Like many Moroccan-born Jews who emigrated to the United States, Solange Emsellem, 71, places great importance on symbolism. For Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, she will not serve black olives for fear that the color and sour taste might augur evil for the coming year. She removes the purply black skin of eggplants for similar reasons.
"I know it's in my head," she said at her Rockville home. "We think of black as a mourning color, not green for happiness for the New Year and the harvest period."
Before the festive Rosh Hashana meal, which marks the beginning of the two-day holiday, Ms. Emsellem, like other Sephardic Jews (Jews whose ancestors came from Spain and Portugal), will say a prayer over a number of symbolic fruits and vegetables. This year Rosh Hashana comes unusually early, starting the evening of Labor Day. As this time is also the beginning of the fall harvest season, fall food and vegetables are celebrated.
First, "sept legumes" (seven vegetables) boiled, then baked with sugar, cinnamon and a little margarine will be tasted. Ms. Emsellem will include three different kinds of squash -- pumpkin, zucchini and yellow -- as well as turnips, onions, carrots and spinach.
The head of a fish or a lamb will be served to the senior family members at the table. "We serve this so that we will begin the new year at the head, not the tail," Ms. Emsellem said, laughing. She will serve Whole Baked Sea Trout With Red Peppers, Garlic and Cilantro as part of the meal.
When Ms. Emsellem came to the United States 21 years ago from Fez, Morocco, her recipes were more Moroccan. Inherited from her forebears who fled from Toledo, Spain, at the time of the Expulsion in 1492, they have been modified to use the Middle Eastern foods that were available to her in Morocco, as well as the American ingredients she uses today.
However, Ms. Emsellem was willing to share some of the dishes
she will prepare this Rosh Hashana.
Whole Baked Sea Trout With Red Peppers and Cilantro
Makes 8 to 10 first-course servings
1 (5-pound) whole sea trout or rockfish, gutted and split down center
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 head garlic or to taste, minced
4 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 sweet red pepper, sliced in rings
3 lemons, sliced
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
Place fish in glass or earthenware baking dish. Stuff fish with most of the cilantro and garlic. Surround fish with remaining cilantro and garlic along with tomatoes, sweet red pepper and lemon slices.
Dissolve saffron in 1/2 cup boiling water and let stand few minutes. Then sprinkle saffron water over fish and tomato mixture. Pour oil around fish and tomatoes. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees until fish is golden and crisp, 30 minutes.
Moroccan Red Pepper Salad
Makes 4 to 6 servings
6 sweet red peppers or combination of red, yellow, orange and green peppers
3 cloves garlic, pressed
salt, freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Place peppers on baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees, turning once, until peppers are charred, about 20 minutes. Immediately remove and place peppers in paper bag. Seal bag and set aside 30 minutes. When cool, peel off outer skins. Remove seeds and membranes. Slice peppers into long 1/2 -inch-wide strips.
Place peppers in bowl along with garlic, salt and pepper to taste and olive oil. Cover and marinate overnight in refrigerator. Just before serving, stir in lemon juice.
2& (From "Jewish Cooking in America")
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound carrots, peeled
1 clove garlic, minced
juice of 2 lemons
freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin or to taste
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup minced parsley
Place carrots in saucepan with enough cold water to cover. Add salt and bring to boil. Simmer, uncovered, until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and slice carrots into 1/4 -inch rounds. Mix garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, cumin, paprika and oil in small cup and pour over carrots in bowl. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 days before serving. When ready to serve, bring to room temperature and sprinkle with parsley.
2& (From "Jewish Cooking in America")
Makes 5 loaves
3 pounds unbleached flour
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1/2 cup vegetable oil plus 1 tablespoon
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, optional
1 tablespoon anise seeds, optional
2 packages active dried yeast
1 cup warm water, plus additional 3 cups water
Place flour in large bowl. Make well in center and add sugar, 3 eggs, 1/2 cup oil and sesame and anise seeds. Combine yeast and 1 cup warm water in bowl and set aside 5 minutes until mixture expands and foams. Then add to well in flour. Use hands to gradually work in flour, adding more water as needed (about 3 cups). When medium dough is formed, knead on wooden board about 20 minutes.
Form dough into ball. Place in greased bowl and turn to coat surface. Cover with towel. Let rise in warm place 30 to 40 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Punch down and knead once more for a few minutes.
Divide dough into 5 pieces. Shape into 5 round loaves or roll each piece into cylinder and coil into spiral form with one end of dough at high point in center. Cover with towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Place loaves on baking sheet covered with aluminum foil. Mix remaining egg yolk and remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Brush loaves with mixture. Bake at 400 degrees until loaves are golden, about 1 hour.
Joan Nathan is the author of "Jewish Cooking in America" (Knopf).
In A La Carte: The round challah is one of the most important symbols of the Jewish holiday season that starts with Rosh Hashana (the evening of Monday, Sept. 5) and ends with the solemn fast of Yom Kippur (the evening of Thursday, Sept. 15).
By baking your own challah, you can alter the ingredient list to fit even the most stringent of low-fat, low-cholesterol diets.