The Days of Awe are aptly named. Beginning with the blast of the shofar, the 10-day period between Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur is our opportunity to contemplate our lives and our relationships with our creator. It is a solemn time.
But we would be remiss if we didn’t also recall the wise words of the prophet Nehemiah, who told us that Rosh HaShanah is also a happy, hopeful holiday. It’s a time to — yes — rejoice, and to eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages.
At my house we have always been happy to heed Nehemiah. On Rosh HaShanah and until the Yom Kippur fast we feast on special holiday foods, frequently those that our families have treasured for generations. Many of the season’s foods are sweet: sliced apples dipped in honey of course, but so much more: dates, raisins, honey cake, plum torte, teiglach. Our holiday challahs are round, to remind us of life’s continuity. We savor the first pomegranates, each said to contain 613 seeds, the same number as mitzvot.
On the more savory side, we might eat dishes that contain leeks, which stand in for our hopes that we will be protected from our enemies, and carrots or black-eyed peas, whose names signify “increase,” underscoring our hopes that our good deeds and good fortune will increase in the year ahead.
Fish has long been an important, traditional Rosh HaShanah dish, most likely because fish symbolize fertility and abundance. In the old days a whole fish would be brought to the table, its head another symbol (because Rosh HaShanah means “head of the year”). These days, gefilte fish, the Ashkenazi favorite, is more likely to appear. In the past, some families served a sheep’s head, but that’s a rarity now, although some people — my mother, for one — substitute calves brains instead.
So there’s no sacrosanct dish, like the American Thanksgiving turkey or Chanukah latke. If there’s a theme, it’s sweetness, which symbolizes our optimism and our hopes for a peaceful year ahead. At this time of year, I’ll even make my main course sweet. Almost everyone I know prepares a brisket, which is large and savory and has the virtue of being cooked well ahead of serving time. My grandma always served turkey because it feeds a big family.
Me? I love a roasted chicken. True, it’s a Shabbat favorite, because when you think about it, roasted chicken has everything you could ask for in a holiday entrée. It’s large and important-looking, a symbol of plenty. Its color, its aroma, its juicy meat make it one of the most endearing and enduring of comfort foods. And chicken meat is so mild that you can do almost anything with it in the way of seasoning, which makes it the perfect foil for traditional Rosh HaShanah apples and honey. That’s the way my family will be eating this year. Because my family loves ras el hanout seasoning, I sprinkle some on the chicken, but I’ve prepared the recipe below many ways — the recipe is so versatile you can use more chopped herbs (especially tarragon and rosemary) or cook it with no seasonings at all, because the gravy is so tasty. And it demands very little preparation time.
Dessert is honey cake, of course. Maybe some things are sacrosanct.
Roasted Chicken with Apples and Honey (with or without ras el hanout)
1 roasting chicken, about 5-6 pounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout, optional
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 large cloves garlic, peeled and cut in half
1 cup chicken stock
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 tart apples, peeled and cut into large chunks
1/2 cup coconut milk
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Dry the chicken with paper towels. Rub the skin with olive oil. Sprinkle with ras el hanout, if desired, and salt and pepper to taste. Place the chicken, breast-side down, on a rack in a roasting pan. Add the garlic to the pan. Mix the stock and honey together and set aside. Reduce the oven heat to 350 degrees and roast the chicken for 45 minutes, basting occasionally with the stock mixture. Turn the chicken breast-side up. Mix the apple chunks and mint and add them to the pan. Continue to roast until a meat thermometer inserted into thickest part of breast registers 160 degrees (about one hour). Baste occasionally with the pan fluids for the first 20 minutes. Remove the chicken to a carving board, and let rest for 15 minutes before carving. Reduce the oven heat to 140 degrees. Remove the apples with a slotted spoon, and keep them warm in the oven. Place the roasting pan on the cooktop, add the coconut milk and bring the liquid to a boil over high heat. Boil for about 3-4 minutes or until sauce has reduced to the consistency of heavy cream. Keep warm over low heat. Carve the chicken, and place the pieces on a serving dish surrounded by the apples. Serve the coconut sauce on the side.
Makes 6 servings
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total Cooking time: 2 hours
Ronnie Fein is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher in Stamford, Conn.