Having lighter fare at Hanukkah meals

Enjoying lighter dishes along with time-tested recipes and their stories

December 21, 2005|By JOAN NATHAN

As I travel around the United States I am constantly meeting people who want to share their recipes and stories. Often I find that the only time American cooks bring out their family dishes is during the holidays. And each time a recipe is prepared, stories invariably emerge.

Take Hanukkah, which begins at sundown Sunday this year. Traditionally, most American Jews eat brisket, applesauce and potato pancakes after lighting the menorah candles.

But with the de-emphasis on meat, red meat in particular, I have found many vegetarian Hanukkah celebrations, as well as those with fish as a main course. Because the holiday lasts for eight days, people also like to vary the traditional potatoes with other vegetables.

This year I might include in my Hanukkah dinner a recipe from Michelle Bernstein, the talented chef at Michy's, a new restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. Bernstein, who studied ballet in Israel, often makes a fabulous grouper with roast fennel, preserved lemon and za'atar, the popular Middle Eastern spice combination that tastes of Greek oregano and thyme, sesame seeds, dried sumac (which is not poisonous) and lemon salt. And instead of potatoes with the grouper, she might serve her version of carciofi alla giudea (artichokes Jewish-style), which are succulent fried artichokes.

"When you make traditional foods you often feel so heavy," Bernstein said. "Why not make some lighter dishes and surprise your guests? They love the idea of fish more often. Winter is a perfect time to serve it because the waters are colder and the fish tastes better."

Across the country in Tiburon, Calif., home cook Simone Joseph, who was born in Tunisia, makes yoyos, fried dough dipped in honey.

"They are shaped like doughnuts but the dough feels more like cake," she told me. Joseph, who also makes her prize-winning zucchini pancakes for Hanukkah, grew up with artichauts farcis, stuffed artichokes, and yapraks, lettuce leaves filled with a mixture of meat, rice, coriander, parsley and garlic. Both are cooked in tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes, turmeric, laurel leaf, pepper and lemon.

The beauty of Hanukkah for Tunisian Jews is the fete des filles, or girls' festival, she told me. "My mother always celebrated it," Joseph said. "She had four daughters to whom she served and baked everything in miniature china. When the synagogue was open, we girls were dressed in white [meaning they were available]. Men could pick their future girlfriend and, possibly, wife. They used to walk along the synagogue and just parade."

For other families, the holidays are a chance to bring out time-tested recipes. In the early 1980s, when the children of New Yorker Anne Luzzatto were young, she summered in Venice, Italy, at her in-laws' ancestral home.

The Luzzattos, a Jewish Italian family, lived in Italy from 1541 until World War II. Like many Italian mothers-in-law, Luzzatto's taught her how to create the favorite family dessert: a crostata made with a butter crust called friolla. Luzzatto has been making this marvelous tart with its delicious butter crust - a classy final act for dinner - ever since.

In many parts of our country, food at Hanukkah is de-emphasized. At the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, for example, Hanukkah is a time for charity.

Families treat this minor holiday as an opportunity for tzedaka (charity) or for volunteering at fire departments and hospitals, which will be particularly useful this year because it will allow many nurses and hospital workers to share dinner with their families.

Joan Nathan writes for Tribune Media Services. The following recipe is adapted from her new book, "The New American Cooking" (Knopf Publishing Group, 2005, $35).

Apple-Apricot Crostata

Makes 1 tart; serves 10 to 12

3 Granny Smith or other good cooking apples (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter

2 large egg yolks

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

pinch of salt

1/2 cup apricot preserves

Grease a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.

Peel, core and slice apples into crescents about 1/4 - to 1/8 -inch thick. You should have about 24 pieces.

Put sugar, butter, egg yolks, flour and salt in a large bowl and rub everything together with your fingers or combine ingredients in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process in quick pulses until the dough forms a ball. Either way, do not overwork the dough.

Flouring your hands, shape ball of dough into a round and pat it into the tart pan. Working with your fingers and a cake knife or wide spatula, spread dough evenly around pan and up side.

The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick up the side and spread evenly across the bottom of the pan. Trim and flatten edges with a knife. Starting on the outside and working toward the center, lay apple slices in an overlapping, concentric circle.

Heat apricot preserves in a saucepan over low heat until liquefied. Using a pastry brush, paint the apples and the visible crust with apricot glaze. Place tart pan on a cookie sheet and bake on center rack of preheated 425-degree oven for 15 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking until crust is deep golden brown, about 45 minutes. Bring to room temperature, unmold and put on a platter or serving dish.

Per serving (based on 12 servings): 280 calories; 2 grams protein; 16 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 33 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 74 milligrams cholesterol; 21 milligrams sodium

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