Beyond latkes for Hanukkah

Spread, soup are a part of tradition

December 08, 2004|By Christianna McCausland | Christianna McCausland,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is a delicious scent drifting out of many homes this time of year, a mix of shredded potatoes and cooking oil that can mean only one thing: Hanukkah.

Although a Hanukkah without potato latkes would be tantamount to treason in most families, there are many other wonderful dishes to prepare during the eight-day festival that rely on traditional Jewish flavors, seasonal ingredients and time-honored recipes.

The celebration that began at sundown yesterday commemorates the liberation in 165 B.C. of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by the Maccabees. When the Maccabees reclaimed the temple and rid it of idols, they found only enough oil to keep a flame lit for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, long enough for more oil to be brought to maintain the flame. It is that miracle that is celebrated each year.

Because of the symbolism of oil - and because Hanukkah fell during the olive-pressing season in the Middle East and Mediterranean - fried foods are a large part of holiday celebrations.

In Israel, vendors begin selling sufganiyot, fried jelly doughnuts dusted with sugar, a month before the holiday begins. In the United States, the fried potato pancakes known as latkes are practically synonymous with Hanukkah.

Although no Hanukkah feast would be complete without latkes, the potato is a fairly new entrant on the culinary scene, having only been introduced to Europe in about the 16th century. The latke tradition most likely traveled to the United States with Jewish European immigrants.

"The Maccabees, who were the heroes of Hanukkah, probably ate olives and things like chickpeas and lentils that sprouted in the spring and were dried," says Phyllis Glazer, who co-authored the new book The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking with her sister Miriyam Glazer, who is studying for the Conservative rabbinate. "I think we're ready today to look at the origins of the holiday, and I tried to bring those traditions back into the foods we eat on the holiday."

In the book, Glazer compiles recipes from both Sephardic (Mediterranean) traditions where olive oil was plentiful, and Ashkenazic (Eastern European) traditions.

"In Ashkenazic tradition, they didn't have any cooking oil and since they couldn't use lard, the only solid fat available was goose fat," says Glazer. "So Hanukkah became traditionally a time for fattening geese."

Recipes that Glazer recommends for the holiday, therefore, include goose breast with forest fruit sauce. Others recall the Middle Eastern agrarian traditions, as in the Biblical Lentil Soup With Spinach and Turnips and, of course, the miracle of the oil, in pan-fried scallion bread.

"People have created foods without meaning," says Glazer. "I think when we make foods that have meaning, something like olive latkes [latkes made entirely of olives], we recall that that was the olive season [at the time of the Maccabee victory] and that olive oil was the oil in the Hanukkah story."

For the new book America Cooks Kosher, members of the Beth Tfiloh Synagogue in Pikesville contributed more than 800 recipes to a 200-person committee that taste-tested each contribution before adding the recipe to the book. The book took three years to complete. Co-chairperson of the book's committee, Shellye Gilden, explains that Hanukkah is a holiday for warm comfort foods.

"There's always soup - something warm and nurturing - and, of course, anything fried in oil is traditional for the holiday," she says. The menu provided by the book for a Hanukkah dinner party includes eggplant dip, peasant pea soup and sweet-and-sour brisket. Another entree option is lemon chicken with pine nuts that is cooked in - what else? - olive oil.

Although Hanukkah is an "oil" holiday, that does not mean everything needs to be fried. In fact, Sheilah Kaufman speculates that people who don't like traditional holiday food dislike all the fried food.

Kaufman, who lives in Potomac, is a lecturer, instructor and author of 24 cookbooks. She has developed her own traditions for the holiday, including cooking foods with oil in a healthful way instead of always frying. One of her favorite snack foods is Green-Olive-and-Walnut Spread, a pairing of traditional flavors that is made with oil.

Because there are few recipes that are strictly for Hanukkah, the eight days are an ideal time to serve traditional Jewish cuisine such as brisket and baked noodle kugels.

Alabama-based cookbook author and cooking instructor Sherron Goldstein usually has latkes on one night of Hanukkah. The other days she has traditional dishes like rack of lamb served with a chickpea-and-onion side dish reminiscent of Sephardic traditions, or a barbecue brisket that brings together her Southern and Jewish heritage. Something as simple as adding coriander or cumin to spice up a brisket can imbue the dish with a Middle Eastern flavor.

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