Miracle of the Oil

   A pervasive paranoia has swept through our health-conscious nation—alas, the fear of frying. If you want to enjoy Hanukkah, however, get over it! Although the “Miracle of the Oil” is the stuff of legend—there is no evidence for the eight-day oil story in either the First or Second Book of Maccabees, Phyllis Glazer and Miryam Glazer point out in “The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking” (Harper/Collins, $29.95)—for millennia the oil, they agree, has been the “culinary heart of the Hanukkah festival.”
    “Although the potato latke has become the iconic Ashkenazic Hanukkah food, it is actually a relatively new innovation,” explains rabbi and food scholar Gil Marks in the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, $40). “The Maccabees never saw a potato, much less a potato pancake.” Potatoes, native to South America, were brought to Europe by the Spanish and were thought to be poisonous, and it took centuries before they became accepted as food. In the wake of the French revolution in the late 18th century, a famine caused the desperate French to turn to the potato, with the Germans soon following suit. Although German Jews began making potato pancakes, they were not necessarily for Hanukkah. Instead of oil, which was expensive, they used more widely available goose fat for frying. “This new positive attitude toward the potato, however, was initially limited to the common folk, as upper-class Germans viewed the potato as poor person’s food,” writes Marks.
    Every family has its own recipe for the perfect latke, as does mine, and I’d have a mutiny on my hands if I didn’t make my Splat! latkes for Hanukkah. (For the recipe go to cookingjewish.com/node/198.) Every year, however, I like to add a new take on an old theme, and I found what I was looking for in a gorgeous new cookbook from Australia, “Now for Something Sweet” (HarperCollins, $35) by the Monday Morning Cooking Club. Bhaji is a spicy mashed vegetable dish from India, and these flavorful latkes with fresh cilantro and red chili are “guaranteed to shake up any Hanukkah party,” the authors claim.
   Originally formed in 2006, the Monday Morning Cooking Club gathers recipes and stories from the best of Sydney’s cooks and beyond. Their stated mission is “to collect, test, curate, publish and share the best recipes from the best cooks in the global food-obsessed Jewish community.” Stunning photos accompany the recipes, some showing step-by-step instructions. Each chapter begins with stories from the contributors, interspersed with basic general instructions for chiffon cakes, pastry, yeast, custard and the like. Some intriguing Jewish holiday recipes include a Passover Pear Cake with a pecan topping, a multi-layered Russian Honey Cake and Hamantashen with a honey-nut filling. You’ll find a bevy of babkes—Chocolate Tahini, Apple Cinnamon and Cinnamon Streusel—Chocolate and Cherry Kindlech (tiny strudel-like pastries), a Middle Eastern cheese dessert called Knafeh, Apple, Cinnamon and Honey Challah, and a riff on Ben & Jerry’s haroset ice cream, which is available only in Israel.
   While we’re on the subject of frying, “schnitzel is our guilty pleasure,” admit Einat Admony and Janna Gur in their cookbook/paean to Israel’s bountiful open-air markets ”Shuk” (Artisan, $35). So essential is the dish to Israel’s cuisine that a three-page discourse is devoted to “Mastering Schnitzel” along with step-by-step photos.
  “Schnitzels are widely popular in Israel, so much so that they’ve become synonymous with tedious everyday chores (as in, ‘I have better things to do than ironing shirts and frying schnitzels for the kids’),” write the pair.
    In the 1930s, Austrian immigrants introduced schnitzel made from thinly pounded veal to Israel. Since veal was quite expensive, they began substituting with chicken breast, and the dish took off. Every cook has his or her version, “but one thing is beyond dispute: schnitzel is only worth its reputation (and calories) if it’s freshly fried.”
   Thinly sliced chicken breast is preferred, about ¼-inch thick. Painstaking instructions are included for cutting and pounding chicken breasts, along with a discussion on seasonings and breading, some fun options, as well as detailed frying instructions and serving suggestions.
    “Frying is the make-or-break of a well-made schnitzel,” they declare. “The most important thing: serve your schnitzels right away! Schnitzels lose their beauty in a matter of minutes, and reheated schnitzels never taste the same.”    

Extra-Crispy Israeli Schnitzel

Yield: 4 servings

Herb and Citrus Marinade:

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley (include stems)

Leaves from 1 fresh thyme sprig

Leaves from 1 fresh rosemary sprig

5 garlic cloves

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil


1 pound chicken breasts, sliced and pounded 1/4-inch thick

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

1 cup unsweetened cornflakes

1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs (preferably Panko)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Vegetable oil, for frying

Dips, for serving (recipes follow)

Marinade: Process marinade ingredients in food processor until smooth.

  1. Schnitzel: Put chicken in large shallow bowl or Pyrex baking dish, pour over marinade, and toss, making sure pieces are evenly coated on both sides. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours or up to overnight.
  2. Remove chicken from fridge 30 minutes before frying to bring it close to room temperature (this will encourage even cooking). Set it in colander over large bowl to drain some marinade.
  3. Put flour in shallow medium bowl. Lightly whisk eggs in another bowl. Crush cornflakes in a food processor, zip-top bag or with a rolling pin or heavy skillet – you want cornflakes finely crushed but not powdery. Transfer to third bowl; mix with breadcrumbs. Have 2 large platters nearby; one lined with paper towels. Season 1 chicken slice with salt and pepper on both sides, dip chicken in flour to get a thin, even coating and shake off excess. Dip chicken in egg, lift out, and let drip, then dredge in breadcrumbs, evenly coated on both sides. Put breaded piece on unlined platter; repeat with remaining chicken.
  4. Fill large skillet with vegetable oil to depth of about 1/4 inch; heat oil over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes. Slide 2 or 3 pieces of breaded chicken into hot oil and fry until deep golden, about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to paper towel-lined platter and blot with another paper towel to remove excess oil. Repeat with remaining chicken. Serve immediately with dips and lemon wedges alongside.


Prepared harissa and preserved lemon paste may also be found in Middle Eastern stores or online.

1 cup mayonnaise

1 to 2 tablespoons harissa (recipe follows)

1 to 2 tablespoons preserved lemon paste (recipe follows)

1 lemon, cut into wedges

Divide mayonnaise between two small serving bowls. Put harissa into one and preserved lemon paste into the other. If the consistency of either is too thick, add a bit of water.

Red Harissa

Yield: about 2 1/2 cups

10 medium garlic cloves

2 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, and seated

1 1/4 cups vegetable or extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup ground cumin

1/3 cup cayenne

1/3 cup sweet paprika

1/4 cup ground caraway

2 tablespoons kosher salt

Put all ingredients in food processor and process to an almost smooth paste, stopping to scrape down the sides of the processor bowl every now and then. Store in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Preserved Lemon Paste

Yield: about 1 1/2 cups

12 wedges preserved lemon, rinsed and seeded

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons honey, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon ground turmeric

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Put all ingredients in blender or food processor and process thoroughly until you have a smooth paste. Taste and adjust the flavorings until you have a bright, intense, salty-sour condiment. Transfer to a clean, dry glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Store in fridge for up to 1 month, though you may find yourself making a new batch sooner than you expected!

Source: “Shuk” by Einat Admony and Janna Gur

Potato Bhaji Latkes (Indian Spiced Potato Cakes)

Yield: About 4 servings

1 pound 5 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes

2 tablespoons oil, plus extra to fry the latkes

1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 onion, halved and finely sliced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 heaping tablespoon all-purpose flour

To serve

1 long red chili, chopped

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

Lemon wedges

  1. Peel and coarsely grate potatoes. Place in colander 15 minutes to drain.
  2. Meanwhile, in large frying pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add mustard and cumin seeds and stir for 3 minutes. Take care, as the mustard seeds will pop. Add onion and sauté gently around 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add cumin, coriander, turmeric and salt, and sauté 3 minutes more, stirring. Remove from pan and set aside.
  3. Squeeze grated potato with your hands to remove any liquid and tip into large bowl. Add egg, flour and fried onion mixture and taste for seasoning. If necessary, add salt and pepper. Mix well.

4, Add enough extra oil to frying pan to reach a depth of about 1/2 inch. When oil is hot, carefully add a tablespoon of potato mixture to make round potato cakes. Flatten slightly and fry over medium heat for a few minutes on each side until golden brown. Drain on paper towel. Serve hot, sprinkled with chopped chili, fresh cilantro leaves and wedge of lemon.

Source: “Now for Something Sweet” by the Monday Morning Cooking Club

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. 



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