A Lighter Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year falls extra-early this year. See how to lighten up traditional favorites to make them warm weather-friendly, with 16 recipes for your holiday table.
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When I was growing up, Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year — always felt like the first step towards autumn, even more so than school. My new outfit for synagogue usually involved some cozy fabric like velvet or wool, and the food was of the stick-to-your-ribs, kosher variety. Ringing in the new year gave us an excuse to eat comfort foods from my family’s long-ago shtetl days.
The high holiday meal would start with a round challah, of course, to symbolize the circular nature of time (my favorite of the many philosophical explanations), and apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. Then there’d be gefilte fish and matzo ball soup, followed by brisket that had been braised for hours in red wine and onions, plus a roasted chicken, kasha varnishkes, apple noodle kugel, and honey-glazed carrots (gotta have a vegetable, right?). And then we’d eat dessert, usually both an apple cake and a honey cake. Rosh Hashanah comes but once a year, and nobody wanted to miss a chance to eat an annual treat. On the second night, we’d usually add a pomegranate — a “new” fruit, one we hadn’t had since the year before — to give us a fresh reason to celebrate.
In 2021, though, this Jewish holiday starts in the evening on Labor Day. Barring some bizarre weather event, we’ll be more likely to wear linen than wool when we get dressed up. And as much as I love my family’s traditional foods, most of them feel much too heavy to eat (or cook) on a hot summer day. So while I’ll still be looking for familiar flavors, I’m aiming to put together a menu with lighter versions of old favorites, things that are quickly roasted or grilled rather than long-braised, or just served cold; maybe some Rosh Hashanah salad recipes; and desserts based on fruit. As a perk for my health-conscious self, that lightness often means fewer calories.
I’m thrilled that it’s become so easy to find light, healthy recipes for Rosh Hashanah. Like these.
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Summery Rosh Hashanah main dishes
The ideal main course for a high holiday dinner includes a little sweetness (hey, the holiday requires it!) mixed in with the savory. Each of these does that, without heating up the kitchen too much. Bonus: They’re all naturally gluten-free, too.
How’s this for easy and elegant? Bone-in chicken parts get a quick marinade in orange juice, honey, and rosemary, before hitting the grill. Once the chicken is cooked through and has taken on a gorgeous, caramelized crust, you serve it atop a vaguely Middle Eastern salad composed of five kinds of citrus, pistachios, dates, and fresh herbs. (Of course, it would still taste amazing made with fewer kinds of citrus, too.)
It’s Rosh Hashanah — I couldn’t not include a brisket recipe. As with most Jewish brisket recipes this is a long, slow braise, but you could easily make it in the slow cooker or Instant Pot instead, to avoid heating up the kitchen. The salsa-ish combo of fresh, summery corn kernels and pomegranate seeds makes a perfect topping for an early high holiday.
Vegetarian Rosh Hashanah recipes often include a play on tagines, the classic Moroccan stews. This one combines zucchini, so abundant in late summer, with chickpeas and carrots. And unlike a traditional meat tagine, it doesn’t need to simmer for hours. The flavors come together in just a short time on the stove.
The usual roast chicken won’t do for a high holiday. This version makes it special with honey, sweet root vegetables, and dried fruit, the stars of classic tzimmes. Roasting the birds in parts, on two sheet pans, means less oven time for a cooler kitchen, and those roasted carrots come out spectacular.
Lighter Rosh Hashanah side dishes
Even when we’re not having a holiday heat wave, I like to put a salad or some other Rosh Hashanah veggie recipe on the table. Just for balance, you know. These side dishes all include traditional ingredients, but without the heaviness.
My family is Ashkenazi — that means we’re originally from eastern Europe — but the extended family includes folks with Sephardic roots, whose families lived in Spain centuries ago. Their food traditions are slightly different from mine, and I love them for it. Like this rice dish, which offers a burst of sweetness from pomegranates, dried fruit, and golden, not-quite-caramelized onions.
This simple, bright salad combines crisp apple slices with spiralized fennel. Check out that sophisticated combination of flavors, the juicy apple and the licorice-scented fennel, tossed with an orange juice dressing and topped with crunchy pecans.
This slaw-like salad would make a perfect accompaniment to brisket (think how often brisket and slaw get paired in BBQ-land). I love how it takes autumnal flavors from root vegetables and apples and creates something summery.
Honey-glazing carrots on the grill is an ingenious way to lighten up what’s often a pretty substantial side dish. And if you use pretty, slender carrots, these would make a clever, healthy Rosh Hashanah appetizer.
Easy Rosh Hashanah dessert recipes
No Rosh Hashanah table is complete without dessert. Each of these sweet treats suits the occasion with traditional ingredients, without leaving you with the urge to take a nap.
If you want a dessert that’s completely traditional but lighter all-around, you can’t go wrong with this apple cake. To amp up the flavor, I like to use a fruity olive oil in place of the canola.
Fruit salad moves from the breakfast table to dessert when you toss it in a yummy honey-lime dressing. (And that honey makes it perfect for Rosh Hashanah.) Adding dragon fruit to the mix brings in that “new fruit” tradition I mentioned earlier, but if you can’t find it, just swap in any other exotic fruit that appeals to you.
Until the vegan frozen dessert offering came of age, I never would’ve thought of ice cream for Rosh Hashanah — my family kept kosher, so we couldn’t eat milk after meat. But this creamy, dairy-free recipe (using another “new” fruit, lychee) is perfect for a hot weather high holiday.
How’s this for a healthier cookie: These babies are gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, and paleo-friendly. Plus, y’know, delicious. They’re lightly sweetened with honey and they only bake for 10 minutes — two marks in the “summer Rosh Hashanah” colum.
Classic Rosh Hashanah recipes
For all my talk about lighter versions of things, there are a handful of recipes I just won’t mess with.
On Rosh Hashanah, we begin the meal with a blessing over a special, round challah. There’s plenty of symbolism in that shape. The circle of life is a biggie, as is the notion that it resembles a crown, a nod to God’s sovereignty. Honey in the dough adds sweetness for the new year, too.
My super-picky son eats matzo balls by the dozen, so even though eating it is going to make us all shvitz buckets, there will be matzo ball soup on the menu. But I’ll make it in my Instant Pot, rather than simmering soup for hours on the stovetop. He probably won’t eat much else after this, but that’s fine by me.
There’s no one master recipe for tzimmes, but most versions include a few things: Root vegetables like sweet potato and carrot, honey, dried fruit, and orange juice. They all simmer together until the veggies are so soft you don’t need a knife, and the sauce thickens enough to coat everything in a sweet glaze.
To me, honey cake is the one Rosh Hashanah recipe that can’t be messed with. I mean, c’mon, it’s honey cake. It’s going to be sweet and a little sticky, and definitely not low in calories. I’ve been making this exact recipe for years in a tube pan, and it’s one of the things I look forward to the most. So I won’t care one bit that my oven’s on for over an hour, or that the spices make this decidedly autumnal. It’s Rosh Hashanah.
Plan ahead for Hanukkah
The eight days of Hanukkah come early this year, too. What will you be serving?