For Once in Your Life, Go Ahead: Make a Tsimmes!

By Matthew Goodman

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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Though it is mostly derived from German and the Slavic languages, Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters, which are notoriously tricky to transliterate into English. As evidence, we need cite but a couple of examples: the disputable bubbe-mayseh (bobeh-myseh? bube-maiseh? there is no end to the tale) and the unfortunate nebbish (which could, poor thing, just as well be nebbech, if not nebech or even nebish). In the kitchen, we find the ever-variable tsimmes — or, as it is also produced, tzimmes, tzimes, tsimes and tsimiss, and in a host of other permutations.

With tsimmes, there are at least as many variations in the making as there are in the spelling. Still, as with the name, the preparations might vary slightly but tend not to stray very far from the basic idea: that is, a long-simmered, sweetened stew. Within that general framework, tsimmes can be divided into two major classes — with meat and without — although even here there are more similarities than differences. Whether or not meat is used, tsimmes generally includes potatoes (sweet potatoes, which in recent years have become pretty common in tsimmes, are an American contribution), carrots and dried fruit, which is usually, though not exclusively, prunes; the tsimmes is spiced with cinnamon (though paprika may be used instead) and sweetened with honey and sometimes, in more nouveau renditions, orange juice.

Tsimmes originated in Germany, where there is a long history of cooking meat with fruit and vegetables in stews. (Interestingly enough, combining meat and fruit in savory stews is also a hallmark of the cookery of the Jews of Iran and Iraq, tracing back to a very different source — medieval Persia.) As the dish began in Germany, it would seem logical enough that the name is likewise German in origin, and this is indeed the case. According to Robert Rothstein, professor of Slavic and Judaic studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (whom I asked about this), the Yiddish word tsimmes is derived from the Middle High German word zuomuose, which referred to a dish served alongside the main course. Often this dish was in the form of a compote — that is, a stewed purée — made with vegetables, herbs and dried fruit. Rothstein further informed me that the prefix zu- (in Yiddish, tsu-) indicates something added on, while the root word has various meanings, including porridge, vegetables and food in general. The root is preserved in the modern-German word Mus, which refers to a mush or purée. (From this also comes muesli, the granola-like breakfast cereal made from grains and dried fruits.)

As the Ashkenazic Jews moved eastward from Germany and began speaking Yiddish, the word eventually evolved into tsimmes, which over time assumed another connotation: “a big fuss.” (The phrase makhn a tsimmes — literally, “to make a tsimmes” — is used when someone is thought to be making too much of an issue of something.) The source of this, undoubtedly, is the amount of peeling and chopping required to make a tsimmes. Still, the necessary effort has not deterred Jewish cooks from turning, again and again, to the sweet stew — and never more so than around this time of year.

Among Ashkenazic Jews, tsimmes is probably the most beloved of all the dishes traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah, the festive holiday that features honey-sweetened foods. Adding to tsimmes’s holiday appeal, the sliced carrots that are an integral part of the dish are said to resemble golden coins, which symbolize the wish that the New Year will prove to be a prosperous one; and, as it happens, the Yiddish word for carrots, mern, also means to multiply or increase — another New Year’s wish for abundance in all good things.

So is the year sure to begin if you have provided those at your dinner table abundantly with tsimmes. No matter how you spell it, there’s no more delicious dish with which to start off the New Year. And really, what’s a little peeling and chopping compared with the pleasure it is sure to bring? If you want your loved ones to make a big fuss over your Rosh Hashanah dinner, you need only makh a tsimmes.

* * *

This recipe comes from Esther Rudomin Hautzig of New York, who learned it from her mother, Raya. Esther is the author of several acclaimed novels for young readers, including “The Endless Steppe,” “A Gift for Mama” and “A Picture of Grandmother,” the latter two set in her childhood home of Vilna.

Floymen Tsimmes (Honey-Sweetened Brisket With Vegetables and Prunes)

1 brisket, about 4 pounds

1/2 teaspoon paprika

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

flour for dredging

3 tablespoons vegetable oil or rendered chicken fat

4 onions, sliced

about 3 cups beef stock or water

2 pounds small white- or red-skinned potatoes, halved

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

1 1/2 cups pitted prunes, halved

1/3 cup honey, or to taste

1.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the meat with the paprika, salt and pepper. Spread some flour in a large roasting pan. Dredge the brisket in the flour, shaking off any excess. Set aside.
2.Heat the oil or fat in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and lightly colored. Remove to a plate.
3.Raise the heat to medium high. Add the meat to the pot, and cook until well browned on both sides.
4.Return the onions to the pot. Add the beef stock or water (it should nearly cover the meat). Cover the pot with a heavy, tight-fitting lid, and place it in the oven. Cook until the meat is not quite fork tender, about two-and-a-half hours, basting the meat several times with the cooking liquid. Remove the pot from the oven. Scrape the onions off the meat, back into the liquid. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
5.Remove the meat from the pot, and skim off any solidified fat on the surface of the sauce. Slice the meat thinly against the grain. Return the sliced meat to the pot. Add the potatoes, carrots, prunes and honey to the pan. Cover and cook on the stovetop over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the meat and vegetables are fully tender, about another hour. Transfer to a large serving platter. Serve hot.

Serves eight to 10.

* * *

This is a delicious and unusual meatless variety of tsimmes. Eudice Mesibov of Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., likes to call it “Secret Tsimmes.” Why? “A number of years ago,” she explained, “I visited an acquaintance in a distant place. She told me she was going to make the best tsimmes ever. At the supermarket, she ordered me to pick up the ingredients as she read them out from a 3-inch-by-5-inch card. When we got home, she called out the cooking and measuring instructions, all the while holding the card out of my sight. When I said, ‘It’ll go much faster if you put the card down where I can see the instructions,’ she pushed the card against her chest and replied, ‘No, no, this is a secret!’ The next morning, as soon as I got into my plane seat, I wrote the recipe down. (I have a very good memory.) Over the years I have made changes. The dried fruits now include more varieties, and I soak them in sweet wine.”

Tsimmes With Marsala and Dried Fruit

1/2 cup pitted prunes, halved

1/3 cup dried pitted dates, halved

1/3 cup dried figs, quartered

1/4 cup raisins

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup dried apricots, halved

about 1 cup Marsala wine (mixed with a little brandy, if desired) to cover

6 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds

6 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 cup orange juice

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1.Place the dried fruit in a medium bowl, and stir to combine. Cover with the Marsala and (if using) brandy. Let soak for at least one hour.
2.Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish, and place the carrots and sweet potatoes into it, stirring to combine. In a small bowl, stir together the orange juice and honey and pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes and carrots. Sprinkle the cinnamon over this. Add the dried fruits (including the soaking liquid) and stir to combine.
3.Bake, uncovered, until the vegetables are very tender, one to two hours. (If the mixture starts to dry out, add a little more orange juice.) Serve warm.

Serves eight as a side dish.






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