It’s easy to overlook Sukkot, which falls in the shadow of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And I think that is a shame. The fall festival, which begins on the evening of September 27 this year, acknowledges the hard journeys by Jews through history. It also asks us to be carpenters—to build a sukkah or “booth,” our own Jewish structure that is at once fragile yet powerfully connected with tradition.
This holiday resonates with me, first, because I feel like I’m a carpenter every day. Not with tree branches, wood and nails, but with my own building block: food. This construction project launched after I converted to Judaism. I thought understanding, making and sharing Jewish foods would better connect me to this new culture. But part of the foundation turned out to be learning more about the Italian food of my Dad’s side. Thus my Jewish-Italian culinary building project truly began.
But that’s not all I love about Sukkot. The holiday asks simple, important and beautiful things: to be thankful for the season’s bounty, to appreciate and respect the temporary nature of life and to eat and be joyful together with others, outside, even leaving gaps in the roof. How can this commandment to pause, be open and look up not be considered a gift?
The holiday is also known as zman simchateinu (the season of our rejoicing). More than any other Jewish holiday, Sukkot emphasizes joy. Even after many years, I always feel a little bit new to Judaism, so I find the theme reassuring—that whatever I cobble together, there is joy in it as well as the sharing of it.
And for someone who loves cooking and eating, Sukkot offers me even more pleasure in that the food traditions involve neither fasting nor matzah. In fact, the traditions are quite relaxed. The fall harvest fruits and vegetables fit naturally as do foods that are easy to carry and keep warm outside, like casseroles and stews. Another tradition calls for filled or stuffed foods, symbolizing plenty.
For a new Jewish-Italian-inspired Sukkot dish this year, risotto seemed ideal. Not only because it’s so warm and satisfying, but also because rice has been on a culinary journey itself. Starting in India and China, rice spread to Persia and then Israel, and then later on, with the Ottoman Empire’s expansion, to Spain and Sicily among other places. The preparation for risotto most likely was inspired by rice dishes brought to Italy by exiled Spanish and Sicilian Jews. Like Jews through history—especially on Sukkot—rice made a home wherever it was.
Even better, a simple, quick risotto can be “built” into something truly special for Sukkot—a Jewish-Italian bomba di riso, a baked casserole with a cheese filling. Though traditionally made in a ring mold, the layers work beautifully in a regular dish (nice for taking it outside). For my new recipe, I wanted the filling to have a more robust fall flavor, so I included roasted and lightly mashed shallots and butternut squash, the latter reminiscent of the favored fall squash of Italy’s Jews, the zucca barucca. Luscious Italian fontina cheese added buttery creaminess, and a top dusting of Parmesan created a golden thin crust. Simple, yet spectacular.
From the ingredients to the shape to the flavors, this represents so much of what I love about Sukkot—the building of connections and the honoring of journeys, both physical and spiritual. And it doesn’t ask a lot of you. If you don’t have a sukkah, just take it outside with some spoons, look up at the stars and be thankful.