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September 26, 2003

Reinvent challah, honey, apples

For this year's High Holiday meals, take a chance and go where Jewish cooks have never ventured before.

Life was so simple back in Brooklyn, N.Y. When I was a kid, there were two types of challah – braided for Shabbat, round for Rosh Hashanah and other festivals. Wine was Concord grape and apples were Macintosh. Honey was honey, something generic that came in a jar that we bought from a beekeeper friend in the Catskills each summer.

While I cherish my memories of those basics and the platters of brisket and bowls of chopped liver, I wonder how those staples are faring today. Is haute hot in kosher cuisine? Do more complicated dishes dominate the High Holy Day dinner table? Has the lower-your-lipids caveat convinced all of us fatty food addicts to become heart-healthy, even on holidays? Is the heyday of heavy meals history, gone for good? Have chefs and their clients seen the light?

With a few simple tools – an Internet connection, a telephone and my taste buds – I set out to find solutions to these and other culinary conundrums. The results will amaze you. Well, not really, but it has been an interesting assignment.

One hundred pounds of brisket, 50 dozen eggs and 100 gallons of soup. Pre-Kol Nidre dinner at your house? Actually, these statistics are from a commercial kitchen and come courtesy of Natalie Brown, co-owner of suburban New Orleans' Kosher Cajun, an acclaimed restaurant and catering company.

"We do not see a trend toward lighter foods," she said. "It seems as though our customers are still looking for the traditional holiday foods. They want brisket with carrots and potatoes, fresh made matzah ball soup, round challah (with raisins for a sweet New Year) and gefilte fish."

But it appears that her glatt kosher foods reflect a little local flavor and add some surprise to an otherwise typical take-out menu.

"We cook and smoke turkeys and briskets," said Brown. "[And] we do have a special dish that we prepare for many people during the Rosh Hashanah season – cranberry crisp, a delicious side dish. It is made with cranberries, oatmeal, apples, cinnamon and margarine."

Bliss by the bayou, and healthy to boot!

A survey of several sources across the continent confirms the continuing popularity of traditional fare. Regardless of their fat content and uninspiring appearance, kugels, kneidlach (matzah balls), kishke, chopped liver and the like are not slipping off the charts. But Jewish cooks and consumers are expressing some creativity and sophistication, and many have been tilting toward the leaner (and greener) side of side dishes.

While potato and noodle kugels still rule, seeing something a little lighter and brighter on a yom tov table is becoming more common. Broccoli, spinach, carrots, apples and zucchini are putting up a good fight to corner part of the pudding market.

After sampling some restaurants, delis and prepared food departments of kosher supermarkets, I couldn't say that they were anywhere near the cutting edge of kosher gastronomy. But a guy with a CIA background led me in the right direction.

Chef Gershon Schwadron, globetrotting gourmet and resident expert on kosher cooking for, was trained at the CIA – Culinary Institute of America. Founder of New York-based Chef-2-Go, an elite service that provides captivating kosher catering just about anywhere in the world, Schwadron has kicked the brisket habit, and embraces holiday dishes that take the best of traditional and turn it into trendy.

"The New Year brings many new foods to mind," said Schwadron. "I do a shana tovah chicken. I take a whole boneless chicken breast and I make a stuffing of sautéed onions, carrots, celery, apples, walnuts and challah. I finish it with an orange-pomegranate glaze, and I usually serve that with maple-glazed beets and potato scallion pancakes."

Sounds wonderful! Lots of sweet ingredients for a sweet year, and the inclusion of beets (symbolic of the desire to have our enemies "removed") and pomegranates (significant because the fruit has just about 613 seeds, and eating it affirms our commitment to follow the 613 Torah mitzvot) shows how this chef can put a contemporary spin on some customary edibles.

The chef's light touch is reflected in his break-the-fast menus, too.

"I'll do wraps that are small vegetable omelettes wrapped in 10-inch flour tortillas," he explained. "I have, on occasion, served five-ounce slices of salmon that have been poached in a good Chardonnay. And I have even done smoothies for a break-the-fast. Of course, I have the usual stuff, too – lots of juices, flavored creamcheeses, etc."

At Manhattan's upscale eatery, Levana, the glatt kosher Rosh Hashanah menu reveals what proprietor Sol Kirschenbaum calls "a contemporary twist on the traditional."

"In lieu of gefilte fish, we serve a fresh salmon roulade with salmon mousse and roasted white asparagus, wrapped in nori [the Japanese dried seaweed used to make sushi rolls] and we serve it with a ginger scallion sauce," said Kirschenbaum.

In order to keep the customers happy, he offers something somewhat more familiar – a salmon and whitefish gefilte fish roll, coated with dill and fresh herbs, and wrapped in poached leeks. And, yes, he does serve a braised brisket of beef, but not quite your bubbe's. It's made with pure maple syrup and sports a honey glaze.

What else is new on the kosher cuisine scene? Challah's been reinvented! Though a holiday challah is still spherical, some brave bakers go beyond the raisins and add apples, peaches, strawberries and even chocolate chips to their dough. An egg wash gives the challah a glistening crust, but some folks conceal that shine with a sprinkling of sugar or poppy and sesame seeds.

Since there's no law that limits you to a particular honey or apple, this is a golden opportunity to introduce a new taste sensation to your family. Most supermarkets carry about a dozen different types of apple and, while the no-frills honey of my youth is still available, the trend is to try something new. Both neighborhood grocers and online gourmet shops sell kosher honey made by North American and Israeli bees. Orange blossom, eucalyptus, sweet clover, fireweed, sage, alfalfa, tupelo, lehua – each honey's distinct color, fragrance and flavor will set the tone for a terrific dining experience.

Since vintners know that it wouldn't be Rosh Hashanah without wine, they are constantly courting Jewish customers with their latest kosher offerings. But instead of thinking color, think climate. More specifically, think ice. Ice wine is the "in" drink. Only two producers make the kosher kind – Rodrigues (Markland, Nfld.) and Hafner (Moenchhof, Austria). It is made from fruit – grapes, blueberries, raspberries or strawberries – that have been nipped by Jack Frost in the fall, and that freezing process gently sweetens the final product. It goes especially well with dessert, so consider bringing out a bottle with your break-the-fast showstopper.

Whether you stick with brisket or go where Jewish cooks have never ventured before, Schwadron has this advice: "While everyone wants elegant meals, each meal must be thoroughly planned and choreographed in advance so that the cook is able to enjoy the simchah of the season."

I'll second that.

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in New Jersey.