Cookbook puts a healthy face on kosher favorites Harvest of memories

September 08, 1993|By Gail Forman | Gail Forman,Contributing Writer

When the Jewish High Holy Days approach, my mind trots out memories of the heavy, fatty, sometimes delicious, sometimes tasteless foods of my childhood. I haven't cooked these traditional foods for years, but a new cookbook, "Our Food: The Kosher Kitchen Updated" by Anita Hirsch (Doubleday, $25) could bring me back into the fold this Rosh Hashana (Sept. 16).

I remember dishes loaded with chicken fat and other high-cholesterol ingredients. But in this new cookbook, Ms. Hirsch, a health-conscious nutritionist in the test kitchen at Rodale Press, has reduced the fat, calories and sodium in traditional dishes and included a nutritional profile of each recipe.

"I do a lot of make-over recipes at Rodale," she explained. "The food guidelines are no sugar, little fat, no salt and fresh ingredients. Under this influence, I converted my own recipes."

My mother needed lessons from Ms. Hirsch. My mother rubbed the crusts of corn-rye bread with raw garlic and smeared the top with chicken fat. Or she topped bread with chopped liver made with one of the world's unhealthiest foods: "gribenes," made by rendering chicken fat, chicken skin and onions. True, Ms. Hirsch includes a recipe for chopped liver in her book but cautions readers to eat this high-cholesterol appetizer "only occasionally."

My sister and I used to beg for the "unborn" eggs, pure yolk, left inside freshly killed chickens. At the other extreme, Ms. Hirsch has worked out recipes using egg substitutes.

My mother's borscht and potato pancakes were served with sour cream, her salads with oil-only dressing. Ms. Hirsch, in contrast, cooks with reduced fat or nonfat dairy products and makes salad dressings with little or no oil.

Ms. Hirsch also prepares pot roast with lean cuts and cooks stews and soups ahead so fat congeals in the refrigerator and can be skimmed off.

The only beans I grew up with were chickpeas, which my mother fried in oil. Ms. Hirsch recognizes the importance of beans and includes recipes using them in soups, salads and main dishes.

And I remember my mother making gefilte fish -- an all-day affair that began with shopping for several different types of fish, lugging the hand meat grinder out of the closet, screwing it onto the kitchen table and forcing the raw fish and vegetables through the blades before shaping the ground mixture into balls for poaching. Ms. Hirsch's gefilte fish recipe is simplicity itself because it starts with poached fish fillets that can be mashed with a fork.

Food is as much a part of most Jewish holidays as religious observance. And since antiquity, Rosh Hashana has been a harvest festival-- a feast day. Seasonal vegetables such as squash, leeks, beets, carrots, onions, pumpkins and turnips are served. So are such seasonal fruits as plums, figs and especially pomegranates whose many seeds symbolize good deeds to be performed in the new year, according to some, and fertility according to others.

Honey is an important food on Rosh Hashana. It has long been associated with happiness and prosperity in many cultures and among Jews honey was a symbol of the Torah and peace. In the Book of Exodus, when God called on Moses to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians, he promised to lead them to "a land flowing with milk and honey."

Apples and bread dipped in honey symbolize the hope for a sweet life in the new year, as do honey cake, honey-coated teiglach and other sweets. There's even a meat dish, tzimmes, that is made with sweet potatoes, carrots, stew beef and brown sugar to express the same sentiment.

Though it is the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance and is called the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashana is a happy holiday, full of optimism for the coming year. It is considered the anniversary of the creation and is the first day of the Jewish calendar.

On the other hand, Yom Kippur (Sept. 25) is the Day of Atonement, a fast day. Fasting symbolizes repentance and is a penance for sins. People hope to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year.

Jews in many parts of the world eat a not-too-spicy but substantial meal the evening before Yom Kippur to sustain them through the fast. Kreplach or matzo balls with chicken soup or chicken with rice are favorites among East European Jews. Ms. Hirsch lightens her matzo balls with egg whites in place of whole eggs and her cinnamon-spiked kreplach are filled with chicken or turkey rather than beef.

While traditions for "break-the-fast" meals vary, they often include herring, lox and bagels with cream cheese. But Ms. Hirsch's Aunt Anita always serves cold fruit kugel and the recipe for this intriguing noodle pudding made with light cream cheese, light sour cream and egg substitutes is also in the book.

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