Sound the shofar and ring in the New Year
I’ve always had a fascination with the Jewish culture. Granted my knowledge of Jews is only from a handful of friends and my casual eye, but I’ve found them to be a unique group in many ways. Everything from their religion, the clothes, customs, holidays, and especially the food.
This time of year, while many celebrate Autumn and the harvest with beer and wine, the Jews are actually ringing in the New Year. Despite global acceptance of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, the Jews worship with their own Hebrew Calendar. So right now for Jews, the year is 5775, despite that they’ll use 2014 in non-religious circumstances.
The Jewish New Year is known as Rosh Hashanah (“Roash Hah-shah-nah”), and similar to December 31st, it’s a big party for Jews. However, beyond the feasting and family time, Rosh Hashanah is also seen as a serious time for prayer and reflection.
The holiday starts in the synagogue with the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn made into a musical instrument. It’s a symbolic sound to “wake up sleepers” from the day-to-day life of the previous year, and to stop and reflect on how they lived their lives in that year. The blowing of the shofar calls upon a Jewish person to then see what they could do to improve themselves in the new year, like how many of us do with resolutions.
Beyond the prayer and ritual, the holiday is also centered around gathering with family and enjoying a festive meal. Perhaps the biggest culinary tradition of Rosh Hashanah would be the eating of apples with honey. All of it is symbolism, with the apples being about fertility and the harvest. Honey is sweet, and Jews believe starting off the new year with something sweet will be a good omen for how the rest of that year will go.
The main course of a Rosh Hashanah dinner can variate across many tastes and ethnicities, with much symbolism in the items served. One interesting dish I found was a beautiful stew called Fesenjān ("fess-en-jahn"). My original curiosity came from a desire learn more about Moroccan cuisine. The thought of chicken with pomegranate made my palette water, and thus I wanted to learn more.
The stew itself isn’t Moroccan in origin, but Persian. What makes it unique is not just the combination of chicken with pomegranate, but in how the sauce is formed through ground toasted walnuts. The flavor is somewhat fruity and nutty, but with plenty of tangy and savory to deter any thoughts of this being a dessert item.
Try it yourself:
Fesenjān (Chicken stew with walnuts and pomegranate)
- 2 cups of unshelled walnut halves or pieces
- 4 tbsp of olive oil
- 4-6 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cubed or cut into strips
- 2-3 cups of chopped yellow onions
- 2 cups of chicken stock
- 5 tbsp of pomegranate molasses
- 3 tbsp of sugar
- 1/2 tsp of turmeric
- 1/4 tsp of cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp of nutmeg
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Fresh pomegranate seeds for garnish
- Heat up your oven to 350º.
- Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spread the walnuts over it.
- Place the walnuts in the oven and toast for 10 minutes.
- Remove the walnuts and set aside to cool.
- In a large pan or Dutch Oven, heat up 2 tbsp of the olive oil on medium-high heat.
- Pat dry the chicken pieces and then cook them in groups until golden brown on all sides.
- Set the chicken aside.
- If the walnuts are cool, run them in a food processor until finely ground.
- In the same pan you cooked the chicken in, heat up the remaining olive oil on medium-low heat.
- Place the onions in and sauté until soft and translucent.
- Return the chicken to the pan with the onions.
- Pour in the chicken stock, stir, and then bring the entire mixture to a boil.
- Add in the walnuts, pomegranate molasses, sugar, turmeric, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.
- Stir it all up, then reduce your heat to low.
- Cover the pan and simmer for an hour with occasional stirring to keep ingredients from sticking to the bottom.
- Remove from the heat and taste the sauce. Adjust with sugar or salt to your desired flavor.
Be sure to let the walnuts cool before you grind them. The goal is a nice nut meal with a toasty flavor, and walnuts will be a softer when hot.
Don’t overlook patting the chicken dry before cooking. We want a nice sear, not chicken boiling in a pool of liquid. Be patient and cook the chicken in groups so there is no crowding.
It might seem like you’ll have a lot of liquid after adding in the stock. Don’t worry. Some of it will boil away in the simmer, but the walnut meal will act as a thickening agent when added.
Be sure to taste the final result. Some like their fesenjān more tangy, others more salty or more sweet. Take the time to taste and season accordingly.
You can also use duck, lamb, beef, or ground meat as opposed to chicken.
Fesenjān is traditionally topped with pomegranate seeds and served with white or yellow rice. Some will use rice pilaf, I used a coconut basmati. You could also serve it with pasta if you wish.