If you don’t already know tsimmes, it’s hard to explain its appeal. It’s a sweetened pot of mostly orange fruits and vegetables — apricots, carrots, sweet potatoes, prunes, and honey — traditional on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that begins on the evening of Sept. 9. Sometimes the dish stays in the oven so long, everything starts to fall apart. That just adds to its charm. If you were raised on it, tsimmes (pronounced tzih-mis) is comfort food, exactly what you want to see on the High Holiday table surrounded by family and friends.
Tsimmes has roots in the Middle Ages in Germany, when fruits and vegetables were cooked for hours with meat. The pairing may have originated in Persia. Today, that pot is simmered with beef brisket or chuck roast, though now there are meatless versions, too. In this thoroughly modern adaptation, tsimmes acts as a bed for a split chicken roasted on top. Everything is nestled together in a large baking dish that you can bring right to the table.
In Yiddish, tsimmes, spelled various ways, including tzimmes, means “fuss” or “commotion,” but there’s nothing here to suggest that. Apricots, golden raisins, and prunes are part of this mix and need no prep, sweet potatoes are cut into wedges with their skins intact, and all that’s left to do is chop plenty of fresh herbs. They’re crucial here, to balance the sweetness — though this dish uses only two spoons of honey (the golden elixir is said to sweeten the year ahead) — as does grated lemon rind and juice.
I leave the carrots out (by all means add a couple), and though I like sweet potatoes in the pot, a relatively recent addition by American Ashkenazi Jews, there are other newish flavorings that I also omit: cinnamon, brown sugar, orange juice, pineapple juice, candied fruits, and apples.
I think the dried fruits and sweet potatoes are just right on their own, and while the chicken is roasting, the fruits at the edges of the dish turn quite brown and then char, which offers another alluring texture. Add a shower of fresh herbs to all the layers before they go into the oven, and again when they emerge. They’re all this ancient dish needs.
Roast chicken on tsimmes
|1||whole chicken (about 3½ pounds), split in half, backbone removed|
|4||tablespoons olive oil|
|Salt and pepper, to taste|
|Olive oil (for the pan)|
|1½||cups golden raisins|
|1½||cups dried apricots|
|½||cup pitted prunes|
|2||sweet potatoes (unpeeled), cut into 2-inch spears|
|Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon|
|4||tablespoons chopped mixed fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary, and mint|
|Extra sprigs fresh oregano, thyme, rosemary, and mint (for garnish)|
1. On a rimmed baking sheet, set the chicken halves skin side down. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Turn and sprinkle the skin side with 1 tablespoon of the oil, salt, and pepper. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 2 hours or for as long as overnight.
2. Set the oven at 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking dish (9-inches-by-13-inches) that will fit the chicken halves comfortably.
3. In the baking dish, combine the raisins, apricots, prunes, and sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with lemon rind and juice, honey, 1 tablespoon of the chopped herbs, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. With your hands, turn the mixture several times to toss it. Pour in the water at the edges.
4. Set the chicken halves, skin side up, on the fruits and potatoes. Sprinkle the chicken with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the chopped herbs.
5. Roast the chicken for 1½ hours, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh registers 180 degrees. Test the sweet potatoes with a skewer. If they are not tender, remove the chicken from the pan and cover it loosely with foil. Cover the roasting pan with foil and return it to the oven for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
6. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon chopped herbs and garnish with the herb sprigs. Sheryl Julian