Tsimmes has something of a PR problem. The hearty stew of root vegetables and dried fruit is a classic part of High Holiday dining for Ashkenazi Jews, from the first night of Rosh Hashanah right on through the last days of Sukkot. But aside from a few die-hard fans, it rarely tops anyone’s list as a favorite Jewish recipe. It seems to be included on tables by default—a dish that makes the holiday feel complete, but that nobody would exactly miss if it were absent.
Part of the problem is that tsimmes, as many Americans know it today, has been reduced to a gloppy, cloyingly sweet compote. Often simmered or braised for more than an hour, until the ingredients are helplessly collapsing upon themselves, it plays into the unfortunate (and unnecessary) stereotype that Ashkenazi food is bland, brown, and overcooked. It is also considered something of a potchke—a dish that, thanks to all of the chopping involved, is fussy and time-consuming to prepare. Fittingly, the Yiddish phrase machan a tsimmes (literally, making a tsimmes) translates to “making a fuss” over something. But tsimmes needn’t be boring or overly demanding. On the contrary, the best tsimmes recipes can be extraordinary.
Throughout history and across kitchens, tsimmes has taken on many diverse forms. Like kugel, tsimmes might more accurately be described as a category of dishes, rather than one specific dish. In Rhapsody in Schmaltz: Yiddish Food and Why We Can’t Stop Eating It, Michael Wex writes that “tsimmes is limited only by the fruits or vegetables available and the cook’s imagination … There are tsimmesn made of apricots, raisins, apples, plums, and pears. Tsimmesn to scare your kids with; parsnip, garbanzo, green bean, farfel, lima bean, rutabaga, prune, and turnip.” These ingredients, he writes, “can be mixed and matched anyway you please.”
And mix and match cooks have. Wex notes a turnip tsimmes recipe from an 1896 Yiddish cookbook that simmered the chopped root vegetable with schmaltz and sugar. A menu from a circa-1900 kosher restaurant in London offered kischke zimmes—a common variation that incorporated rib-sticking hunks of fat-and-flour-stuffed beef intestines. Meanwhile, Jewish Cookery, published in 1949, lists nearly a dozen tsimmes recipes, including one made with prunes and rice, and another Balkan-style version with lima beans and honey. And the 1955 Molly Goldberg Cookbook (yes, from The Goldbergs of radio and television fame) argues that “to define tzimmes [sic] would be a presumption.” The author follows that statement with a tsimmes made of pumpkin, rice, sugar, butter, and sour cream that are mashed into a thick puree. “Serve as a vegetable,” the book reminds readers.
As tastes changed over the decades, tsimmes followed. Some cooks began adding canned pineapple or unexpected spices (beyond cinnamon and ginger) to the mix. Others started roasting the vegetables rather than stewing them, to improve the dish’s texture. In Joan Nathan’s 1998 Jewish Cooking in America, she includes a decidedly modern riff: a Southwestern-inspired tsimmes, which stuffs a mixture of carrots, sweet potatoes, and prunes inside Anaheim chilies.
In Jewish-American kitchens, carrots and sweet potatoes emerged as the reigning tsimmes vegetables, with dried prunes and apricots (and often a healthy dose of brown sugar, honey, or orange juice) providing sweetness. Many traditional recipes for tsimmes, and arguably the best, add hunks of brisket or flanken to the pot, which lend a welcome richness that offsets the sweet. But somewhere along the way, in a move that is arguably unusual for Ashkenazi recipes, the meat got dropped from many tsimmes recipes. That left behind a jumbled side dish of stewed vegetables and fruits that required a lot of prep, but did not end up with a lot of character.
“By the time we were growing up (in the 1980s and ’90s), the tsimmes we both had at our holiday tables left out the protein and were often overly sweet,” said Liz Alpern, who co-authored The Gefilte Manifesto with Jeffrey Yoskowitz. In the book, Alpern and Yoskowitz set out to recapture tsimmes’ soul. “We knew that tsimmes had so much potential and we wanted to explore it as a genre,” she said. To that end, The Gefilte Manifesto includes a recipe for crispy chicken with tsimmes, which roasts chicken on top of a melange of carrots, prunes, and onion. Flavored with chili flakes, fresh ginger, lemon zest, and savory drippings from the chicken skin, the tsimmes is anything but one-note.
Those who prefer to keep their tsimmes meat-free do not have to settle for mundane flavor. The key is to find other methods of capturing the elusive sweet-meets-savory balance. In a video for the Yiddish-language Forverts, Eve Jochnowitz prepares a pareve carrot-and-prune tsimmes flavored with bay leaves and chilies, and simmered in black tea. In my own kitchen, I prefer to make a few tweaks to the meatless carrot, sweet potato, and dried fruit tsimmes I grew up with (recipe here). I add red onions to the mix for aromatic depth, replace the orange juice with vegetable stock, and roast everything in a hot oven. What emerges is a sophisticated side with delightfully varied texture and a complex autumnal flavor that warms the holiday table. It is a dish worth making a fuss over.