Of all Rosh Hashana foods, this is the most significant, at least in my family tradition. It is only made once a year, and it requires plenty of time and patience. The name, derived from German, actually means “vinegared meat”, but there is no vinegar involved. It is rather sweet, especially in my grandmother’s interpretation, but there is also a sour note, provided by lemon juice or sour salt. Therefore, another name for it is Zis Und Zovar Fleish (Sweet and Sour Meat). Although there are many Essig Fleish recipes, I have not seen one like ours anywhere. I have tasted something very similar on two separate occasions, both times in Sephardic restaurants, and both of them had the same two out of three elements of my recipe present, and one missing. Oh, and both were made of lamb, rather than beef, which is what my grandmother had claimed it should’ve been but was never available.
The first element is your basic beef stew. I supplement chuck roast by neck bones not only because I like bones much more than meat itself, but also because they add richness to the overall flavor.
Onions are minced very fine and sauteed until you get a lightly golden creamy mess, almost a paste. That takes a couple of hours.
Cube the meat and add it to the onions together with bones. Stir the whole thing, making sure meat is covered by sauteed onions.
Once the meat is seared, losing most of its red color, add water to cover it, and reduce the heat to simmering. You’ll simmer it, stirring often and adding water, if needed, for another couple of hours, until the meat literally falls off the bones.
Only when the meat is fully cooked, you can add the stuff that gave it its name, sweet and sour: prune butter, tomato sauce, and lemon juice, supplemented by sugar or substitute. “Ot azoy ist der leybn (this is how life is), – used to say my grandmother at this point, – and add with a sigh, – gamzeletoiveh!” The last word I couldn’t understand, and it didn’t even sound Yiddish to me. I’ve asked both grandparents, and all I got was “zein git“! That was already encouraging, as it means “it’ll be good.” It made sense to me, as a child, to say first “this is how life is,” and then add something positive and optimistic. It gave me a good feeling!
Only as a teenager, studying illegally obtained books and gaining forbidden in communist Russia knowledge, did I learn about the legendary Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva who lived during the Roman occupation of Palestine and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. As Rabbi Akiva was on his way to the city of Betar to meet with the leader of Jewish insurrection, Bar Kochba, his old donkey collapsed and died. On foot, he didn’t make it to Betar before nightfall, so he had to camp out in the forest. His belongings, besides the poor dead donkey, consisted of a candle, to enable him to learn, and a rooster, to wake him up in time for the morning prayer.
Well, the donkey was dead already. The candle eventually burned down, and the rooster was eaten by a fox during the night. As a result, Rabbi Akiva overslept. It is when he woke up and found that the last of his meager possessions were gone, that he remember his teacher who used to say, “Gam ze le toivo” – and this is good. When he finally made his way to Betar, he discovered that the city had been raided by the Romans during the night and all population killed, as a punishment for harboring the rebels. Had his donkey survived the trip, he would’ve made it to Betar and gotten killed. Had his candle not burned down, Roman soldiers might have found him in the forest. Had the rooster crowed at sunrise, he would’ve certainly been discovered and executed. Thus losing everything he owned turned out to have saved his life! No wonder the phrase became famous, eventually morphing into a word nobody understood but everyone repeated.
Meanwhile,the meat is happily cooking, and we have to prepare the second element, the one missing in both restaurant renditions – tefteli. These are your ordinary meatballs, Beautiful People, and how they arrived into my grandmother’s Essig Fleish, I have no idea, but the combination works! Just mix some brown rice with ground meat (I use lean turkey) and a couple of eggs and form balls the size of ping-pong balls.
Gently drop them into the simmering meat stew, making sure not to break them, and prepare the third and last element.
This is when you want to get your kids involved: stuffing pitted dry prunes with walnuts. Granted, half of both will end up in their stomachs, but they’d be snacking on good stuff!
Add the third element, stuffed prunes, to the first too, and simmer for another 20 – 30 minutes or so. Do not stir any more, but add enough water, if necessary. Adjust the taste by adding either more sweetener or more lemon juice. I am cooking it in a huge cast iron pot with a rounded bottom that my grandmother brought back from Tashkent after the war. Uzbeki use them to make plov, and that’s why we kids dubbed it “Uzbekian” pot. It is best for meat stews as nothing sticks to it.
This is life, zis und zovar, sweet and sour, like this stew, and everything eventually will be well, as per Rabbi Akiva and my grandmother.
Wishing you and yours a healthy, happy and sweet New Year, I am leaving you with another famous Rabbi Akiva’s saying:
The dissemination of all my holiday recipes to a wider audience has been made possible through a valiant effort of Esme, The Recipe Hunter, of https://cookandenjoyrecipes.wordpress.com, and her fantastic Recipe Exchange program. Thank you again, dear Esme, for performing this vitally important service for the community.
- 2 lbs chuck roast combined with neck or rib bones
- 1 lb ground lean meat or turkey
- 1 cup cooked brown rice (1/2 cup uncooked)
- 2 eggs
- 2 large or 3 medium onions
- 1 /2 cup pitted dry prunes
- 1/2 cup walnut quarters
- 1 cup Prune Butter (Lekvar) or any other thick dark jam
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon sour salt
- Sugar or substitute to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Finely mince onions, saute until lightly golden and creamy.
- Add cubed meat and bones. Mix. Sear meat, add water to cover meat and bones, reduce heat to simmering. Simmer,stirring often, until meat is fully cooked and very tender. Add water if necessary.
- Add prune butter, tomato sauce, lemon juice, sweetener. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well, add water, bring to boil, reduce to simmering. Adjust sweetener and seasoning, if needed.
- Mix ground meat with brown rice and eggs, Form balls the size of ping-pong balls. Gently place balls into simmering stew.
- Stuff prunes with walnuts. Add to pot. Cover, simmer for 20 – 30 minutes. Do not stir, otherwise you might break the meatballs.