Gail Simmons Makes Mini Matzoh Balls, Eats Smoked Turkey on Rosh Hashanah

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The Top Chef judge shares her holiday plans and tips.

Gail Simmons is having a week. She premiered her new show Star Plates on Tuesday at 11pm, revealed her second Grub Street Diet in 10 years, and she’s getting ready to host a ton of family and friends for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins this Sunday evening. Here, she shares the full scoop on her Rosh Hashanah menu and her number one tip for making Jewish food for a crowd.

Rosh Hashanah Dinner

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish New Year and there is a ton of symbolism of roundness and the circle of life, so you traditionally have round challah. I’ve already organized my challah, which takes some doing because you can’t find round challah everywhere. I sit on the board of Hot Bread Kitchen, which is a local bread baking non-profit in the city and I have ordered from them two special round challahs – one whole wheat and one raisin.

The other thing that’s really important for Rosh Hashanah is the symbolism of having a sweet year, which is represented by apples and honey. This year I think I might do an apple galette for dessert and we always do raw apples dipped in honey, which is my daughter’s favorite part of the meal because we let her eat a lot of honey and who doesn’t want to eat straight up sugar when you’re two and a half years old?

My daughter is also super into matzoh balls and even though this isn’t Passover and the matzoh ball isn’t necessarily something that’s done for Rosh Hashanah, my mother-in-law and my daughter love to make matzoh balls together. It’s sort of become a tradition when my mother-in-law comes to town, so they’re going to make matzoh balls on Sunday during the day. And we make them really small. We make mini matzoh balls instead of those massive hockey pucks that you often see when you go to a Jewish deli. We make them really small so they’re bite-sized for her. And we always put a little dill and black pepper in them so they are a little more flavorful.

We do them with chicken soup. In fact, in my upcoming cookbook (Fall 2017), I’m doing the ultimate chicken soup called a Mish Mosh. You make chicken stock, shredded chicken and matzoh balls. Then, you fortify the stock with barley, carrots, parsnips, dill and lemon, and you put the shredded chicken and matzoh balls back in so you have a one-pot meal that is everything you want. If you want to be really untraditional, you grate a little bit of parmesan cheese on top. This is really un-Jewish, but it’s really yummy because it gives it some zestiness. Plus a little squeeze of lemon juice. I don’t know if we’ll do the full Mish Mosh this year. We might make a simpler chicken soup because there will be so much other food.

I sound so traditional with this menu and we’re generally not, but it’s nice for my daughter to see all these passed-down recipes and we like to get her involved in the process.

Rosh Hashanah Lunch

For lunch the next day, we are hosting about 12 friends, including F&W editor-in-chief Nilou Motamed. Since I will be cooking most of dinner, my mother-in-law will be cooking most of lunch. She is from Montreal and she has a guy who smokes turkeys for her specially. So she’s just driving half of a hand-smoked turkey across the border in her trunk. It’s vacuum-sealed and she probably keeps it on ice packs. With our smoked turkey, we’ll probably do a more traditional lunch situation of bagels and lox and spreads and shmears and a couple of big salads and green things. And this is also when a traditional apple honey cake comes in.

Rosh Hashanah Tip

My tip always, whether it’s Rosh Hashanah or just entertaining a big group of people, is make everything in advance. There are so many opportunities for stress during the holidays, especially if you’re spending the day in synagogue, and the great thing about Jewish food is so much of it can be made ahead of time.

Do your brisket in advance. Both my mother-in-law and my mother used to make the brisket a month in advance, in the summer when they were totally unstressed and had nothing better to do. And then they would freeze it. You defrost it, warm it, slice it. You put it in a sauce and warm it in the oven and it’s more delicious actually. Brisket is something you want to make at least a few days in advance to let the flavors all come together. Even matzoh ball soup, you make your stock and matzoh balls well in advance. They will hold for a couple of days. Even the kugel could be done in advance and frozen. Frozen raw and then baked – I bet it would be great. You cook the noodles, assemble it, freeze it and then cook it later.

I also believe in asking for help, like going to the local deli for your lox and cream cheese and bagels, so all you have to do is slice tomatoes and onions and put out a bunch of capers and you’re good to go. It’s all about being organized on the holidays, and this is all stuff that keeps and sits for a long time—and also sits in your stomach for a long time. All beige food. Serve a big, crunchy green salad with it and you have the perfect meal.

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