Everybody knows about dipping apples in honey to celebrate Rosh Hashanah for a “sweet” year. But in the Syrian tradition, we have an entire seder before the meal. There are actually many symbolic foods we make blessings on for the Jewish New Year.
In one of these prayers, we ask God to tear up any enemies’ decrees against the Jewish people. The Hebrew word for gourd, kara, resembles the word karaa, which means to rip. Before eating the gourd, we say, “May it be your will, Adonai, our God, God of our forefathers, that You tear up the evil edict of our judgment and may our merits be declared before you.” The gourd from our childhood was neon green and smelled like old ladies’ perfume, not to mention supremely freezer burned. It’s not uncommon to make (or buy) a batch, and store it in the freezer year after year until it runs out.
In my version of candied gourd I prefer to omit the green food coloring that gives the traditional version its signature color, as well as the rosewater. Rosewater is a key ingredient in many Middle Eastern sweets, so if you choose to use it just remember that a little goes a long way—just a drop is more than enough.
We actually prefer to use spaghetti squash as a more accessible alternative to gourd, but pumpkin, acorn squash or any winter gourd can be used. It is traditionally prepared as a sweet dish to go with the theme of a sweet new year—the same reason we eat dates and apples dipped in honey.
The other symbolic foods that our family eats during the Rosh Hashanah seder are dates, leeks, pomegranate, black-eyed peas, swiss chard, fish head, lamb head, or tongue, and a “new” fruit to say the shehechiyanu blessing on, which only has to be new for the year, and is usually starfruit.
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup water
juice of ½ lemon
1 spaghetti squash
1 drop rosewater (optional)
1 drop green food coloring (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and roast with the cut side down for about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a pot. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue cooking for 20 minutes, until the syrup is thick. Add rosewater, if using.
Scoop the flesh out of the squash and mix with the syrup. Feel free to add a drop of green food coloring here.
The lamb shank (Zeroa) is a crucial component of the seder plate, a reminder of the Korban Pesah (Paschal Lamb) sacrificed when the Israelites left Egypt, and for generations to follow, as long as the Temple was standing. Families gathered the first night of Passover to feast on the sacrifice of roasted lamb. Most Jews place a shank bone on the seder plate, to fulfill the memory of the sacrifice, which itself is forbidden in the absence of a Temple. Many take care to omit all roasted fare from their meal, in the spirit of the prohibition against the Paschal lamb in the Diaspora.
Syrian Jews have a fascinating custom that seems to defy Passover conventions. We start off our Seder meal (Shulhan Arukh) with lamb! In keeping with the interdiction, the lamb must be boiled, and not roasted, as the primary method of cooking, and may not be noted as being eaten in remembrance of the Paschal Lamb (Yalkut Yosef Volume 5: pp. 406- 7).
The traditional recipe, passed down to me by my grandmother, calls for boiling the lamb, then continuing to brown it in the oven. The tender meat is then stripped from the bone, which is reserved for the seder Plate. The delicate lamb morsels, gently warmed and served with lemon and allspice, disappear before the soup makes it to the table! In this recipe, pickled lemons add a kick that cuts through the richness of the lamb, and the addition of quinoa elevates it from an appetizer to a main dish (you can substitute rice for the quinoa if your custom is to eat rice on Passover). If your guests are not quite ready for lamb at the Seder table, this makes a delectable one dish meal for another Passover night!
2 small lamb shanks, or 1 large lamb shank
several garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 cups quinoa
6 cups boiling water
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon allspice
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
4 garlic cloves, chopped
4-5 lemons for pickling plus the juice of 1-2 lemons
Kosher salt for sprinkling (approx. 2-3 Tablespoons)
Canola oil (about 1/3 of a cup, depending on the size of the jar)
Paprika to taste
16oz glass jar with tight-fitting lid
Begin by pickling the lemons a few days before you want to serve the meat. Normally, the pickling process takes several weeks, and once properly preserved, the lemons can be kept in the refrigerator for about a year. To speed things up, cut your lemons into wedges, sprinkle them with Kosher salt, and freeze them for 3-4 hours. When they are frozen, you are ready to pickle.
Start with a very clean glass jar, with a 16oz capacity (equivalent to 2 cups). If your hands have any cuts, you might want to wear gloves. Begin layering the lemons into the jar, packing the lemons tightly together, and sprinkling some salt and paprika between the layers as you go. Press down firmly on the lemons, then pour enough fresh lemon juice to cover. Fill the remianing space in the jar with oil, and cover tightly. Leave the jaw on your counter for 3-4 days, shaking or turning the jar over every day or two. Once pickled, store in the refrigerator. Rinse off pickled lemons as you use them.
To make the shanks, place the shanks in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Let simmer for about twenty minutes. Occastionally skim the foam and impurities that form at the surface. Once cooked, gently remove shanks from the pot and rinse with cold water. Pat dry, and place in a deep metal pan.
Drizzle the shanks with the olive oil, and season with chopped garlic, salt, pepper, and paprika to taste and rub the oil and spices into the surface of the shanks. Pour about 1 inch of water to cover the bottom of the pan, to prevent the lamb shanks from sticking. Place in the oven at 350F. Cook for about 45 minutes, until nicely browned and tender.
once cooled, de-bone the meat from the shanks. Reserve the shank bone for the seder plate, if using. Tear or cut the meat into bite-sized chunks. The lamb may be frozen at this point, if not using right away.
To make the quinoa, coat the bottom of a large oven-proof casserole with the olive oil. Add the quinoa, water, salt and spices, and stir well. Add the lamb pieces, cover, and bake at 350F for about 1 hour or until quinoa is tender. Serve hot, garnished with the pickled lemons.