I'm hosting Rosh Hashanah dinner for the first time this year, and I'm trying to plan my menu. I'm really not interested in the traditional sweet kugel, apple cake sort of thing, but those are the only things I know that people serve. My guests are going to be a mix of friends and family, including some older relatives who probably have an expectation about what Rosh Hashanah dinner means, and some folks who have never been to a Jewish holiday meal before. Should I just put my tastes aside and dish up some tzimmis?
New to Making New Year Dinner
Most people, I agree, have a sort of pseudo-Eastern European Ashkenazi view of what food items a Jewish meal must contain. But, believe it or not, kugel doesn't appear anywhere in the Torah. What makes a Rosh Hashanah dinner legit is, at the most basic level, saying the kiddush (prayer over wine) that is specific to Rosh Hashanah and sanctifying the day accordingly. Apples and honey are also highly symbolic and expected. For both the non-Jews and the older relatives, I would urge you to have that at the table. Beyond that, use your creativity, pull from a variety of inspirations and plan a meal that befits how you want to begin the year.
Round challah is definitely traditional and delicious and doesn't need to hamper your creativity. The roundness symbolizes the roundness of the year, and people often put raisins in it for added sweetness. As a special twist (no challah-braiding pun intended), I like to make my Rosh Hashanah challah witih dried cranberries in it. I'm sure there are other interesting and symbolic additions you could come up with as well.
I have to admit, I actually think the chicken/kugel/tzimmis trifecta is delicious if done correctly, but you're right that it's also potentially boring. You could try new and unexpected versions of those dishes as a nod to tradition while still being true to your own culinary aspirations. You could also do one of those items and then mix things up with a variety of side dishes that you happen to like, or that take advantage of seasonal produce or that feel celebratory. You could touch base with your guests in advance and ask them for suggestions of foods that are special to their families or that symbolize new beginnings in some way. (You could even get them to offer to bring something to relieve you of some of the burden of cooking for a crowd.)
In my own menu planning adventures, I've had a lot of fun with the cookbook Olive Trees and Honey . I'm not getting anything remotely resembling royalties for linking to Amazon here; I'm just gaining the pleasure of passing along one of the best enhancements for Jewish eating I've ever encountered. The cookbook features traditional Jewish recipes from around the world (not just Eastern Europe!) classified by type of food and region of origin. The recipes are also sorted in various ways based on appropriate holidays and other occasions. Why not have Sephardic Spinach Patties or Indian Coconut Rice at your table? (Yes, I just got my copy off the shelf so I could recipe name-drop.)
Finally, even among the old standbys that you mention, there's room for variety. In my family, tzimmis is not sweet, but it is delicious. If you're looking for a new version to try, I'm happy to share this recipe, as described by my mom on an index card as "Combined Grandma + Mom + Dad recipe." I guess a lot of work of a lot of people I love went into perfecting this perfectly simple, perfectly perfect dish: "In large stock pot combine sliced carrots, chopped onion, chopped celery, cubed sweet potato, cubed skinned white potato. Add about 1/2 cup water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over very low heat until soft, about 45 minutes."
Whatever you decide to serve, may it help make the new year sweet.