Three summers ago, Alexander Rapport, the executive director of Masbia Soup Kitchen in Brooklyn, asked me for two recipes for a tzimmes booklet they were preparing for their High Holiday fundraiser to feed the poor. Mine were to be published alongside recipes from well-known Jewish cookbook authors and food bloggers. I was flattered, but thought to myself, Um… I don’t do tzimmes. Adding sugar to vegetables is definitely not part of the Jewish culinary tradition in which I was raised, savory people that we are.
A traditional side dish for Rosh Hashanah, the sweet compote of carrot circles, like golden coins, represents a wish for a sweet and prosperous year. The first-known use of the Yiddish name tzimmes is from 1892, and it is said to have originated from the German zuomuose, or “side dish.” Merriam-Webster dictionary breaks it down to zuo (at, to) and imbīz (light meal). The dictionary also shows “grimace” as the only word that rhymes with tzimmes, which indeed describes my reaction when I was first introduced to the overly sweetened dish.
I eventually agreed to contribute recipes because, one, it was for a good cause, and two, I am always up for the challenge of Mixin’ Traditions®. I couldn’t turn down a request from Rappaport, who is devoted to a venture that provides ingredients for home cooking and serves food to the needy in a dignified setting, in which they are served by volunteer wait staff, just like paying patrons of any food establishment. So I said yes and spent a summery Friday morning developing not one, but two, tzimmes recipes, one savory and the other sweet.
Tzimmes is traditionally cooked with a generous serving of brown sugar and dried fruit, such as prunes. Some top it off with another sweet ingredient, honey. Others add schmaltz and/or brisket, like their Eastern European Bubbes did. The recipe I concocted that summer morning was nowhere near as sweet as is its traditional ancestor. It included neither schmaltz nor a whole cup of brown sugar, but I did keep the dried fruit.
I like to think out my recipes before I begin write and then cook them. Aside from the ingredients’ flavor, shape, color and texture, I consider the nutritional value. I love carrots—they are so versatile, nutritious and popular, not to mention affordable, especially when serving a crowd. Carrots are loaded with beta-carotene, a nutrient that gives them their orange hue. By cooking them, we enable its absorption, which the body, in turn, converts into vitamin A, which benefits our immune system, vision and skin.
I prefer whole carrots, but peeling and cutting a few pounds is too laborious for a holiday dinner. To avoid making “a tzimmes out of it,” I opted for baby carrots instead. Dried apricots and baharat, a blend of “sweet,” warm spices characteristic to Iraqi and other Middle Eastern dishes, rounded out the natural sweetness of the carrots, without being overwhelmingly sweet. When I make it now, if necessary, I add another bit of honey or a pinch or two of sugar, approaching it like a condiment, such as salt and other spices. Parsley adds green, a color not usually present in tzimmes, and roasted almonds add crunch, also unusual for tzimmes. The final dish is beautifully jeweled and has a winning combination of flavors and textures.
Tzimmes is, of course, common for Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Passover, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have a place on the Thanksgiving table. The color and ingredients reflect the season’s orange palette, while the untraditional spicing I use here adds otherness, reminding us that the American experience is made up of different flavors.
Since the summer I developed two tzimmes recipes, the Masbia Tzimmes fundraiser has grown into an annual fundraiser; this year’s new booklet offered 70 different tzimmes recipes from Jewish cooking mavens. But don’t make a tzimmes out of it—nothing is new; it’s all an interpretation of the old, traditional recipe.