A Holiday Meant for Guests

My parents always had a sukkah. It was large and wooden, and my sisters and I loved getting to decorate it before the holiday began. We always hung colorful paper chains and gourds, and sometimes strings of cranberries and popcorn. That was always kind of risky given the large squirrel population of Western Mass.

Be careful, Daddy. Don't fall. I gotchu.

Be careful Daddy. Don’t fall. I gotchu.

Their sukkah was always full of visitors, which is what you’re supposed to do when you have a sukkah. In fact, we are taught that each night we welcome ushpizin – characters from the Bible who each hold a mystical trait: Abraham the first night, who embodies love; Isaac the second night who offers discipline; and so on.

My parents usually had help building it from our handyman, Fitz, a retired firefighter, but one year my parents and another couple – David and John – built it on their own. Afterwards, as they toasted each other with Camparis they joked that only a hurricane could knock it down. Turns out they were right; Hurricane Gloria did, indeed, throw their sukkah across the deck and into the backyard.

crafting

Sukkot, like Passover, has two holy days at the beginning, four regular days in the middle, and two more holy days at the end. There was always a steady stream of people for the entire eight days. My mom always cooked a corned beef for the holy days and a large pot of chili with a side of corn bread for the rest. (Her special secret for moist cornbread: a can of creamed corn.)

By the time I was in college my parents realized how exhausted they were from hosting the world for more than two decades, so they downscaled the large wooden sukkah for a premade one with metal beams and canvas sides. And a few years ago they gave up on the sukkah altogether, deciding to just use the one in the synagogue every night. Sylvie and Miriam drove off with the pieces attached to the roof of their Subaru Outback, and now they put it up in their yard in DC.

This year Rich, Lilli and I were lucky enough to help decorate our friend Eric’s sukkah. You might remember him as the one from whom Lilli so brazenly stole food a few years ago. Eric’s sukkah is very large; he actually hosts a Sukkot barbeque every year for our synagogue. This year he had us over for the first night of the holiday. I brought a refreshing cucumber salad, a dish my mother always made to go with meat meals growing up. I also made a very peculiar sweet potato kugel (a recipe in progress) and for dessert, baked apples, something my mother always, always, always served for dessert at Sukkot.

I had worked out a recipe in my head but called my mom for things like oven temperature and baking time. “Oh, how funny,” she said. “I was just thinking about making baked apples for tonight.” Well, duh, it’s Sukkot. She actually had a Martha Stewart cookbook out, which has you preheat the oven to 375F. My mom and I both agreed that is a lie, kind of like when a recipe says to cook the onions until they’re translucent, “between five and seven minutes.” We both agreed the oven would have to be at least 400F to get anywhere close to a baked apple you can cut with a fork.

lulav

I poked around online and most recipes call for brown sugar which is supposed to caramelize in the oven. We’ve never used brown sugar. It is New England, so maple syrup all the way.

The apples I used are Fujis which are much sturdier in the oven than a Macintosh. Any hearty apple will do, but please, no Red Delicious. Make sure their bottoms are flat so that they stand upright in the pan and on your plate. I used a paring knife to start coring the apples and changed over to a rounded teaspoon to scrape away at the core. A melon baller or small ice cream scoop will also work.

I think walnuts work best here but check with your guests ahead of time to make sure no one is allergic to them. There was an incident at a potluck last weekend, and Sylvie had to get epi-penned and rushed to the hospital because of walnuts lurking in a veggie burger. I had currants around because I made this caponata for Rosh Hashana, but raisins will also work.

baked apple

These apples are parve and vegan, and are great for a dessert, a snack, or even a nice breakfast. I start the apple pan in a tented steam bath, kind of the way I roast my cauliflower.

I hope you get a chance to make these before Sukkot is over. It’s our harvest holiday, so extra points if you use apples you’ve personally picked from an orchard. Hopefully you’ll eat these after a meal where this butternut squash dish is served. That recipe is particularly fantastic.

Baked Apples

Ingredients

Five medium to large apples with flat bottoms

1/4 cup dried apricots, slivered

1/4 cup raisins or currants

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Directions

Preheat oven to 425F

Mix the dried fruit, nuts, cinnamon and maple syrup in a small bowl. Set aside.

Carefully core the apples, making sure to stop about an inch from the bottom.

Using a small spoon, carefully ladle the fruit and nut mixture into each hole.

Stand the apples upright in a baking dish with sides. Pour enough water to cover the bottom of the dish. Cover with foil. Slide into the oven. At around the 20-minute mark, carefully remove the foil, then bake them for another 20 minutes, checking periodically. You will know they are done when they are very wrinkled. They will be soft enough to cut with a fork.

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I’ve Had My Eye On This One

Elijah the Prophet visits us on Passover, but Yotam Ottolenghi was at our table on Rosh Hashana. I already told you about the fish we had on first night from his cookbook Jerusalem. But I cracked open both Plenty and Plenty More for our vegetarian guests the second night.

first day of daycare

I know I should be talking about the fresh corn polenta and eggplant because it’s September and both of those foods are pretty much perfect right now. But my guests and I both agree that it’s the roasted red onions with walnut salsa that needs to be talked about.

I’ve had my eye on this salad for as long as I’ve had this cookbook in my collection. Roasting the red onions until they’re golden on top and near translucent in the rings takes the bite out of them and renders them almost sweet. The arugula provides a nice contrast, and the goat cheese connects the two with its tang. And the walnut salsa. Oh, the walnut salsa.

The third thing is a slice of mushroom tart that I whipped together.

Because I know a lot of you are wondering — it’s a mushroom tart.

Ottolenghi recipes are often pretty labor- and time-intensive, but not this one. Yes, the roasting of the onions will take about 40 minutes, give or take, but everything else comes together very quickly – you put the walnut salsa together while the onions roast to give them some time to get to know each other. I set the half cup of parsley in two rounds of cold water to clean it. As per usual, I only used about half a hot pepper, but how much you use is entirely up to you. Where it says to brush the onions with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper, I just tossed everything in a large bowl and then lay them out on a baking pan covered in parchment paper.

hula hoop

I have a five pound bag of red onions, a 10 lb. bag of walnuts from Costco, a second log of goat cheese, two bunches of parsley, leftover arugula and the remaining half of hot red pepper. So, basically, I’m making this again for dinner tonight. I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t.

Red Onions with Walnut Salsa from Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi

Ingredients

4 medium red onions (1 1/3 lb/600 g)

1 ½ Tablespoons olive oil

1 cup/20 g arugula

½ cup/15 g small flat-leaf parsley leaves

2 oz/60 g soft goat cheese broken into 3/4-inch/2-cm chunks

Salt and black pepper

Salsa

2/3 cup/65 g walnuts, coarsely chopped

1 red chile, seeded and finely chopped (use your discretion)

1 clove garlic, crushed

3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon olive oil

Salt

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425F/220C

Peel the onions and remove the tops and tails. Cut each crosswise into 3 slices, about 3/4-inch/2-cm thick, and place on a baking sheet. Brush the slices with the olive oil, sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt and some black pepper, and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, until the onions are cooked and golden brown on top. If they haven’t taken on much color, place under a hot broiler for a few minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

While the onions are cooking, put all of the salsa ingredients in a small bowl, add ¼ teaspoon salt, stir and set aside.

To serve, put the arugula and parsley in a large bowl. Add the warm onions, the cheese and half the salsa and toss carefully so the onions don’t fall apart. Divide among shallow plates, spoon the remaining salsa over the top, and serve.

Counting Blessings

We had some scary moments this weekend, which culminated in an overnight stay at Children’s Hospital. They are very nice there, but it’s a place you’d rather never be. Thank goodness, it was all just a scare, and I have two healthy daughters.

Bea at Children's

Mostly it was a lot of waiting for test results, and so I found myself with something I haven’t had a lot of: time. (Big sister was with her grandparents.) I got to read two back issues of Food and Wine, something I just don’t have the time to do right now. Sylvie and Miriam actually had Indian food delivered to our room on Saturday night, and I enjoyed the leftovers this morning as my Sunday brunch. It was great Indian food — my stepdad calls it the $10,000 meal.

I kept in contact with my family via text. This morning, as I texted Sylvie a third time to thank her for the for the awesome food, we fell into a discussion about Rosh Hashana meal planning. I’m hosting for the first time in my life next week, and I’m busy plotting my menus and testing out recipes. Soon we moved to the phone to really have a conversation about the meals.

We are in a book

One of my guests first night is a pregnant woman allergic to quinoa. (Apparently this is an allergy they find they need to mention when they are hosted by Jews.) The second night there will be a vegetarian allergic to soy. I don’t do a ton of soy things, although I did just break the code on stir fried green beans of my adolescence last week. (More on that in a future post.)

I’m still figuring out a lot of the menus, but I am pretty sure I’m going to make this Ottolenghi fish dish. It’s tradition to serve fish on Rosh Hashanah — fish head, actually, but close enough. Ottolenghi calls its sweet and sour fish, but it’s more sweet than sour —  perfect for the new year, and very delicious. Ottolenghi suggests “serving it at room temperature, preferably after resting for a day or two in the fridge, with a chunk of bread.” I can confirm this, so I plan on making this on Saturday night for Sunday.

It's good to be home

When I tested this recipe last week I used four pieces of frozen cod from Costco that I always keep on hand. “Small whole fish are also good here: red mullet, sardines, or a small mackerel, scaled and gutted,” writes Ottolenghi. The peppers and tomatoes are end of summer foods at their finest hour.

Marinated Sweet & Sour Fish from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi

Ingredients

3 Tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, cut into 3/8-inch/1cm slices (3 cups/350 g in total)

1 Tablespoon coriander seeds

2 peppers (1 red and 1 yellow, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into strips 3/8 inch/1 cm wide (3 cups/300 g total)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

3 bay leaves

1 1/2 Tablespoons curry powder

3 tomatoes, chopped (2 cups/320 g in total)

2 1/2 Tablespoons sugar

5 Tablespoons cider vinegar

1 lb./500 g pollock, cod (sustainably sourced), halibut, haddock, or other white fish fillets, divided into 4-equal pieces

seasoned all-purposed flour, for dusting

2 extra-large eggs, beaten (I used large)

1/3 cup/20g chopped cilantro

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large ovenproof frying pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and coriander seeds and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add the peppers and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the garlic, bay leaves, curry powder and tomatoes, and cook for another 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar, vinegar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and some black pepper and continue to cook for another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a separate frying pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the fish with some salt, dip in the flour, then in the eggs, and fry for about 3 minutes, turning once. Transfer the fish to paper towels to absorb the excess oil, then add to the pan with the peppers and onions, pushing the vegetables aside so the fish sits on the bottom of the pan. Add enough water just to immerse the fish (about 1 cup/250ml) in the liquid.

Place the pan in the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the fish is cooked. Remove from the oven and leave to cool to room temperature. The fish can now be served, but it is actually better after a day or two in the fridge. Before serving, taste and add salt and pepper, if needed, and garnish with cilantro.