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updated: 9/13/2012 11:38 AM

Rosh Hashana: A fresh take on comfort foods

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  • Kasha varnishkes can be modernized for Rosh Hashana celebrations.

    Kasha varnishkes can be modernized for Rosh Hashana celebrations.
    Associated Press

  • Chef Laura Frankel favors symbolic foods with modern twists for Rosh Hashana.

      Chef Laura Frankel favors symbolic foods with modern twists for Rosh Hashana.
    DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTO | Staff Photographer

  • Kasha varnishkes can be modernized for Rosh Hashana celebrations.

    Kasha varnishkes can be modernized for Rosh Hashana celebrations.
    Associated Press

By Jim Romanoff
For Associated Press

Laura Frankel thinks about Rosh Hashana in simple terms.

"A time for mom to shine," says Frankel, executive chef at Spertus, a Jewish culture and learning center in Chicago. That's because the Jewish new year, which is the first high holy day to occur each autumn, usually isn't celebrated with the sort of big gathering you might have for a Passover Seder, but rather a smaller, more contemplative meal with close family.

And though there are some traditional symbolic foods included -- such as a big round challah loaf to represent the continuing cycle of life, and apples dipped in honey to start off the new year on a sweet note -- Frankel says the meal most often is built around one of Mom's comfort meals, such as a brisket or roast chicken.

As a result, Rosh Hashana meals take on a special quality. Of course, sticking so close to home can bring challenges as well as comfort.

When the same tried and true recipes -- even beloved Mom's -- get trotted out year after year, the meal can start to feel tired, say Frankel. Not that this was the case while she was growing up in suburban Chicago.

"My mom is a wonderful woman, God love her," says Frankel, "but not the greatest cook."

Frankel says she learned to cook "for survival" since her family would be looking to her on the holidays to provide some culinary relief.

Today, besides being a chef and cookbook author, Frankel channels her culinary creativity into courses she teaches at Spertus to help home cooks break the kind of recipe rut that holidays like Rosh Hashana can suffer. The classic, symbolic ingredients get their nod, but from fresh perspective.

So this year, as part of her offering "Shofar, So Good" (a play on the name of the ram's horn that is blown during holiday services at the synagogue), Frankel will show attendees how to prepare honey-roasted chicken thighs nestled in a savory butternut squash and apple purée, as well as crispy julienne apple tempura, dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

But for some, the Rosh Hashana meal will be inspired by a different family tradition that, while not their own, has been making families feel at home for over a century.

Since 1907, the Kutsher family has run one of the top resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains. By the 1960s, Kutsher Country Club was known for family-style hospitality that made guests feel that they had a home away from home, as well as for offering the "Jewish" experience to a multicultural clientele.

And they were known for their classic Jewish comfort food, such as matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, blintzes and freshly baked challah, which at times they served to as many as 1,700 guests a day.

Zach Kutsher, a fourth generation member of the family, remembers his Rosh Hashana's being spent with hundreds of "family" members each year. And he's still doing his best to share Kutsher's food traditions. After a successful career as a corporate lawyer in New York, Kutsher was drawn back to the family calling. So he went back to school to earn an MBA at the Institute of Culinary Education.

For his first effort in the restaurant business, Kutsher opened Kutsher's Tribeca in New York City. Teaming up with chef Mark Spangenthal, Kutsher created a menu that offers contemporary riffs on the dishes that have drawn guests back to Kutsher's Country Club year after year.

This year, Spangenthal, who also draws inspiration from his own grandmother's cooking, created a special Rosh Hashana menu that pays homage to many of the Jewish comfort classics, as well as the symbolism of the New Year. Diners can begin their meal with thinly sliced honey crisp apple carpaccio, chopped duck and chicken liver, or a wild halibut gefilte fish.

Main courses include grilled Romanian-style skirt steak, roast chicken with foie gras and wild mushrooms, and a classic brisket served with a side of kasha varnishkes (a traditional buckwheat and pasta dish) made with porcini mushrooms and veal bacon, which Spangenthal cures and smokes himself.

And lest you worry that Spangenthal has forgotten the rendered chicken schmaltz, you'll find plenty of it in his cooking, along with more healthful olive oil and duck versions of the fat, which he uses make dishes such as duck schmaltz fries with powdered harissa and Parmesan cheese.

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