For most of us “Chanukah food” means latkes, but how did this tradition begin? “The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake,” writes food historian Gil Marks in “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, $40). ”When the Spanish first brought the potato to Europe from its native South America, it was considered poisonous, and many centuries passed before it gradually gained acceptance as food.”
The Germans were the first to make potato latkes, but it took the crop failures of 1839 and 1840 for Eastern Europe to join the potato bandwagon. German immigrants brought the potato latke to America, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But Chanukah is all about the oil, not the potato, and recipes abound for latkes made of everything from apples to zucchini as well as updated versions of the old favorite.
One such twist is the Latke Reubens from “Bringing it Home” (Grand Central, $30) by Gail Simmons, esteemed judge on Bravo’s Emmy-winning series, “Top Chef.” (Season 16 begins on December 6.)
“I came up with this little nosh for a holiday episode of ‘The Feed,’ my show with chef Marcus Samuelsson and comedian Max Silvestri, in 2014,” she writes. “Combining my family’s cherished latke recipe with the fillings of a classic Reuben sandwich, I created the ultimate Chanukah deli delight. A perfect way to celebrate the Festival of Lights, it’s also a killer Super Bowl party snack or fun accompaniment to cocktails anytime of year.”
Born in Toronto, Simmons grew up in a traditional Jewish home, “celebrating the major holidays and observing rites of passage with way too much food and a little prayer.” Shabbat, however, was special. “Friday night was a sacred night for our family,” Simmons told me. “We could be busy all week with soccer and dance, but on Friday night my father came home early. All week we had dinner together in the kitchen, but on Friday night we ate in the dining room. My mother and I lit the candles, and my father did the blessings. There were always guests.”
Her mother ran a cooking school, and the children grew up on leek quiche, Swiss chard and Arctic char. “She’s an ambitious cook ahead of her time, seeking great ingredients,” Simmons said, “but stuffed cabbage and matzo ball soup are very much in her repertoire. She made a mean chopped liver and gets mad at me for putting wine in the brisket, which I crave like clockwork at Rosh Hashanah and again for Chanukah. Over the years, I have modified my mother’s sacred recipe, much to her dismay, coating the beef with a garlic and horseradish crust and deglazing the pan with red wine to give the dish bright balance and a rich sauce.”
She married a man with a “passion for old Jewish food”: kasha varnishkes, brisket, short ribs, matzo balls. “His favorites are kasha and knishes, the beiger the better,” she said.
Since Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, “the holy grail of cured beef,” is her standard, I couldn’t resist asking her to weigh in on the perennial pastrami debate between LA’s own Langer’s and New York’s Katz’s. “Oh, I prefer Langer’s,” she said, “but I’m a 2nd Avenue Deli girl.”
On Chanukah we also eat cheese, a homage to the story of the biblical heroine Judith, who plied the evil general Holofernes with cheese and wine to make him sleepy before cutting off his head. Fried Eggplant with Caramelized Tomato and Goat Cheese from “Shaya” (Knopf, $35), by James Beard winning chef Alon Shaya, makes a perfect holiday bite.
More than a collection of recipes, this cookbook traces the twists and turns of Shaya’s career, from Israel to the U.S., to Italy and back to Israel, as he forged his culinary style. “This is not a typical cookbook,” he writes. “It’s a collection of stories of place, of people, and of the food that connects them.
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
1½ teaspoons of light or dark brown sugar
6 cups chicken stock or vegetable stock, divided
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1½ cups shredded green cabbage (about ¼ small head)
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into matchsticks
¾ cup thinly slice red onion (about ½ small onion)
2 celery ribs, thinly slice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
¾ cup sour cream
¼ cup ketchup
1 tablespoon prepared white horseradish
1 teaspoon hot sauce
3½ pounds baking potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Canola oil, for frying
½ pound thinly sliced pastrami, slices cut in half crosswise
Chopped fresh dill
- Slaw: In large bowl, stir together vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt, and generous pinch of pepper. Slowly whisk in oil until well combined. Add cabbage, apple, onion, celery and dill; toss thoroughly. Adjust seasoning to taste. Let stand at room temperature 30 minutes before serving.
- Dressing: In medium bowl stir together all ingredients. Adjust sauce to taste. May be refrigerated in airtight container up to 2 weeks.
- Latkes: Set large strainer over a bowl. In food processor fitted with shredding disc, shred potatoes and onions in batches. Add each batch to strainer and let stand 5 minutes, then squeeze dry. Pour off liquid and rinse bowl, then add shredded potato mixture. Stir in flour, eggs, dill, baking powder, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Scrape mixture back into strainer and set over bowl again; let stand another 5 minutes.
- In large skillet, heat 1/4 inch canola oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, spoon a scant 1/4 cup of potato mixture into hot oil, pressing slightly to flatten. Fry over moderate heat, turning once, until golden and crisp on both sides, about 7 minutes. Drain on paper- towel-lined baking sheet. Season well with salt.
- Assembly: Spread about 1 teaspoon dressing on each latke. Top with folded slice of pastrami and heaping tablespoon of slaw. Garnish with dill and serve.
Source: from “Bringing it Home” by Gail Simmons
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.