A new year and new traditions

September 27, 2000|By Beverly Levitt | Beverly Levitt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

5761 ... just when we were getting used to writing 5760.

This Friday, Rosh Hashana ushers in a new year and the 10 High Holy Days when Jews are called upon to re-examine their lives -- to wake up and not only smell the roses, but also plant them for other people to enjoy. The holiday ends Oct. 9, with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As the sun goes down, Jews greet each other with wishes for a bright future, and know that it's just a matter of moments until they can break their fast and -- eat.

One of the true miracles of Yom Kippur is the delicious food that magically appears on tables even though all the mamas and grandmas have been sitting in synagogue all day. But in recent years, the cooks have had a challenge because many favorite dishes -- chopped liver, blintzes and sour cream, lokshen kugel (made with gobs of cottage cheese, sour cream, butter and eggs) -- go against everything we've come to know about health and nutrition.

In response, creative Jewish cooks have started adapting traditional Jewish fare to fit a health-conscious lifestyle. "Healthy Jewish cooking is no longer an oxymoron," said rabbi and cookbook author Gil Marks.

One of the reasons that traditional Jewish cuisine is so high in fat and so low in fiber is that the recipes were developed in Eastern Europe by Ashkenazi Jews, who not only were poor, but also didn't have a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs available to them. They created a cuisine made primarily of starch and "added copious amounts of schmaltz [rendered chicken fat], sugar and salt," to impart flavor, Marks said.

Marks modifies many traditional holiday recipes in his book "The World of Jewish Entertaining" (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Instead of emphasizing "big chunks of meat" as the Ashkenazi did, he uses meat sparingly, as a flavoring instead of as the main event. He also uses a lot of recipes from the Sephardim, Jews who migrated to areas as diverse as North and South Africa, the Middle East, India and, later, the Mediterranean, where, according to Marks, they use the three main products mentioned in the Bible -- grains, wine and olive oil.

As for traditional Ashkenazi foods, Marks suggests substituting yogurt for sour cream in blintzes, kugels and borscht, using olive oil instead of schmaltz for chopped liver -- and even eliminating the liver altogether by substituting vegetables such as mushrooms, onions and string beans.

Instead of stuffing chicken with oil-laden bread cubes, he suggests apples and spinach, both traditional for the New Year. His piM-hce de rM-isistance for the High Holidays is his Whole-Wheat Challah, which leaves out the eggs and extra fat, using whole wheat, wheat germ and honey to provide moisture. He also suggests sweetening dishes with fruit such as bananas and apples instead of sugar.

But, he cautions, "You've got to be smart with substitutions. Don't serve a dish just because it's low-fat. Experiment until you find the flavor you like. It's actually a very creative process."

Judy Zeidler, author of "The Gourmet Jewish Cook" (William Morrow, 1988) and "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (William Morrow, 1999), emphasizes eating light on Yom Kippur because it's easier on your system after fasting all day. She serves a plethora of salads, many of which combine fish with fruit and vegetables. One of her favorite combinations is smoked fish with cucumber, a refreshing dish that replenishes salts lost by fasting.

She also serves cold fruit soups with orange juice at their base, or vegetable soups such as fresh tomato and basil, which -- if you get them at their peak of flavor -- are a delight. Instead of traditional chicken liver, she sautM-is a smaller amount of liver with apples and mushrooms. And she uses a smaller amount of oil because the combination produces wonderful liquid in which to cook the liver, she says.

Another chopped-liver idea is from Selma Elaine Brown, food editor and Jewish recipe developer for cooking.com. She uses three pounds of onions for every pound of liver, then fries the onions in olive oil separately until they are caramelized and dark brown and the natural sugars are at their height of flavor. She drains off all the fat before combining them with the liver and never uses schmaltz, only olive oil.

Jewish chef and caterer David Rubell learned about food from the old country from the closest person to him -- his Nana Willner. Today when Rubell is doing a menu, he starts with the dishes his grandmother taught him, and then replaces them with healthier variations.

He replaces the customary sour-cream topping for the blintzes with fresh berry compote. Instead of sweet, heavy babkas (Jewish desserts) that "will lie in your stomach for the next three days," he serves a fresh peach cobbler, with a minimum amount of sugar and just a touch of butter.

Rubell invented savory Chinese Seared Ahi Tuna Salad as a substitute for tuna salad with gobs of mayo, and instead of the traditional sweet, heavy kugel, he serves a vegetable frittata.

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