It has been revered since Biblical times as a symbol of fertility, good health and immortality. Celebrated by King Solomon in the Song of Songs, this tangy, many-seeded fruit with its crimson-hued, leathery shell was abundant in the Garden of Eden and is even thought by some scholars to have been the real “apple” that tempted Eve.
For the Jewish people, the pomegranate has special significance on Rosh Hashanah as one of the special foods that serve as auspicious omens for the year to come. “The pomegranate is a powerful visual and sensory omen that we eat during the holiday time to remind us of the way we’re supposed to act,” said Laura Frankel, author of “Jewish Cooking for All Seasons” (Wiley, $34.95) a joyful, accessible celebration of Jewish cooking throughout the year.
“The seeds of the pomegranate supposedly add up to 613, if you took the time to count,” she said, “which represent the mitzvot of the Torah that you’re supposed to do. Well, the story is 613. Who knows!”
For many people, pomegranates, plentiful as fall begins, also serve as the new fruit of the season, which we traditionally eat on Rosh Hashanah. But for Frankel, chef/co-owner of the highly acclaimed Chicago restaurant Shallots, pomegranates are her “secret weapon,” and she uses the fruit and molasses year round.
“Here at the restaurant we make martinis out of pomegranates,” she noted. “They are so plentiful, tasty and fun. If you get a good one, it has the most perfect flavor of tartness and sweetness on your tongue. Pomegranate molasses corrects any kind of issues I’m having with a sauce. If it’s too spicy or tart, it will fill in the cracks. It gives fish, chicken or meat that glazy finish and looks beautiful and shiny. Now if they only had pomegranate lipstick!”
Another omen for Rosh Hashanah is the apple, which we dip in honey as we ask God for a sweet year. “It’s not just a childhood simple thing,” Frankel explained. “You’re supposed to take the sweetness into your mouth, your mind, your lips and then act that way as well.” Frankel offers a duo of baked apples for the holiday, one sweet with honey, dates and apricots, the other savory with shallots and herbs, what she calls the “perfect side dish.”
“The savory apples have just the right amount of sweetness and are great with poultry,” she noted.
The book is divided by season, and Frankel’s passion for fresh, locally grown, organic produce is infectious. “Each ingredient that goes into the pot should be delicious unto itself,” she writes.
Autumn is her favorite time of year to cook. “There’s still hanging over a little bit of summer, but fall is far more interesting to me. In summer you don’t have to do much. You cut it, put it on a plate, add olive oil and voilà. In fall and winter you have to coax the flavor from the vegetables,” like hard-shelled squash, beets and celery root. “These really big root vegetables you roast slowly until they’re caramelized. Turnips start out stinking and weird and suddenly they’re sweet and gorgeous.”
What makes “Jewish Cooking for All Seasons” a kosher cookbook is its adherence to the laws of kashruth, but you won’t find any substitute ingredients or faux anything here.
“We’ve become out of touch. Our produce is shipped from Bolivia to your table. We don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “But Kashruth is all about being in touch with food, nature and spirituality. You don’t mix meat and milk because it is cruel to boil a kid in its own milk. Our religion specifically goes at food and tells you what to eat, even sometimes where to eat it. The table is supposed to remind us of the altar in the Temple.”
For the holiday table Frankel honors our long-held traditions while updating them with flavor and flair. “You don’t always have to be pulling out the green bean casseroles with nondairy creamer for the holidays,” she advised. “If your family loves matzoh balls and brisket for Rosh Hashanah, there are lots of ways to do it. I don’t know why Jews think of brisket as Jewish food anyway. In Texas they barbecue it. But we’re going to have brisket for Rosh Hashanah with the savory apples. On another night I might serve the pomegranate chicken with matzoh balls. There are a lot of ways to put out a great holiday meal.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” (Workman) www.cookingjewish.com.