Spicing up the Jewish New Year
Labor Day was just a couple of days ago, and already we're into the autumn holiday season! Thank the lunar calendar. For thousands of years, Jewish holidays have followed the phases of the moon, so each year they fall on different days of the Gregorian calendar, some years earlier, some later. And in 2013, Rosh Hashanah (literally, "head of the year"), the Jewish New Year, comes very early -- in fact, this evening, Sept. 4.

In case you've procrastinated about deciding what to cook for your holiday main course, I thought I'd offer a delicious oven-braised recipe you can make with a quick trip to the market and very little active work on your part. It is, in fact, a traditional Jewish recipe from North Africa, given to me years ago by a Moroccan friend. And I've enjoyed making it many times in the past to help my sons celebrate their own Jewish heritage. Whether or not you decide to make the braise this evening, and whatever your own faith or traditions may be, I encourage you to save this recipe and try it the next time you want to cook a special meal.

You may or may not know that the Jews of Morocco and other countries bordering the Mediterranean follow "Sephardic" traditions--from a Hebrew term referring to the Iberian Peninsula and to the peoples who fled Spain for North Africa during the Inquisition. Sephardic customs differ in many ways from those of central Europe's Ashkenazi Jews, including their cooking styles.

As you'll see in my recipe for Braised Moroccan Lamb, Sephardic cooking features the enticing flavors you find in many North African cuisines. The meat is subtly seasoned with cumin, thyme, and rosemary, and dried fruits are plumped in the sauce during the final phase of cooking to complement the meat with sweet and tangy flavors. Yes, the results may taste just a little bit exotic, but what surprises me even more are how soothingly familiar the dish also is, reminding me of some of the sweet-and-sour braises I ate as a boy growing up in Austria. I think you'll find the results both comforting and festive.

And you'll also find the recipe surprisingly convenient. You can actually prepare it in advance up to the point you strain the sauce into a clean casserole, covering and refrigerating the sauce and meat separately. Then, before serving, return the meat to the casserole along with the almonds and dried fruit and continue oven-braising, adding 15 to 30 minutes extra cooking time to heat the meat thoroughly. (Test its internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer, which should read 165 degrees F.)

May you have a wonderful year ahead!


Serves 4 to 6

1-1/2 pounds whole boned and trimmed lamb shoulder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves


4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped

1 large organic carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves