Photos by Rita Maas

In every corner of the world, people distinguish the important moments of life by eating and drinking together. During these celebrations, foods do more than nourish; they symbolize a tapestry of traditions central to each culture's heritage. The end of the calendar year—dark midwinter in the northern hemisphere—is often marked with the lighting of candles and fires, accompanied by a special meal, perhaps the one time each year when extended families gather, share food, remember, and give thanks for the journey.

During Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, tables are ablaze with candles and loaded with dishes enriched with oil, particularly fritters and doughnuts, to commemorate the miraculous renewal of the oil in the temple lamps. At Christmas, the Christian celebration of Jesus' birth, blazing fires, flaming puddings, and roasted meats are enjoyed in a spirit of merriment that owes much to the saturnalia of Roman times; on Christmas Eve, Mediterranean Roman Catholics redress the balance with a simple, meatless meal known as the fasting supper.

The modern African-American festival of Kwanzaa, now celebrated by millions, expresses the deep-rooted desire to join together and honor a common ancestral heritage at the dawn of a new year with foods reminiscent of African culture. At No-Rooz, the ancient Persian festival celebrating renewal and rebirth at the time of spring planting, a copy of the Koran is placed on the table alongside the food, and the most senior person present recites from the sacred text.

Other ritual celebrations, secular or religious, are similarly marked by feasts and fellowship. But always, festive foods are rich and carefully prepared, often with children at hand to ensure that the next generation learns the traditions of its ancestors.

This year when you cook up your midwinter feast, give thanks. Nature's good things—harvest, birth, changing seasons, even a peaceful death—are rites of passage that can be honored with a wonderful celebratory meal.

Soupe de Lasagnes (Provencale Pasta Soup)

Serves 6 / The traditional Christmas Eve "fasting supper" in Upper Provence is a delicious winter-vegetable soup, meatless but fortified with pasta. The ribbon noodles' frilled edges are said to remind participants of the curls of the infant Jesus. Olive oil or a garlic mayonnaise (aioli) is passed around separately to allow participants to adhere as strictly to the rules of fasting as they please.

3-4 stalks celery, washed and cut into short lengths
3-4 large carrots, scraped and roughly chopped
3-4 young turnips, peeled and roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (optional)
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
8 cups cold water
1 teaspoon salt
6 ounces lasagne or papardelle (frilly edges optional), broken into bite-size pieces
5-6 stalks chard, washed and cut into short lengths
1/4 head cabbage, cut into fine strips
3-4 leeks, trimmed, well-washed and cut into thin rings
Salt and pepper
Olive oil or garlic mayonnaise (aioli)

1. In a large pot, cover celery, carrots, turnips, garlic, and herbs with water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until vegetables are nearly done, 10-15 minutes.

2. Add pasta and return to a boil. Add chard, cabbage, and leeks in order, bringing back to a boil between additions. Cook over medium-high heat for 20 minutes, or until pasta is tender. Taste and adjust seasonings.

3. Ladle broth and vegetables into deep soup plates. Enrich with oil or aioli, if desired.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:
Calories: 205
% fat calories: 4
Fat: 1g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Carbohydrate: 43g
Protein: 7g

Reprinted with permission from Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard (Chicago Review Press, 2001).

Pongal (Sweet Rice with Cardamom and Fruit)

Serves 10 / Also called pukkai, this is always served at the Tamil festival of Thai Pongal, held in mid-January at the time of the rice harvest. Only pure white rice and very fresh milk will do for this Hindu temple offering; the fruit, spices, and sugar make the dish particularly fragrant and worthy of the deity's attention. To husk gram (mung beans), lightly roast in a dry pan, crush with a rolling pin to loosen skins, and toss to separate out kernels. Serve the pongal warm, with fresh mango to refresh the palate. Best spooned onto banana leaves, although bowls will do.

5 cups fresh whole milk, plus more as necessary
1-1/2 cups long-grain rice
1/4 cup husked green gram (mung beans; optional)
2 short cinnamon sticks
1/2 teaspoon cardamom seeds
2-3 handfuls chopped dates or raisins
1-2 ripe bananas, sliced
2/3 cup brown sugar

1. Place milk, rice, optional gram, cinnamon, and cardamom in a roomy pot. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently for 1 hour or so, until rice is perfectly tender and has absorbed most of the liquid.

2. Add more hot milk if mixture appears to be drying out. When consistency is thick and gooey, stir in dates or raisins, bananas, and sugar. (Be careful: If sugar is added too soon, rice will remain crunchy.) Remove from heat and let sit for about 20 minutes to allow dried fruit to rehydrate.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 297 calories
% fat calories: 13
Fat: 5g
Saturated Fat: 3g
Cholesterol: 16mg
Carbohydrate: 58g
Protein: 8g

Reprinted with permission from Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard (Chicago Review Press, 2001).

Sfenj (Orange Doughnuts)

Makes about 20 / These doughnuts, fragrant with orange, are eaten in Morocco to celebrate Hanukkah. Pack some in a basket to take into the street and hand out to passers-by, fulfilling the feast-day duty of almsgiving, observed by most religions.

4 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt<
2 teaspoons dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar
3 medium eggs, lightly whisked
1/2 cup orange juice
Grated zest of 1 orange
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Vegetable oil for frying
Powdered sugar
Finely grated orange zest

1. Bring all ingredients to room temperature.

2. Toss flour and salt with yeast and sugar. Make a well in the middle of the flour and pour in eggs, orange juice, zest, and oil. Knead until the dough is soft and pliable but no longer sticky (you may need a little more flour or water). Work into a ball.

3. Rub dough surface lightly with oil and drop back into bowl. Cover and let rise until doubled in bulk, at least 1 hour (rich dough takes longer than regular dough).

4. Punch down dough with your fist. Form dough into a rope. Cut into 20 pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Transfer to a floured tray and set in a warm place to rise for another hour, until again doubled in bulk.

5. Heat just enough frying oil to submerge doughnuts. As soon as oil is very hot, slip in a few balls of dough at a time. Fry, flipping once, until golden brown and well-risen. Remove and drain on paper towels. Finish with a dusting of powdered sugar and grated orange zest.

Nutrition Facts Per Piece:

Calories: 160 calories
% fat calories: 33
Fat: 6g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 32mg
Carbohydrate: 23g
Protein: 3g

Yassa (Pot-Roast Chicken with Greens and Peanuts )

Serves 6 / A perfect choice for Karamu, the central feast of Kwanzaa, this fragrant, slow-cooked chicken casserole is served at weddings, initiations, and other tribal gatherings by the Senegalese people of Equatorial Africa. African chickens are lean little birds with a gamey flavor; Cornish hens make a good substitute. Serve piled high on a dish, with mashed yam, white rice, and fried plantains.

2 Cornish hens or 1 chicken, cut into serving pieces (with bone)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup sesame or peanut oil
1/2 cup crushed peanuts (or sesame seeds or crunchy peanut butter)
2-3 hot chili peppers (for example, jalapeño, serrano, malagueta), seeded and finely chopped
2 large onions, finely sliced
2-3 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
1 pound tender okra, trimmed
4 handfuls mustard greens or spinach leaves, well washed

1. Preheat oven to 300°. Rinse chicken pieces, pat dry, and season generously with coarse salt and black pepper. Have ready a roomy casserole dish or Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid.

2. Heat oil in a frying pan and fry chicken pieces, turning to brown on all sides. Remove and reserve.

3. Add crushed nuts to remaining oil and fry for a moment. (If using sesame seeds, keep a lid handy to catch seeds that jump; if using peanut butter, no need to fry.) As soon as nuts begin to brown, add a splash of water and stir in chopped peppers. Remove from heat.

4. In casserole dish, layer chicken with onions, tomatoes, okra, and mustard greens, sprinkling layers with nut sauce and seasoning with salt and pepper as you go. Cover tightly and transfer to oven. Cook for 30 minutes at 300°, then reduce heat to 275°. Continue cooking for 2 more hours.

5. Remove dish from oven. Turn layers over so top is on the bottom. If more liquid is needed, add a little boiling water. Cover, return dish to oven, and cook for 1 1/2 hours more (4 hours total cooking time).

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 463 calories
% fat calories: 64
Fat: 34g
Saturated Fat: 7g
Cholesterol: 52mg
Carbohydrate: 21g
Protein: 23g

Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars)

Makes about 30 / Many beloved holiday cookie recipes originated in northern Europe. These nut-and-spice-infused cutouts—this month's cover recipe—hail from Germany, also the source of decorated Christmas trees and blown-glass ornaments.

2 egg whites
1-1/2 cup almonds, toasted and ground
3/4 cup hazelnuts or pecans, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1-1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup sugar
Powdered sugar

1. In a large mixing bowl, let egg whites come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. In another bowl, mix ground nuts, flour, and spices.

2. Beat egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form. Gradually add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high until stiff peaks form and sugar is incorporated. Fold nut mixture in to egg whites. Cover and let stand 30 minutes to let nuts absorb moisture.

3. Preheat oven to 325°. Sprinkle powdered sugar on work surface. Roll out dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut dough using a floured star-shaped cutter. Place cookies, about 1 inch apart, on nonstick or greased cookie sheet.

4. Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned and crisp. Transfer to wire rack to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired. Store in an airtight container.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving (2 cookies):

Calories: 185 calories
% fat calories: 54
Fat: 12g
Saturated Fat: 1g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Carbohydrate: 18g
Protein: 4g

Kookoo-ye Sabzi (Omelet with Saffron and Greens)

Serves 8 / No-Rooz, the ancient Persian festival honoring spring and the Iranian new year, is celebrated with an open-air picnic and the eating of a thick round egg-cake the color and shape of the sun. The correct accompaniments are a bowl of thick, creamy sheep's-milk yogurt from the flock's first milkings and a buttery, saffron-tinted pilaf lavishly flavored with herbs.

1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
1 cup chopped scallions, including green parts
1 tablespoon shelled walnuts, roughly chopped
1 cup shredded spinach leaves
1 tablespoon dried cranberries
1 tablespoon self-rising flour
10 eggs
1/2-1 teaspoon powdered saffron
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3-4 tablespoons oil

1. In a large bowl, toss chopped herbs (they must be really dry), scallions, nuts, spinach, berries, and flour. In another bowl, whisk eggs with saffron and season with salt and pepper.

2. Heat oil in a large, nonstick frying pan. When oil is hot, slowly pour in egg mixture, stirring in herb mixture as you pour, so base is golden but interior is green. Shake to loosen base, reduce heat to low, cover loosely, and leave to cook very gently for 20-25 minutes. (If heat is too high, eggs may become leathery.) As omelet cooks, shake to loosen base, and neaten sides with a spatula to build up a deep, straight edge.

3. When the top looks set, invert a large plate over the pan and flip the whole thing over so the omelet ends up on the plate, cooked side up. (Be brave—it's no harder than flipping a pancake.) Slip omelet back in pan for another 5-10 minutes to brown other side (you may need a little more oil). When it feels firm, slide it out onto its plate; it will set a little more as it cools. Pat off excess oil with a paper towel. Serve at the temperature of a spring evening in the desert.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving:

Calories: 160 calories
% fat calories: 68
Fat: 12g
Saturated Fat: 2g
Cholesterol: 266mg
Carbohydrate: 4g
Protein: 9g

Prasopita (Greek Lenten Leek Pie)

Serves 4-6 / In Greece, phyllo-pastry pies filled with white cheese and greens are sold in every bakery throughout Lent, the forty days when meat is forbidden during the preparation for Easter. Throughout the growing season, Greeks gather dozens of wild greens, whose refreshing bitterness is considered blood cleansing. Serve with Kalamata olives for nibbling and a crisp lettuce salad dressed with lemon juice and sea salt.

1 package (about 1 pound) phyllo pastry
4-5 tablespoons olive oil

4 medium-size leeks or 8 scallions, finely sliced, including greens
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound mixed wild greens, beet greens, or baby spinach, rinsed and shredded
8 ounces light or regular cream cheese
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled or grated

1. To make the filling, in a heavy pan gently cook the leeks, garlic, dill, mint, salt, and pepper in the oil over medium-low heat. Add the greens and cook, stirring, until all the moisture has evaporated. Remove from heat and allow to cool a little.

2. Preheat oven to 375°. Lightly oil a 9-inch, round cake pan. Line with 5-6 layers of phyllo, brushing between the layers with olive oil, overlapping the sheets and leaving the flaps long enough to fold over to make a cover.

3. Beat the cream cheese with the feta cheese and mix in the cooled greens mixture. Season well.

4. Spread the mixture evenly over the phyllo layers. Cover with a layer or two of phyllo and fold over the flaps to enclose the filling completely. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the pastry browns and crisps and the filling has set. Serve at room temperature.

Reprinted with permission from Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard (Chicago Review Press, 2001).

Symbolic Foods

Certain foods carry special significance in all traditions. Enhance the meaning of your meals with the following choices.
Birth and spring growth: small edible seeds (poppy, sesame); grains (quinoa, amaranth); lentils; nuts; dried fruits
Good fortune: quince, apples, peaches, pomegranates, grapes, red-dyed foods
Rebirth, fertility, renewal: eggs; foods dyed yellow with saffron or turmeric
Life: bread, maize, rice
Pleasure: sweets of all kinds, including those made with honey, cane sugar, date sugar, and palm sugar