Almonds turn nutty brown in a skillet, a popcorn-like aroma rises from a steaming pot of basmati rice, and bright yellow turmeric releases its earthy essence as it simmers with onions and beef.
Cooking for Rosh Hashana is a heady business for Mojdeh Khaghan, whose first name means good news in her native Parsi.
Many of the fragrant, colorful ingredients she uses may be unfamiliar to Jews of Eastern European backgrounds, but for the Iranian-born Khaghan, they taste like home.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown Sunday, is a time for spiritual renewal and wishes for prosperity.
I find that as I get older, time goes by so much faster. Its nice to have this holiday when we take time to think about life, accomplishments and goals, says Khaghan, who lives in Miami Beach.
It also gives her a chance to draw on the roots she put down in Iran before leaving with her family as an 11-year-old in 1979 during the Iranian revolution.
She grew up in Tehran near her grandparents, and the family celebrated Rosh Hashana in their apartment. The work of preparing the holiday meal began with shopping at outdoor market stalls and a kosher butcher shop (a madhouse around the holidays, she recalls).
Her grandmothers kitchen was small with a window overlooking an alley. It was here that the women of the family gathered to prepare the festive foods.
I watched them make everything, says Khaghan. In Iran, nothing was mechanized. All the work was done by hand. Cooking was really a production.
Some women sat on the floor to wash and pick the leaves from a pile of parsley and dill set on a metal platter, she recalls. There were no prewashed greens or hydroponics. It was dirt city.
She and her cousins were given special chores such as grinding walnuts for a stew. That was a big job. Today youd put them in a food processor, but back then you ground them by hand.
When the big night arrived, 20 to 30 guests took their seats around a dining room table set with a white lace tablecloth and covered with traditional foods to be enjoyed with the blessings and prayers.
They all were symbolic of being fertile and increasing your good deeds and merits, Khaghan says.
Dates as well as apple slices dipped in honey ensured a sweet New Year. Many-seeded pomegranates and grilled zucchini symbolized fruitfulness and plenty. There also was tongue cooked with black-eyed peas and sometimes a whole sheeps head.
Yes, it was kind of gory, Khaghan says. But it went with one of the blessings said over the food that we should be of the head and not of the tail. That we should be at the top, not the bottom.
When the last blessing was said, it was time to enjoy what are still some of Khaghans favorite dishes.
Perhaps tops on her list is the pomegranate stew with a nut-thickened sauce that makes a rich, hearty fall and winter dish. Made with prunes, pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses, the sauce cooks down to coat the chicken cubes and give them rich color.
There also is light celery stew Khaghan likes as a foil to the heavier fare. Along with chopped celery, spinach and Italian parsley, this beef stew contains two-thirds of a cup of lemon juice. It should not make you pucker up but it definitely has a sour note, says Khaghan, adding that many Iranian specialties are on the tart side.
Stews such as these are traditionally served with steamed basmati rice richly colored with saffron. If the rice is cooked properly, a coveted crust or tah-dig forms at the bottom of the pot.
You serve it on a separate platter and it goes perfectly with the stew, Khaghan says. Sometime she makes two pots of rice to have enough.
For another dish, theres Jeweled Rice. Its a colorful platter of saffron rice layered with flash-fried carrots, currants, tart barberries and almonds. The layers look like jewels nestled among the golden grains.
This year, Khaghans family will celebrate the holiday in the Northeast, at the home of her Iranian in-laws in New York on the first night and with her sister in Stamford, Conn., on the second.
Theyll set the table for 20 to 30 guests, and work together to prepare the meal. Theyll make their way through the prayers before eating their favorite dishes. And theyll share this time of renewal with family and friends.
Its nice to have this chance to pause and reflect, Khaghan says.