It happened so fast. Who pressed the fast-forward button on summer? It felt as if Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur got the bum’s rush from the Jewish calendar. I went from the hot sweat of August to the cold sweat of preparing my Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur menus. Now, just as I take a deep breath, here comes Sukkot. This year, the joyous holiday starts at sunset on Sept. 18 and runs through sunset
on Sept. 25.
Sukkot 101: It is a celebration of history and agriculture.
Historically, it recalls the time during which the children of Israel wandered in the desert and lived in temporary shelters for more than 40 years. Agriculturally, it commemorates an ample harvest. If you need to know more on the basics of Sukkot, there is a cornucopia of information on the Internet. You can even find a How to Celebrate Sukkot page on wikiHow.
Your sukkah can be purchased or become a do-it-yourself project. Some actually live in the sukkah for seven days; some only eat meals there. For children, decorating a sukkah can be a fantastic experience. Again, on the Internet, you can get a range of ideas from formal chandeliers to more artsy-craftsy homemade decorations. But for me, it’s all about the food.
Fortunately, Sukkot has a more relaxed food vibe than the High Holidays, which are tied to a list of traditional foods, such as apples, honey and round challah. Even though food is key to this holiday, Sukkot does not have a list of specific and/or traditional dishes. Sukkot has a real anything-goes tradition when it comes to what you eat. For me, Sukkot is a foodie’s free-for-all. Many scholars believe the Pilgrims adapted Sukkot for Thanksgiving. Since it is a harvest festival, it seems natural to focus on fresh fruit and vegetables.
At this time of year, Maryland offers a wide selection of locally grown items. You can find fall fruits and veggies in supermarkets, farmers’ markets and at local farms that have stands or pick-your-own fields. I recently discovered a terrific website from the University of Maryland to help guide those of us who want true farm-fresh. Go to marylandagriculture.com for descriptions, locations, days and operating hours of more than 100 markets and farms all over the state. Again, local supermarkets have plenty, too, including dried fruits, which are terrific for sukkah snacks and desserts.
On Sukkot, we are often reminded to include figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes. But don’t let that hem you in. Be bold. There are green grapes, red grapes and tiny champagne grapes. Pomegranates, especially, have come out of the closet lately. You can enhance salads with pomegranate seeds that can be bought in containers. Pomegranate juice, widely available, is wonderful for drinking over ice or mixing with other juices, making salad dressings and more. There are Medjool dates and Deglet Noor dates, and some specialty markets have other varieties. Don’t forget rambutans and figs.
The ABCs of local fruits and veggies? Here’s a list of some of the items now available: apples, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupes, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, grapes, green beans, kale, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, peaches, pears, peppers, plums and pluots, raspberries, scallions, squash, tomatoes, turnips, watermelons and zucchini.
Stuffed foods remind us of a bountiful harvest, which often means stuffed cabbage or other stuffed vegetable dishes, such as stuffed tomatoes or zucchini.
Locally prepared foods are abundant, too. Gourmet Again sells sliced smoked brisket with a side of barbeque sauce and onions. The brisket is so tasty, you don’t even need the sides, and they sell out whenever they have it. With a great sliced challah or challah rolls, you can create a smoked Baltimore brisket bar in your sukkah. I am a great fan of food bars that feature a main course and an array of condiments for personalizing your plate. My family is partial to my homemade mandel bread, and I intend to have a mandel bread bar. Right next to my coffee and tea station, I place a tray of mandel bread with little dishes of toppings for dipping. (No double dipping allowed!)
Challah is always welcome, but here is a way to really ratchet up the yum factor. If you make your own challahs, try adding some flavors, sweet or savory, such as caramelized chopped onions, chopped apples and cinnamon, chocolate or berries. If you like this idea but aren’t up to baking it yourself, try going to shopchallywood.com. Challywood is a kosher pareve bakery in Queens, N.Y., that has all the flavors I mentioned and more. It delivers, often overnight. The prices are super reasonable, with free shipping for a minimum order. Challywood bakes luscious flavors: choco-cherry, choco-coconut, blueberry pull-apart and more. I have had them, and they are scrumptious. And like all challahs, you can freeze them if you need to. Yes, you can have a Sukkot challah bar, too. I know I will.
Continue the harvest theme in your table décor. No fancy flowered centerpieces for me on Sukkot. I use mason jars, shallow trays, glasses and other containers to create a tablescape of dried and fresh fruits and veggies. I admit that I sometimes use Pinterest to look at table décor and to borrow ideas. I searched Pinterest for Sukkah décor and found photos of unique, easy-to-make candle holders for evening in the Sukkah. Slice off the tops of apples and/or colorful gourds, and hollow them out far enough to set a tea light inside each one.
Here are some more kitchen tips and recipes. Enjoy the bounty and the leeway that allow you to make new creations and traditions for your sweet and savory Sukkot.