By its very nature as a harvest festival, Sukkot is the Jewish holiday of our dreams, the one least affected by restrictions imposed by the coronavirus on this year’s observances. Whereas Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur found so many families sitting before computer screens attempting to follow services and share meals virtually, Sukkot promises the possibility of real human interaction, because it’s celebrated outside.
Sukkot marks the end of the harvest as well as the period when Jews survived in the wilderness after fleeing the bonds of slavery in Egypt. To celebrate, they construct small temporary structures called sukkahs, which can be tent-like or hut-like and must have open-air elements and roofs made from (or covered with) branches, leaves, and other organic materials. Over a week-long period (seven days in Israel and eight everywhere else), they take their meals, socialize, and sometimes sleep in their sukkahs — and it’s traditional to lay out an array of foods so visitors can graze as they go.
We asked Jewish chefs and cookbook writers what they were cooking for Sukkot, and how their celebrations might look different this year in light of Covid-19. Their responses are below, along with a slew of delicious seasonal recipes suitable for Sukkot or any autumn meal.
Molly Yeh, North Dakota-based cookbook author and host of Food Network’s “Girl Meets Farm:”
How She’s Celebrating: I haven’t done a Sukkot celebration in a while because, ironically, [my husband] Nick and I are always too busy with the actual harvest. But now with [baby] Bernie in the picture I’m thinking it might really be fun to decorate a Sukkah.
We celebrated Rosh Hashanah outside and socially distanced, which was actually really beautiful! Rosh Hashanah is always on the perfect Fall day. Rather than serving food family-style, I was able to pull out my cute school lunch trays and give everyone their whole meal at once. I actually had way too much fun with it. It was a shame not being able to travel and see more people, but we had the loveliest celebration.
How Covid Is Affecting Her Holiday Cooking: The only thing I did differently was that I made individually sized challah loaves instead of big loaves so that everyone had their own serving.
Advice: Having Bernie was the major way that I’ve been able to make our tiny celebrations feel way more special…so… I guess ‘have kids’ is my greatest advice?? Also, listen to the Unorthodox podcast. It’s made me feel less isolated for years.
What’s Cooking: I have some shawarma stuffed peppers and some pita ribollita that’s on my site that’s warming and nice. And tomato squash soup from my book, “Molly On The Range” is always a good choice.
Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, authors of “The Berkshires Farm Table Cookbook:”
How They’re Celebrating: We will have a sukkah — made New England-friendly with outdoor heaters — and socially distanced guests, so not too different, but fewer guests. We love to entertain in large numbers.
Last night [Elisa] made four batches of our cookbook’s apple bread recipe using honeycrisps we picked ourselves at a local orchard. And I have one more huge load of apples in our refrigerator. Plus we’re returning to another local orchard this weekend to do more picking (a great Sukkot activity!). I’m going to send loaves to each of my siblings since we’re spread over the country and can’t be together either for Sukkot or the High Holidays.
We actually have two book talks for Sukkot on the same day [September 30], one with the JCC of Miami Beach, which is through the Jewish Book Council, and the second, another Jewish Organization that found one of our themes (that buying local is in consonance with Jewish values) to resonate.
Their Sukkot Message: Support organizations that are out there to support local farmers. There’s one called Berkshire Grown in our area, one in the Pioneer Valley called CISA, which does a wonderful job, and Roots Rising, a local organization that helps to feed those who can’t afford local food. These organizations are all over. Support farmers in your area and find ways to buy local. Sukkot — the harvest festival — when we’re conscious of bringing in our harvest and sharing it and gathering in the sukkah, it’s a really good time to share this message.
Advice: Send food if you can’t be together. Also, eating local is easier than ever — it’s not just a summer event for those in colder climates. The farmers we interviewed have increasingly found ways to extend their farming well into the shoulder seasons. So it’s still easy to buy local for Sukkot.
What’s Cooking: Definitely the apple bread. And one recipe in the book that’s a little more intricate, that takes more time because there are more steps to it, is our Confetti Vegetable and Goat Cheese Lasagna. That’s definitely a crowd favorite. It’s got zucchini, summer squash, peppers, eggplant… It’s a great recipe for this time of year, and you can sub in and sub out vegetables. It’s a beautiful, beautiful lasagne.
Here’s a recipe for pumpkin bread too!
Danielle Renov, New York-born, Jerusalem-based author of the cookbook and blog “Peas Love & Carrots:”
How She’s Celebrating: I live in an apartment building and our sukka is one flight down. They’re all built in the parking lot outside of our building. It’s kind of like a shanty town in the best possible way. The kids run around and it’s such nice vibes. I think the vibe in Jerusalem will be affected this year because usually Jerusalem gets flooded with tourists, and this year that won’t be happening.
I love Sukkus because I’m an extrovert and it’s a billion times more opportunity for me to talk and converse with people. This year there will be a different feel in the air. We can have some guests at Sukkus because it’s outdoors. Obviously it won’t be as abundant with guests as it is in previous years. But after months of only making food my family likes, company is a good excuse to make those dishes you don’t regularly make. I’m really looking forward to that.
And Sukkus usually I’d make 10 to 12 different salatim, now with fewer people I’m going to have to be more selective. I’m going to have to choose five or six, and it can be difficult to choose.
What’s Cooking: I always make Moroccan Fish the first night of Sukkus, because even though I live in a desert where it’s not cold on Sukkus, I grew up in New York, so in my mind you need something warm and comforting to dip your challah in.
What else do we do for food? It’s a more fun type of food. It’s not Shabbos so you can reheat things. I like to make party foods that lend themselves to having guests. I always make watermelon granita. When people walk into the sukkah they get this shot of icy refreshing granita, a little alcohol to get you in the mood to sit at a table with tons of people that all have different views and opinions, and just take the edge off. It’s cool and crisp and refreshing.
We don’t really do a lot of day trips on Sukkus because my husband likes to stay in the Sukkot.
I usually make a really nice brunch at 10 or 10:30 a.m. Shakshuka, pancakes, cheese platters, I’ll go to the shuk in the morning to buy delicious fresh breads, I’ll make some sort of break pudding, and I’ll leave it out all day until three, four o’clock. Every day I make a really nice brunch and for dinner we’ll barbecue. We try to keep the food really fun and the vibe really relaxed. The only thing that will really change is the pop-in visitors, which we’ll really miss. That’s the great thing about Sukkus, everyone’s out in their tents, they’re not hidden in people’s backyards, it’s a really open-door policy time of year, and there’s so much hospitality in those seven days. We love it and we hope that to whatever extent it can happen this year it does. The sukkah is four cloth walls and open on top and we cover it with palm leaves. We can keep it open enough that people can walk in. In Israel it’s the law to wear a mask — it’s not a choice that people can make. So anybody coming in is wearing a mask.
Evan Bloom, co-owner of Wise Sons Delis in the Bay Area and co-author of “Eat Something: A Wise Sons Cookbook for Jews Who Like Food and Food Lovers Who Like Jews:”
How he’s celebrating: We used to do Sukkot with my family and they built a big sukkah. I think this year’s a great opportunity to be outside with your friends and family. I couldn’t think of a better excuse. We talk in the book about how Sukkot is this holiday that should be more widely celebrated. Especially now. You don’t need to be cooped up inside. You can set up a big table in your makeshift sukkah, and it’s perfect with the times.
What’s Cooking: Not a Lower East Side Knish from our “Eat Something” cookbook.