Tel Aviv, Israel If recently you've noticed a Jewish neighbor nailing boards together and gathering branches for a funny-looking shack in his backyard, don't worry - he isn't in the doghouse. He's just preparing a "sukkah," or transient shack, to celebrate Sukkot, the weeklong Jewish harvest holiday, falling just four days after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
This custom dates back thousands of years, to when, according to the Bible, the Jewish people lived in temporary huts in the wilderness on their way back to the Promised Land. To remind them of their liberation, the Bible instructs them, "In booths ye shall dwell seven days ... that your generations may know that in booths I made the children of Israel dwell when I brought them out from the land of Egypt."
But like most holidays in the Bible, Sukkot also coincides with an agricultural event in the land of Israel: the autumn harvest. And like Thanksgiving, it is a celebration of the bounty of the earth.
In ancient times, the same type of temporary huts served as shelters in fields and orchards, as people gathered fresh figs and pomegranates, dates, olives and grapes to dry, press, pickle and preserve for winter use.
Sukkot was an "ingathering" in another sense, as well, for like Passover and the spring holiday of Shavuot, it was a pilgrimage festival, when tens of thousands of ancient Israelites would gather on the Temple mount in Jerusalem with offerings of their produce.
Ancient Jewish religious writings suggest decorating the sukkah, through whose roof one must be able to see the stars at night, with "handmade carpets and tapestries, nuts, almonds, peaches, pomegranates, branches of grape, vines ... wreathes of ears of grain."
Today, people often string up peppers, Indian corn, apples and gourds, and decorate their huts' fabric-lined walls with children's drawings - or, for an accent on the environment, with mobiles made of recycled materials.
Inside the sukkah, Jewish people eat their meals with friends and family, study, sing and relax. In modern versions of tradition, they may invite in holy symbolic guests: the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Bible, as well as great men and women of the past who are important to them.
Although our family opts for a Bedouin-style interpretation of a sukkah, with carpets and big pillows on the floor, and a large round tray for serving, most people prefer table-and-chair convenience.
As for food, the riches of the harvest are relished but the guideline is convenience. For dining al fresco, cooks choose dishes that can easily be carried out - a hearty soup, stew or casserole. The following harvest-time recipes reflect the Sukkot tradition.
Chicken in Dates, Olive Oil and 12 Garlic Cloves
3-pound chicken, cut into serving pieces
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
12 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1 medium onion, separated into rings
1 1/2 cups whole pitted dates, packed (see note)
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 cup dry red wine
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Rinse the chicken and place in a bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand for a few minutes. Using a sharp knife, scrape the skin to remove excess surface fat. Dry and place in a non-aluminum roasting pan. Mix together the rest of the ingredients except for the thyme, and pour over the chicken. Spread the whole thyme sprigs around the chicken. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 12 hours, turning the chicken pieces occasionally.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Turn the chicken so the skin side faces up in the roasting pan. Cover and bake for 45 minutes, turning once. Remove the cover and continue baking until golden brown on both sides, about 15 minutes. Serve with long-grain rice, preferably cooked with a little turmeric for color.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Note: Use large Medjool dates if they are available; if not, use a drier type of date rather than the soft pitted kind, which tends to fall apart with long cooking.
Bulgur and Pomegranate Seed Salad
1 cup fine bulgur wheat (see note)
2 bunches fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups)
Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt, to taste
Seeds from 1 medium pomegranate
Place the bulgur in a bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand until the bulgur is softened. Drain in a wire mesh strainer and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Blend in the parsley and mint. In a small bowl, mix together olive oil, lemon juice and salt to taste. Pour dressing over the salad; add the pomegranate seeds (but save a few to garnish the top) and mix in with a fork.
Serve on a large serving platter in the center of the table, or divide among smaller plates. Garnish with additional pomegranate seeds and serve.
Makes 4 servings.
Note: Bulgur wheat is available in Middle Eastern stores and many supermarkets.
Zucchini Tea Bread With Cinnamon and Nutmeg
4 medium zucchini (to yield 3 cups coarsely grated)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup light brown or regular granulated sugar
1 tablespoon real vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnuts
Confectioners' sugar, optional
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour greased a 12-cup fluted tube pan or a 16-by-5-by-4-inch loaf pan.
Grate the zucchini coarsely and set aside in a strainer placed over a bowl; press with back of a wooden spoon to remove excess moisture. Let stand 10 minutes. Sift the flours, soda and spices together. In the bowl of an electric mixer or food processor, blend the oil and eggs, sugar and vanilla until smooth. Add the flour mixture and blend well. Mix in the grated zucchini and nuts; pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, depending on pan, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. If desired, sprinkle the top with a little confectioners' sugar passed through a strainer. Serve warm.
Makes 1 loaf of tea bread.
- Recipes from "The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking" by Phyllis Glazer and Miriyam Glazer, HarperCollins, 2004, $29.95.