Rosh Hashanah is often called the Jewish New Year. While it isn't technically the first day of the Hebrew calendar, the holiday marks the spiritual head of the year — a contemplative time when people take stock and reflect on their lives and wish one another sweet times ahead. Unlike New Year's Eve, Rosh Hashanah, which falls in the autumn (this year on September 20), is less focused on countdowns and party hats, and more on all things sacred and familial. But there is still plenty of room for celebration — particularly when it comes to food.
The Jewish New Year has many food traditions associated with it, including eating round challah studded with raisins, and dipping apples into honey as symbolic embodiments of sweetness and fullness. Most families gather for a dinner filled with time-tested dishes. But home cooks who want to get creative need only look to New Year's Eve's tradition of serving appetizers and cocktail party fare for inspiration.
Read more: The Sweetness of Rosh Hashanah
Global Jewish cuisine includes a diverse selection of appetizers and small plates. Across Central and Eastern Europe cuisines, those foods — things like gefilte fish, briny dill pickles, and chopped liver — are called forspeis, literally "before foods" in Yiddish. In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Jewish cuisines, the mezze game is particularly strong. Dishes like charred eggplant salads, stuffed grape leaves, and small savory pastries are almost always served at the start of festive meals.
While researching for my new cookbook, the Little Book of Jewish Appetizers, I reached around the world to find 25 of Jewish cuisine's most delicious nibbles, noshes, and "before foods." And this year, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I am excited to share many of them at my family's celebration. Two of my favorites, vegetarian chopped liver with shallots, and borscht crostini, offer playful takes on tradition that will liven up the holiday meal.
Chopped liver (gehakte leber in Yiddish), which is undoubtedly one of the most iconic Eastern European appetizers, is commonly enjoyed at the beginning of a meal. The dip became so central to the cuisine that kosher home cooks and restaurants developed meat-free versions based on nuts, beans, and mushrooms. My take on vegetarian liver includes a creamy blend of kidney beans, walnuts, and hard-boiled eggs. It gets a deep hit of flavor from the caramelized shallots and mushrooms that are blended into the dip. Slathered on challah, it is rich, savory, and downright dreamy.
Get the recipe: Vegetarian Chopped Liver
The borscht crostini, meanwhile, is my riff on classic borscht. It takes all of the components of the beloved Eastern European soup — roasted beets and carrots, pickled red onion, sour cream, and a jumble of finely chopped dill, lemon zest, and fresh garlic — and layers them on top of crisped bread. Beets are one of the symbolic foods eaten on Rosh Hashanah, making the flavor-packed, two-bite crostini an extra-meaningful way to begin the holiday meal. Kosher keepers who are serving the appetizer ahead of a meat meal can swap out mayonnaise for the sour cream.
Get the recipe: Borscht Crostini
With all due respect to the main dishes that typically hold court on the holidays, this year try ringing in the Jewish New Year by bringing appetizers to the center of the table.