Over the years, I've shared through this column, and also personally with my friends, many main-course recipes for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Most of these have featured meats like beef brisket or short ribs, in preparations reflecting the central European traditions that so many people associate with Jewish cooking. They provide robust dishes that seem especially festive and appropriate as autumn approaches.
Such hearty specialties, however, can also pose certain challenges for the holiday. The biggest one, of course, is the fact that the tougher cuts of beef they use require slow, gentle cooking to coax them to tenderness, which can cause logistical problems for busy families in which both spouses may well have full-time jobs -- not to mention that there's probably a rush to put the meal on the table before or after an evening holiday service.
Add to that the fact that Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar, which in some years brings Rosh Hashanah in early September, and this year sees the holiday start just days after summer's end. So there's the strong possibility that the weather will still be too warm for a hot kitchen and heavy food.
Therefore, I'd like to propose something different for this year: a main course featuring fish. In fact, Jews of Sephardic heritage, from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands, often make fish the star of their Rosh Hashanah tables. Not only is fish a logical choice for countries bordering the sea, but it also has a symbolic meaning, offering up the hope for a year ahead that will be as plentiful as the creatures that swim in the waters.
My recipe for Sea Bass en Papillote with Spicy Tomato Sauce, Fennel, Olives and Capers, which is also featured in my recent book, "Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy," is an especially light but very satisfying main dish that makes use of ingredients you'll readily find in many Mediterranean, and Sephardic Jewish, kitchens -- and in just about any well-stocked supermarket. Feel free to adjust the seasonings to your taste; add other vegetables, like carrots and sweet onions; and even swap out another variety of fish fillet you might like.
Better still, the dish cooks quickly, and you can do most of the preparation in advance. Just assemble the foil packets up to several hours ahead and keep them in the refrigerator, ready to pop into a preheated oven about a quarter hour before serving. Serve the fish with steamed rice, couscous, or another grain to soak up all the delicious juices that form in the packets during cooking.
I hope you'll enjoy this great recipe not only for Rosh Hashanah but also throughout the autumn and the year ahead. Here's to your good health and happiness!
SEA BASS EN PAPILLOTE WITH SPICY TOMATO SAUCE, FENNEL, OLIVES AND CAPERS
4 skinless sea bass fillets, each about 6 ounces (185 g)
Freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil-flavored nonstick cooking spray
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) store-bought bottled arrabbiata sauce or other spicy tomato pasta sauce
1/4 cup (60 ml) oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, well drained and patted dry, cut into strips 1/4 inch (6 mm) wide
2 tablespoons drained small capers
24 pitted Kalamata olives, halved lengthwise
1 small fennel bulb trimmed, halved and sliced crosswise into thin shavings
8 fresh basil leaves
Adjust the oven shelf to the middle position and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. (230 degrees C).
Tear 4 sheets of aluminum foil, each large enough to fold over and comfortably enclose a sea bass fillet along with some sauce and vegetables. Lightly season each fillet on both sides with salt and pepper. Lightly spray one side of each foil sheet with nonstick cooking spray and center a fillet on one half of each sheet.
Spoon 6 tablespoons of arrabbiata sauce over each fillet. Dot each fillet evenly with sun-dried tomatoes, capers, and olives. Arrange the fennel shavings over the fish and place 2 basil leaves on top.
Fold the foil over each fillet. Double-pleat the edges of the foil tightly to create airtight seals on the packets. Carefully transfer the packets to a baking sheet, place the baking sheet in the preheated oven, and bake for about 15 minutes.
Carefully transfer each foil packet to a dinner plate. Warn your guests in advance to watch out for and keep clear of the steam inside. Then, with the tip of a sharp knife, puncture each packet to let out some of the steam and let everyone carefully open their packets to eat the fish and toppings.
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