“Ding!” my email chimes. It’s a group invitation to a family and friends Rosh Hashanah potluck brunch to ring in 5775. But who will bring what? With mouth-watering anticipation, I hit “reply all” and ask about the group’s favorite High Holy Days foods.
Brisket, noodle kugel, matzah ball soup, honey cake, and pomegranate rice are the tantalizing replies that begin an inner dialogue.
As a Jewish woman whose interests lie in health and nutrition, I feel it’s important to introduce the food of “my people” to my young children, yet the task can be intimidating. How do these traditional foods fit into today’s diet? These are foods my grandmothers put on their tables, recipes lovingly handed down through generations.
But as delicious as these dishes are, my family is riddled with heart disease, which the foods of my ancestors did little to help prevent. With that in mind, I start examining how we can enhance the Jewish meal by adding a hefty dose of health. While some of these foods are used because of the symbolism in their names, others have tastes that evoke the emotion of the holiday. Better yet, all can be counted on for nutritional value.
Here are some healthy ingredients that are loaded with symbolism and flavor:
Pomegranates are a rich source of antioxidants that have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (often referred to as “the bad cholesterol”). The ruby red seeds of the pomegranate have long been a symbol of fertility and represent the abundance of possibilities for the new year.
Carrots are high in beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the liver converts to vitamin A, making this vegetable mainstay as good for your heart as it is for your eyes. Considered nature’s candy by some, carrots are chock-full of natural sugars, making them a quintessential veggie to represent a sweet new year.
Dates are loaded with potassium and dietary fiber and have been used since ancient times to help with weight control. Dates have a caramel candylike texture and taste, but there’s nothing processed about them, making dates the perfect remedy for a sweet tooth and a perfect symbol for a sweet new year.
Pumpkins (and winter squash), kraa in Hebrew, resemble the word kara, meaning “to cut or rip.” Pumpkins are eaten on Rosh Hashanah to express the hope that any bad deeds will be ripped out of God’s book. However, a pumpkin will certainly not rip your health away. Low in calories and high in vitamins A, C and E, pumpkins are a great cholesterol-lowering food. And don’t throw out the seeds (sold in stores and often packaged under the name pepita). A delightful pumpkin seed pesto (leave out the cheese) atop steamed green beans adds extra dietary fiber, plant-based proteins and omega-3 fatty acids to your meal. Pumpkin seeds also contain a concentrated amount of minerals, including iron and zinc.
Black-eyed peas and other small beans are included in High Holy Day meals because their Hebrew name relates to two words: “many” and “heart.” Beans symbolize the hope for a year filled with prosperity and praise, and their dietary fiber and protein will fill your belly, but without the saturated or trans fats. This cholesterol-free food will also be very kind your heart.
Leeks are traditional in High Holy Day meals. The Aramaic word for leeks, which is karsi, sounds like yikarsu, the Hebrew word for “cut off” or “destroy.” In the new year, we promise to end our evil doings and replace them with good. And so, it is apropos that leeks contain antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties that can stop dangerous free radicals in our bodies.
A head of garlic is a wonderful way to include some sort of head on your menu. The symbolism reminds us to move forward and make progress in the coming year, rather than linger in the past. Pair the garlic with leeks and roast atop your brisket to add extra flavor and nutrients to the meat.
Apples are extremely rich in important antioxidants and dietary fiber, making them a favorite top 10 health food. The delicious beauty of apples is second only to the health benefits of this amazing fruit, which can help ward off cancer and heart disease. On Rosh Hashanah, enjoy a guilt-free snack when you dip your apple slice into honey, relishing not only its sweet taste, but health benefits too.
For a wellness twist on your High Holy Day meal, infuse family favorites with these foods and your grandmother’s beloved recipes will not only remain symbolic, but nutritious as well. And when you pass on your recipes to future generations, health and vitality will become your new family legacy.
Jeannie Solomon is a nutrition and wellness coach at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.