Grapes

Seedless grapes add extra sweetness to this dish. (Courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

With Rosh Hashana coming in just a few days on the evening of September 18, it's that time of year again when many of my friends and restaurant customers ask me the perennial question: Do you have any ideas for something different I can cook for the Jewish New Year?

I'm not Jewish myself. My two oldest sons, however, have been raised to celebrate that heritage, and I've enjoyed and helped to cook many excellent traditional meals. What impresses me the most when I do is how similar so many Jewish dishes are to the cooking I grew up with in Austria. That's not surprising, of course, when you consider how much the cuisines of central and eastern Europe have historically intermingled. We've all eaten our fair share of sweet-and-sour beef briskets and stews.

And that's the challenge. Yes, many people must have braised brisket with onions, dried fruit, and red wine for Rosh Hashanah. In past years, I've shared recipes just like that with you in this column.

So it's time to offer a different kind of sweet-and-sour dish for the holiday. The recipe I share with you here features chicken breast, which also reflects the desire many home cooks have these days to cook lighter, lower-fat fare.

My recipe comes from the tiny Italian island of Pantelleria, which is actually just 50 miles from the eastern tip of Tunisia on the coast of North Africa. I first discovered the dish on a visit I made to the island almost 10 years ago. The simple recipe, with its appealing combination of tart dried raisins, fresh sweet grapes, dry white wine and sweet dessert wine, grated lemon zest, fresh sage, and a bed of the tiny grain-shaped pasta known as couscous, reflects the exotic melting pot that the Mediterranean has been down through the centuries.

In fact, you can add your own personal influences to the dish, too. In place of the sage, for example, try stirring a pinch of dried ginger or a teaspoon or more of grated fresh ginger into the sauce. Or add a little allspice, or a whole cinnamon stick.

Or, as I like to do, you can replace the traditional North African-style couscous with larger pearl couscous, so called because the spherical grains of pasta are as big and smooth as small pearls. Look for boxes or bags of pearl couscous in well-stocked supermarkets or specialty foods stores, or on the Internet. Especially popular with cooks in the easternmost Mediterranean, it also goes by the name of Israeli couscous. And that makes it an even more fitting part of a special Rosh Hashana dish that will really help you ring in the changes for the Jewish New Year, or at any time of year!

ROAST CHICKEN BREASTS WITH RAISINS AND ISRAELI COUSCOUS

Serves 4

CHICKEN:

4 whole chicken breasts, each about 12 ounces

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup sweet Italian wine such as Moscato

1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice

1/2 cup seedless raisins

1 sprig fresh sage