Rosh Hashanah's classics, new perspective

Porcini mushrooms and veal bacon bring a new twist to the traditional side dish Kasha Varnishkes.
Porcini mushrooms and veal bacon bring a new twist to the traditional side dish Kasha Varnishkes. (MATTHEW MEAD / AP)
Posted: September 13, 2012

Laura Frankel thinks about Rosh Hashanah in simple terms: "A time for Mom to shine."

That's because the Jewish new year, which is the first high holy day to occur each autumn, usually isn't celebrated with the sort of big gathering you might have for a Passover seder, but rather a smaller, more contemplative meal with close family, says Frankel, the chef at Spertus, a Jewish culture center in Chicago.

And though there are some traditional symbolic foods included - such as a big round challah loaf to represent the continuing cycle of life, and apples dipped in honey to start off the new year on a sweet note - Frankel says the meal most often is built around one of mom's comfort meals, such as a brisket or roast chicken.

As a result, Rosh Hashanah meals take on a special quality. Of course, sticking so close to home can bring challenges as well as comfort.

When the same tried-and-true recipes - even beloved Mom's - are served year after year, the meal can start to feel tired, say Frankel. Not that this was the case while she was growing up in suburban Chicago.

"My mom is a wonderful woman, God love her," says Frankel, "but not the greatest cook."

Frankel says she learned to cook "for survival," since her family would be looking to her on the holidays to provide some culinary relief.

Today, besides being a chef and cookbook author, Frankel channels her culinary creativity into courses she teaches at Spertus to help home cooks escape the recipe rut on Rosh Hashanah and other holidays. The classic, symbolic ingredients get their nod, but from fresh perspective.

So this year, as part of her offering "Shofar, So Good" (a play on the name of the ram's horn that is blown during holiday services at the synagogue), Frankel will show attendees how to prepare honey-roasted chicken thighs nestled in a savory butternut squash and apple puree, as well as crispy julienned apple tempura, dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

But for some, the Rosh Hashanah meal will be inspired by a different family tradition that, while not their own, has been making families feel at home for over a century.

Since 1907, the Kutsher family has run one of the top resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains. By the 1960s, Kutsher Country Club was known for family-style hospitality that made guests feel that they had a home away from home, as well as for offering the Jewish experience to a multicultural clientele.

And they were known for their classic Jewish comfort food, such as matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, blintzes, and freshly baked challah, which at times they served to as many as 1,700 guests a day.

Zach Kutsher, a fourth generation member of the family, remembers his Rosh Hashanahs being spent with hundreds of "family" members each year. And he's still doing his best to share Kutsher's food traditions. After a successful career as a corporate lawyer in New York, Kutsher was drawn back to the family calling. So he went back to school to earn an MBA at the Institute of Culinary Education.

For his first effort in the restaurant business, Kutsher opened Kutsher's Tribeca in New York City. Teaming up with chef Mark Spangenthal, Kutsher created a menu that offers contemporary riffs on the dishes that have drawn guests back to Kutsher's Country Club year after year.

This year, Spangenthal, who also draws inspiration from his own grandmother's cooking, created a special Rosh Hashanah menu that pays homage to many of the Jewish comfort classics, as well as the symbolism of the New Year. Diners can begin their meal with thinly sliced Honeycrisp apple carpaccio, chopped duck and chicken liver, or a wild halibut gefilte fish.

Main courses include grilled Romanian-style skirt steak, roast chicken with foie gras and wild mushrooms, and a classic brisket served with a side of kasha varnishkes (a traditional buckwheat and pasta dish) made with porcini mushrooms and veal bacon, which Spangenthal cures and smokes himself.

And lest you worry that Spangenthal has forgotten the rendered chicken schmaltz, you'll find plenty of it in his cooking, along more healthful olive oil and duck versions of the fat, which he uses to make dishes such as duck schmaltz fries with powdered harissa and Parmesan cheese.


Kasha Varnishkes

Makes 6 servings

2 cups bow-tie pasta

1/2 ounce dry porcini mushrooms

1/2 cup schmaltz or butter, divided

2 cups chopped yellow onions 1 tablespoons salt

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup kasha, preferably coarse

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves

1 cup chicken stock

2 bunches baby leeks, cut into 1/2-inch lengths (or 1 regular leek, diced)

1/2 pound veal or beef bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, cooked until crisp

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1. Cook the pasta in salted water until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl soak the porcini mushrooms in 3/4 cup of warm water for 10 minutes. Drain the mushrooms, retaining the soaking water, then mince and set aside.

3. In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, melt 1/4 cup of the schmaltz or butter. Add the onions and salt, then sauté until well browned. Add mushrooms and garlic, then cook for 1 minute. Add the kasha, pepper and thyme, then cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the stock, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the remaining schmaltz or butter. Add the leeks, reserved mushroom water, and bacon, if using, then saute until the leeks are tender.

5. In a large serving bowl, toss the pasta with the kasha mixture. Spoon the leek and bacon mixture over it, then garnish with chopped parsley.

- Adapted from Mark Spangenthal of Kutsher's Tribeca restaurant in New York City)

Per serving: 500 calories; 250 calories from fat (50 percent of total calories); 28 g fat (13 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 47 g carbohydrate; 20 g protein; 4 g fiber; 1,890 mg sodium.

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