Rosh Hashana typically is a solidly autumnal holiday, falling sometimes as late as October. But this year, the Jewish New Year comes early -- the first week of September, a time when summer's bounty is still fresh for much of the country.
"It's a gift," says kosher chef Laura Frankel, executive chef for Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering in Chicago. The holiday falling at the height of the harvest season presents an abundance of culinary opportunities for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur cooking, she explains.
The timing presents cooks with completely different choices in terms of what foods -- particularly produce -- are in the markets.
Frankel says her cooking theme this year is clean and simple because the produce will be fresh and ripe. Rather than the traditional cooked borscht soup made with late season beets, she'll be serving salads with thinly sliced raw beets. For desserts, she'll do simple fresh fruit galettes with an olive oil and egg yolk pastry crust. Whatever looks best in the markets will help guide her in developing the menu.
Because the holiday is early, for example, there will be fewer varieties of apples (a staple of the holiday) than usual, but more stone fruits, tomatoes and eggplants, she says.
The careful choice of Rosh Hashana foods is significant, because like most Jewish holidays, which are all in some way tied to the agricultural calendar, foods are an important part of the celebration and are loaded with symbolism.
The typical Rosh Hashana meal is filled with sweet foods, such as apples and honey, to represent the hope for a sweet year to come. Enjoying newly harvested fruits is also important, as is offering a round challah loaf studded with sweet dried fruit, which some think symbolizes the cyclical nature of life or perhaps the crown that marks God as the king of the world.
This high holiday has come to represent the beginning of the new harvest year. And that has deep meaning for David and Jamie Baker, who gave up a high-end lifestyle on the North Shore of Chicago to start Primrose Valley Farm in South Central Wisconsin. The organic farm, which also has a kosher cooking facility, sells community sustained agriculture (CSA) shares to locals and provides over 5,000 pounds of produce a year to The Ark in Chicago, which offers assistance to members of the city's Jewish community.
David Baker said that their lives always have been centered around the kitchen and the cycles of the holidays; family life and planting and growing food have always been a significant part of his family's spiritual life.
Baker and his wife watched as the country's trend toward eating healthier foods grew into a system of corporate farms and high-priced natural food markets that depended on huge amounts of resources. So what started as an interest in backyard gardening to grow their own food turned into a mission to "repair the world" through community sustained agriculture, says Baker.
The Bakers celebrate Rosh Hashana with several families in their community, including a rabbi, by having a "seder" (a celebratory meal more often associated with Passover) at which a symbolic plate of foods is at the center of the table. As with Passover, these foods help tell the story of the significance of the holiday.
Few Jewish families celebrate Rosh Hashana with this kind of seder, but for the Baker's it helps close the circle on their agriculturally centered lives. The seder plate will hold many foods typically included at Rosh Hashana, such as leeks, spinach and potatoes, but also will have some vegetables that were particularly abundant in this year's harvest at Primrose Valley Farm.
The rabbi, says Baker, will say a traditional prayer over each food, then offer his thoughts on how the food fits into their lives running the farm and nourishing members of the community.
Laura Frankel also sees the Jewish high holy days -- which start with Rosh Hashana and end with Yom Kippur (a day of atonement) -- as a time for reflection, new beginnings and always an opportunity for learning something new.
This year, rather than relying on culinary creativity to turn late harvest produce into a great meal, she's committed to letting the foods speak for themselves. She sees this holiday as an opportunity for cooks to learn to do less to their foods rather than rely on complicated recipes.
Her Rosh Hashana lamb or brisket will be roasted and served with a "butter" made by cooking down fresh beets and apples. To break the Yom Kippur fast she might offer an heirloom tomato gazpacho soup.
Frankel encourages home cooks to take advantage of whatever fruits, vegetables and herbs are at the height of freshness in their area.
This caramelized onion, eggplant and heirloom tomato tart is made with an olive oil crust and can be served alongside meat or poultry for Rosh Hashana, or served cold or at room temperature as part of a Yom Kippur fast breaking.
Date and honey zucchini bread has dual holiday suitability as well. Serve it as a Rosh Hashana dessert, or perhaps spread with a little cream cheese as part of a light Yom Kippur break-fast dairy meal.