eat a gourd, green beans, leek, beets and dates,” the tradition evolved that these foods, called simanim (signs), be accompanied by wishes and blessings. Every Yehi Ratzon (May It Be Thy Will) entreaty to HaShem is a word play on the Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic names for these foods.
On Rosh Hashanah, the challah is round and, instead of salt, we dip it into honey. The Rhodesli custom is to dip the challah into sugar, and the Moroccans add anise seeds to the sugar. Rachel Sheff and her husband, Neil, keep the sugar all year and, God forbid, should anyone have a scare, they put a spoonful of the sugar in water, drink it and say “para quitar espantos” to take away the scare.
We make the first Yehi Ratzon over a date (tamar), asking that our enemies and those who wish us ill will be “ta’amu” (vanquished). The second blessing asks that we be filled with as many mitzvot as the pomegranate (rimon) is filled with seeds. The third blessing is recited over green beans (lubiyah) and requests that our merits be increased and that we share our blessings with others “liba’abeinu.” For this one, Turkish and Syrian Jews have a custom to eat black-eyed peas, while Libyan Jews eat sesame seeds with sugar.
The fourth blessing is said over leek or scallion (karti), asking that our enemies and those who seek evil will be cut off “yikartu.” The fifth blessing is said over beets or spinach (salka in Aramaic), asking that our enemies retreat and we be free from those who wish us harm “le’histalek.”
Pumpkin or gourd (ka’ra in Arabic) sounds like to tear or to proclaim; this blessing requests that our bad decrees be torn up and that our merits be proclaimed.
Our wish to be the head and not the tail is symbolized by a fish head or tongue or beef cheek and, in the olden days, a ram’s head that reminds us of the Binding of Isaac, which is read on Rosh Hashanah.
The sweetest blessing is reserved for last — dipping the apple in honey and asking for a good, sweet year. The Jews of Iraq, Morocco and Yemen eat a delicately spiced quince jam.
We hope you enjoy the creative way we cooked the simanim and that you try these little amuse-bouches at your seder.
The following recipes are by Gomperts and Sheff.
CANDIED QUINCE AND ONION PHYLLO CUPS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 purple onion, thinly sliced
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
Salt to taste
Store-bought mini phyllo shells
12 slices Candied Quince (recipe below)
In frying pan, heat oil and sauté onions until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Salt to taste.
Spoon teaspoon of caramelized onions into each shell and top with one slice candied quince.
10-12 small quinces
1 lemon, sliced
3-4 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Cinnamon stick or 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (optional, to taste)
10-12 cloves (optional, to taste)
2 star anise (optional, to taste)
Juice of a small lemon
Wash quinces well, cut into slices, leaving skin on.
Place in large bowl with cold water and 1 lemon cut into slices.
In heavy-bottom pot, place sugar and juice of 1 lemon.
Discard water and place cut quinces into pot on top of sugar, stir to coat all slices.
Add cinnamon, cloves and star anise, cover pot, cook over medium heat.
As sugar and juices combine, stir from bottom up every 10 minutes.
After 30 minutes, reduce to simmer and cook 2 hours.
Uncover and cook additional 30 minutes so liquid starts to evaporate and thicken into syrup. Quinces will be dark red. (If there’s leftover syrup, it can be added to dafina (cholent), cocktails or atop ice cream.)
Refrigerate up to 1 month.
ROASTED EGGPLANT WITH POMEGRANATE
3 small eggplants, washed and cut in 1-inch rounds
1 tablespoon salt
6 tablespoons avocado or almond oil, separated
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
1/2 cup tahini sauce
1/2 cup silan (date honey)
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Dust each eggplant slice with pinch of salt and drain in colander 1 hour.
Grease large baking sheet with oil and place eggplant slices in rows.
Drizzle remaining oil on eggplant slices.
Bake 20-25 minutes until eggplant is golden brown.
Let cool, then drizzle with tahini and silan.
Arrange pomegranate seeds atop eggplant slices.
8 ounces Tofutti cream cheese
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 pounds smoked salmon
2 ounces kosher caviar
Lemon rind for garnish
In large bowl, whip Tofutti cream cheese and Dijon mustard until smooth.
Lay out large piece of plastic wrap on counter. Arrange salmon across plastic to create a uniform rectangle.
Spoon cream cheese-mustard dressing along longer side of rectangle.
Roll salmon into a tube.
Cut into 1-inch bites and garnish with caviar and lemon rind.
SMOKY GREEN BEANS
3 tablespoons avocado or almond oil
2 pounds green beans or lubiyah, washed and trimmed
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
5 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
In large frying pan, heat oil.
Add beans and sauté on high heat 5 minutes.
Lower heat to medium and add sesame oil, salt and garlic powder.
Add soy sauce and sauté additional 5 minutes until beans have a glossy sheen.
Garnish with sesame seeds.
LEEK AND POTATO PATTIES
3 cups leeks, chopped
1 cup mashed potatoes
1 tablespoon matzo meal or potato starch
1 teaspoon salt
White pepper, to taste
Vegetable or peanut oil, for frying
Wash and clean leeks thoroughly.
Cook leeks in boiling salted water.
Drain and squeeze out all water, repeating this step several times.
In large bowl, mix leeks with potatoes, eggs, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Blend thoroughly.
Form small patties and pan fry in oil.
Patties can be made ahead of time and frozen, defrosted in refrigerator and fried.
Makes 40 patties.
1 dozen frozen pre-made mini pie crusts
2 tablespoons avocado or almond oil
4 tablespoons mayonnaise
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
20 ounces frozen spinach, defrosted
Arrange mini pie crusts on a baking sheet and bake according to package directions.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In large bowl, whisk eggs until well beaten.
Add mayonnaise, flour and spices and beat until mixture is smooth.
Squeeze all water from spinach and add spinach to bowl. Mix well.
Spoon spinach mixture into mini pie crusts and bake 10-15 minutes until filling is set and golden brown.
Makes 1 dozen.
AUTUMN SQUASH SOUP
3 tablespoons canola oil, separated
4 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 large onion, diced
4 Mexican squash or zucchini, diced
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
12 cups vegetable broth
Preheat oven to 400 F.
Grease large baking sheet with 2 tablespoons oil.
Place sweet potatoes and butternut squash cubes on baking sheet and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake 25-35 minutes until fork tender.
In large pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium heat.
Add onion and sauté 10-15 minutes until translucent.
Add Mexican squash or zucchini, salt and pepper and sauté additional 10 minutes.
Add baked sweet potato cubes, butter nut squash cubes and broth to pot.
Cover pot and simmer 40 minutes.
Puree with immersion blender.
Can be refrigerated up to 5 days