HANUKKAH WOULDN’T BE Hanukkah without potato latkes – and far be it from me to tell you not to serve them – but the holiday is about the miracle of the oil, not the miracle of the potato, which didn’t even reach Europe until the mid-sixteenth century.
As every schoolchild knows, Hanukkah commemorates the victory in 164 B.C.E. of Judah and the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greeks and the rededication of the desecrated Temple. As the story goes, Judah and his followers found only enough oil to last one day, but miraculously the oil lasted for eight days…right?
SPOILER ALERT: If your children are reading this story with you, you may want to send them out of the room for what turns out to be the Jewish equivalent of learning the truth about Santa.
Alas, there is no evidence for the eight-day oil story in either the First or Second Book of Maccabees, which contain the most detailed accounts of the battles. “Carrying branches of trees and palm fronds and flaming torches so brilliant they lit up Jerusalem, the Maccabees decided to celebrate the eight-day Sukkot holiday, which they had missed that year because the Temple had been defiled,” write Phyllis and Miryam Glazer in “Jewish Festival Cooking” (Harper/Collins, $29.95). “From then on, they instituted a winter holiday to commemorate the rededication of the Temple.” How convenient that this second Sukkot celebration fell at the end of the oil-making season.
By the time the historian Josephus coined the term “Festival of Lights” 250 years after the original event – perhaps referring to those flaming torches of the first celebration, as the Glazers suggest – Hanukkah was a firmly established holiday. Sadly, the rededicated Temple lasted only another 300 years, when it was razed by the Romans in 132 C.E.
Bah! Humbug! Will any of that burst our frying frenzy bubble? Nah! Over the centuries the oil has become the “culinary heart of the Hanukkah festival,” say the Glazers. In the Middle East savory holiday foods and even fried desserts abound. But for the Jews in the shtetls of Eastern Europe cooking oil was scarce. What they had aplenty, though, was schmaltz from chickens, ducks and geese. With cheap and plentiful potatoes widely cultivated beginning in the 1840s, it is easy to see how the latke was created, and if you’ve ever tasted them – and who hasn’t? – why they caught on as the holiday’s iconic dish.
So if you’re celebrating the miracle of the oil by frying, why not choose fresh and vibrant vegetable dishes along with those latkes this year? For recipes we couldn’t do better than to consult Yotam Ottolenghi, prize-winning chef, author and restaurateur, born in Israel and currently making quite a name for himself in London with five widely popular restaurants and five cookbooks under his belt.
Where his previous cookbook “Plenty” focused on his favorite ingredients, “Plenty More” (Ten Speed, $35) takes these favorites and “focuses on cooking techniques and methods that best utilize their potential.” Known for his bright flavors and innovative techniques, Ottolenghi this time focuses solely on vegetables, totally dispelling his original fear that he might run out of ideas.
“Try to overlook the fact the vegetables are fried,” he says of his Mixed Vegetables and Yogurt with Green Chile Oil. “This is a dish I picked up on a visit to Istanbul. The dish is extremely fresh tasting thanks to the yogurt and all the herbs. I had it in a kebab restaurant, but for me it was actually the vegetables that were the highlight.”
Over the pond in Philadelphia James Beard award winner Michael Solomonov, also born in Israel, has brought the diverse flavors of Israeli food to his restaurant Zahav and cookbook of the same name. What drives him is his mission to introduce the tastes of Zahav – “the warm spices of baharat, the lemony tang of sumac, the peppery punch of schug” – to a wider audience.
His Fried Cauliflower with Herbed Labneh from “Zahav” ((Houghton Mifflin, $35) is “by far the best-selling mezze of all time,” he writes, “which is kind of a big deal because, come on, we’re talking about cauliflower. Fried cauliflower is a staple of falafel-shop salad bars, but it’s often undercooked, under-seasoned, and limp from being fried too far ahead of time. Cauliflower is an amazing vegetable. You can eat the florets, the hearts, and even the leaves! I wanted to showcase it on its own.” Frequently asked about the secret of this crunchy dish, he says: “Treat the cauliflower like French fries. Cook it long enough to develop a crispy, golden-brown exterior. And make sure you salt the hell out of it. “
Mixed Vegetables & Yogurt with
Green Chili Oil
3 large plum tomatoes (10 & ½ ounces), cut into 6 wedges each
Sunflower oil, for frying
2 medium zucchini, cut into ¾-inch chunks (about 6 cups)
1 large eggplant, cut into ¾-inch chunks (about 5 cups)
2 large red peppers, stalks and seeds removed, cut into ¾ inch chunks (about 3 & ½ cups)
¾ cup Greek yogurt
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon shredded fresh mint
1 ½ teaspoons dried mint
1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
Chili & Herb Oil
1 green chili, coarsely chopped
2/3 ounce flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ cup olive oil
1 Preheat oven to 325°F.
2 Place zucchini and eggplant in colander and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Set aside 1 hour, allowing some of the water to release, then drain.
3 Spread out tomatoes on baking sheet, sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt, and place in oven 40 minutes to dry out a bit. Remove and set aside to cool.
4 Herb oil: Place all ingredients in bowl of small food processor and process to smooth, thick sauce.
5 Poor sunflower oil to depth of 2 inches into saucepan and heat over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, turn down heat to medium. Pat zucchini and eggplant dry and deep-fry them and red pepper in batches 12 to 15 minutes for each. Eggplant might take a little longer than other vegetables: you want it to be golden brown. Drain in colander, sprinkle with salt, and set aside to cool.
6 In a bowl, stir together yogurt, garlic, fresh and dried mint, lemon juice, salt and plenty of black pepper. Add vegetables and tomatoes and stir very gently.
7 Mix herb oil ingredients and spoon on top and serve.
Source: “Plenty More” by
Fried Cauliflower with Herbed Labneh
Labneh is drained yogurt, but you can use Greek yogurt or yogurt cheese.
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
¼ cup chopped fresh chives
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ garlic clove, grated on a Microplane
1 cup labneh
Canola oil, for frying
One head cauliflower, broken into florets
1 For labneh: Combine herbs, garlic, and labneh in food processor and purée until bright green and smooth. Season well with salt.
2 For cauliflower: Heat about 2 inches oil in heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. (You can tell when oil is hot enough to fry by sticking handle of a wooden spoon into oil; if bubbles form around it, it’s ready. Or heat until oil reaches 375°F on a candy thermometer.) Fry cauliflower until exterior is dark golden brown and crisp, 5 to 8 minutes, then drain briefly on paper towels. Salt well and serve with herbed labneh.
Source: “Zahav” by
Recipes adapted from “The Healthy Jewish Kitchen” by Paula Shoyer
Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com. found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.
found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.