There is a great sense of security and comfort in a holiday menu that is repeated every year. The fish, the soup, the roast meat and the compote herald the fact that another year has passed, and we have survived after all, in spite of everything. There is something sacred about preserving the old recipes the family brought along from Poland or Algeria, something modest in the realization that not everything has to be new, and that we can learn and feel nostalgic about the past and the experience of generations.
And yet, it seems that every ancient tradition began with a new recipe. Once in a generation, perhaps, a new dish appears on the table and becomes a tradition that seems to have always existed, at the beginning of every year, for all eternity.
In the Land of Israel they were reciting a blessing over dates thousands of years ago, at the end of the month of Elul, at the start of the date harvest. Along with milk and honey, olive oil and almonds, dates were a central ingredient in local cuisine. They were served as a treat to those returning from a journey and as provisions for those setting out.
The dishes below are suggestions for a new tradition based on the same ingredients. One can say the traditional blessing “Blessed is He who created the fruit of the tree,” and in the words of poet and artist Idit Pank, one can say a blessing for the days that still await us, that they be suitable and bend over us like date palms. Happy New Year.
First course: Medjool dates stuffed with locus and almonds
Airy fish patties that use ground almonds to create a crisp and unusual texture. The dates that envelop them add sweetness and a more delicate texture, while the tart sauce made from herbs blends the flavors in the oven. Serves five or six.
For the stuffed dates:
20-24 juicy medjool dates from the early harvest
1 kg. filet of fresh locus (grouper) or other light-colored saltwater fish, boned and skinned
1 cup (120 gm.) blanched almonds, ground
2 medium-sized eggs
2-3 garlic cloves
6-8 sprigs of coriander
2-3 sprigs of thyme
juice 1/2 lemon
ground black pepper
olive oil for frying
For the sauce:
1 bunch parsley stalks
1 bunch coriander stalks
1 bunch rocket leaves
3 garlic cloves
1/2 cup (120 gm.) pine nuts
juice 1 lemon
1/2-3/4 cup olive oil
ground black pepper
The stuffed dates: Cut the locus into coarse cubes and place in the bowl of a food processor with a stainless steel blade. Chop the fish in pulses only until it crumbles somewhat (do not turn it into a paste!) and becomes easy to work with.
Transfer the fish to a bowl and add the ground almonds and eggs. Chop the garlic finely together with the coriander and thyme and add to the bowl with the lemon juice and a little salt and pepper. Knead the mixture for a few minutes with your hands, until you get a flexible patty mixture. If necessary, add some more ground almonds. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and place in the refrigerator for about an hour.
Make a slit in each date and remove the pits. Take a handful of the stuffing and press into the date gently, so that the date opens up and surrounds one side of the patty. Repeat with the entire mixture and all the dates and place on a surface with the fish mixture facing up.
Heat the olive oil (about 1/2 centimeter deep) in a wide skillet over a medium flame. Fry the patties on the date side for about two minutes, until they brown a little and acquire a crisp crust, while the center remains soft and juicy. Turn over the patties with the date side facing up, fry for another minute and transfer to an oven-proof, heat-resistant baking dish, placing the patties close together.
The sauce: Place all the sauce ingredients, except for the oil, salt and pepper, into the bowl of the food processor and chop the herbs finely. Continue to process and slowly drip in the oil through the opening in the cover until you get a smooth and somewhat thick sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
To assemble the dish: Heat the oven to a medium-low heat (160 degrees Celsius), pour the sauce over the patties and transfer to the oven for heating about 15 minutes before serving. The patties can be prepared ahead of time, but it’s important to prepare the sauce right before heating to prevent it turning black and losing its flavor. Serve in individual plates with a generous tablespoon of sauce and a slice of challah.
Main course: Crown of lamb with a crust of dekel noor dates and pistachios
A festive dish that will enhance the holiday table and lead to cries of amazement from the diners. The crust, which is made of hard and not too sweet dekel noor dates, caramelizes the edges of the meat and suits the delicate flavor of lamb. Serves five or six.
1 crown of lamb, fat removed
and ribs exposed
10-12 pitted dekel noor dates
1/2 cup (60 gm.) shelled pistachio nuts
1/2 cup (60 gm.) roasted hazelnuts
2 garlic cloves
1/2 hot green pepper (optional)
1/4 cup (60 ml.) olive oil
Ask the butcher to prepare the row of ribs for roasting. Make sure to use the section near the neck and not the one further down, which is actually a T-bone rather than ribs. Get rid of the layers of fat, and clean the bones. Figure on two or three ribs per person, and ask the butcher to saw off the connecting bone in the lower part of the crown, to make it easy to separate them. Wrap each bone in aluminum foil separately so it won’t burn in the oven.
In a food processor with a stainless steel blade grind together the dates, pistachios, nuts, garlic and green pepper in pulses, until you get a coarse and grainy texture. Drip in the oil through the opening of the cover while continuing to process for about 10 more seconds.
Heat the oven to 250 degrees. Spread the date and nut mixture on the outer part of the crown of lamb and place in the oven for about 10 minutes, only until the crust browns somewhat and the fat inside bubbles. Lower the temperature to 160 degrees and roast for about five or 10 more minutes. Make sure not to roast the meat too long − it should be pinkish in color and semi-raw in texture.
Serve on a cutting board at the table and slice in front of the diners. Place on a platter on scalded mangold leaves or a delicate root puree.
Dessert: Tarte tatin with medjool and hazelnuts
A surprising and enjoyable variation on the classic dish, which is usually made with apples or pears. The dish can be prepared as a large cake or in individual portions. Most of the simple tart can be prepared in advance, and it should be completed right before serving. It only needs a few minutes of baking.
15-20 juicy medjool dates
a little butter for greasing the skillet
200 gm. puff pastry made with butter,
Pit the dates by making a slit in one side, and restore the opening to its original shape. Slice each date lengthwise into two or three slices.
Butter a 26-centimeter skillet that will fit into the oven. Scatter the hazelnuts over the skillet and place the date slices close together on it. Cut a circle from the dough, the same diameter as the skillet, and place it over the dates. The edges of the dough should touch the edges of the skillet and completely cover the dates.
Place the skillet on a medium flame and fry for 5-7 minutes, until the edges of the dough become slightly browned. Transfer the skillet to an oven preheated to 160 degrees for 15 minutes, until the surface of the dough is also brown.
Turn the cake over carefully onto a serving platter and serve hot, with a little raw tehini or crumbs of high-quality sheep’s feta cheese.
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