I like latkes. All kinds: starchy potato, sweet potato, zucchini, cheese, apple, leek, even vegan and gluten-free ones. But for too long in this country, Chanukkah has been all about the latkes --- and I'm just about over it.
Sure, there are the games of dreidel, the chocolate gelt and sugary doughnuts with the fancy Hebrew name sufganiyot. But it's almost as though guests won't even know they've arrived at a Chanukkah party -- the first of the Jewish holiday's eight nights falls on Christmas Eve this year -- unless they're greeted by that telltale oily fried smell. From synagogue preschool parties to an annual celebration at the White House, the potato pancake is the guest of honor.
At their best, latkes are a crunchy, savory delight, just snatched from hot oil, perfectly golden brown and ready to be topped with sour cream or applesauce or, even better, eaten straight up. But even if a distant cousin from the supermarket freezer case shows up, a bit soggy and barely warm, it doesn't seem to matter. People feel compelled to consume.
Such iconic food status is hard to dismiss --- not that I want to. But latkes aren't the only oil-involved foods appropriate for the holiday.How did they take over Chanukkah, anyway?
Well, there's nothing like a story from biblical times to give us permission to eat fried food.
Chanukkah commemorates the victory in 165 Before the Common Era of the rebellious Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian Greeks. Once back in control, the victors were able to clean up and rededicate the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, they needed purified, sacred olive oil to light the lamps in the Temple but found only enough for one day rather than the eight days needed to purify more oil. By a miracle, that little bit of oil lasted until more could be made. We eat foods with oil in a starring role during this Festival of Lights, as Chanukkah is also known.
There's another, lesser-known part of the Chanukkah story. Years before the Maccabean victory, a fierce woman named Judith who understood the power of food and drink saved her village by plying the invading general with salty cheese, which then made him thirsty for wine. Once he fell into a drunken sleep, Yehuddis (Judith) beheaded him with his own sword.
A good story, but how does it fit in the story of Chanukkah and latkes?
For many centuries, Chanukkah was a minor holiday, with no written history of traditional foods. Then, in the 14th century, we find writings in Italy about pancakes for the holiday made from ricotta cheese and fried in oil, an ideal dish combining the symbolic foods from the two stories associated with the holiday.
Cheese pancakes for Chanukkah remained popular in Europe for a few more centuries, with Eastern European, or Ashkenazic, Jews also serving other dairy dishes such as cheesecake, sweet noodle kugels and cheese dumplings or fritters. In the 1850s, there were massive crop failures in the heart of the Ashkenazic world: Poland, Ukraine and the Pale of Settlement, territories in czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to live. To survive, the people planted cheap, easy-to-grow potatoes. Guess what they fried up for Chanukkah at that point? Yup, and with a couple million Eastern European Jews coming to the United States beginning around the same time until the 1920s - well, you can figure out how it was the latke's big break into a new market.
Truth is, the latke is part of a wide variety of traditional potato pancakes found in nearly every European cuisine. However, it's a surprise to many that Sephardic Jewish cuisines from the Mediterranean and the Mideast also have their own versions of potato pancakes. Most of those are served year-round as well as at Chanukkah, which remains a minor holiday in many Jewish communities, away from the increased "competition" with Christmas found in the United States and Europe.
Potomac, Maryland resident Ellie Dayan traces her mother's family back over 2,500 years in Persia (now Iran). Dayan was born there, coming to the States in 1996 after her son was born. For Chanukkah, she makes kookoo sib zamini, the traditional Persian version of a potato pancake. Unlike for Ashkenazic latkes, the potatoes are cooked before being grated, which makes for less time in the oil, and more eggs are used in proportion to the potato. The pancakes are served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, pickles and often fresh baguette.
Jews from Iraq have a similar dish, explains Rabbi Haim Ovadia of Rockville, Maryland's Magen David Sephardic Congregation, except the cooked potatoes are mashed with onions, which sometimes are fried first. Like the Persian version, the Iraqi patty leans toward an omelet or frittata.
Franz Afraim Katzir, founding director of SHin-DC, which stands for Sephardic Heritage in the District of Columbia, makes the Syrian version using the familiar grated raw potato and onion. Called ejjeh batata, these pancakes have the distinctly Syrian flavors of allspice and Aleppo pepper. They are eaten stuffed in a pita with raw and pickled vegetables.
If you're looking for alternatives to latkes, it's easy to find your way to some versions of syrup-soaked, deep fried dough or fritters perfect for Chanukkah. The batter can be dropped into hot oil in clumps or thinned out and squeezed into shapes, like the spirals of Iraqi zangoola or the fried squiggles of Syrian zalabieh - both thinner, crisper relatives of funnel cake. Latin America has its bunuelos, India its jalebi. For Persian Jews it's zoloobiah, while Italian Jews serve anise-flavored frittelle di Chanukkah.
Rabbi Ovadia's wife, Edna, born in Morocco, remembers sfenj served with tea with nana (mint). Not just for Chanukkah, sfenj is a favorite year-round breakfast treat.
I inherited a taste for bumuelos from my father's family. Sometimes called the Sephardic or Turkish beignet, the hot, fried bumuelos are dipped in honey-sugar syrup instead of getting a beignet's dusting of confectioners' sugar.
Expanding my horizons of Chanukkah foods even more, I realize that frying isn't required. Olive oil-poached Turkish green beans, an omelet or frittata and even a salad with olive oil dressing or a really good olive oil for dipping crusty bread could all bring welcome variety to any Chanukkah celebration. Suddenly, cheese-filled blintzes browned in some oil and butter also seem a perfect dish for this holiday.
While I am reconciled to latke love, this year I plan to invite other food friends to the party, establishing some new Chanukkah traditions with a full roster of co-stars alongside that iconic latke.
5 or 6 servings (makes 10 to 12 blintzes)
Serving blintzes for Chanukkah is not such a common thing, although many Jewish cuisines around the world do feature cheese-filled fried dough for the holiday, as oil and dairy products both play parts in the Chanukkah story.
The cheese filling here is closer to the original Eastern European blintzes, which were not as sweet as many versions today. (For a sweeter cheese filling, see the VARIATION, below.)
The vegetable blintzes resemble a softer version of a vegetable egg roll and likewise are enhanced by a dip in sweet chili sauce.
You'll need an 8-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet. MAKE AHEAD: The cheese and vegetable fillings can be refrigerated up to 2 days in advance. The crepe batter needs to be refrigerated for 15 to 30 minutes. Uncooked blintzes can be frozen individually on a tray, then wrapped individually and frozen for up to 3 months. The cooked blintzes can be refrigerated for up to 1 day; they can be frozen, using the method for uncooked blintzes. Defrost in the refrigerator and reheat, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven until warmed through.
For the crepes
• 1 cup all-purpose flour or potato starch
• 1/2 cup cold water
• 1 cup whole milk
• 2 large eggs, beaten
• Pinch sea salt
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• Confectioners' sugar, for dusting (optional)
Sweet chili sauce, for dipping (optional)
For the cheese filling
• 2 cups farmer cheese
• 1 large egg
• 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
• Finely grated zest from 1 small lemon (2 to 3 teaspoons)
For the vegetable filling
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or vegetable oil
• 1 medium onion, diced
• 1 cup thinly shredded green cabbage
• 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed
• 1/2 cup peeled or scrubbed shredded carrot
• 1/2 cup seeded, thinly sliced green bell pepper
• Dash ground cayenne pepper (optional)
For the crepes: Whisk together the flour or potato starch, water and milk in a mixing bowl until smooth. Whisk in the eggs and salt to form a smooth and thin batter. (The batter can also be mixed in the blender.) Refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the filling(s): For the cheese filling: Whisk together the farmer cheese, egg, melted butter, sugar, salt and lemon zest in a mixing bowl. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the vegetable filling: Heat the butter or oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onion and cook for about 5 minutes or until softened. Stir in the cabbage and salt; cook for about 2 minutes, then add the carrot, green bell pepper and the cayenne pepper, if using. Cook for 5 or 6 minutes, just long enough so the carrot and bell pepper are still crisp-tender. Drain off any liquid in the pan and let the vegetables cool. Taste, and add more salt, as needed.
When you're ready to cook the crepes, heat the 8-inch crepe pan or nonstick skillet over on medium to medium-low heat. Grease with cooking oil spray or brush lightly with vegetable oil before making each crepe.
Pour in 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the batter for each crepe, working quickly to swirl and coat the bottom of the pan. Cook for 45 to 60 seconds, until the top looks dry and the bottom is golden brown. Gently lift part of an edge to loosen the crepe, then turn it out of the pan, with the browned side up. Continue making crepes (a total of 10 to 12), stacking finished ones on a plate.
To fill, place one crepe browned side up on a clean work surface. Spoon a scant 1/4 cup of filling in a line across the lower third, then fold the crepe up over the filling to cover it. Next, fold in both sides, then continue to roll to form a fairly tight blintz. Repeat to fill all the crepes.
(At this point, the blintzes can be frozen individually on a baking sheet, then wrapped individually and frozen in a zip-top bag for up to 3 months.)
Heat the butter and oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Once the butter has melted, add about half of the blintzes, seam sides down. Cook for about 10 minutes, without turning them over, until lightly browned. (If they cook before the filling is warmed through, transfer them to a lightly greased baking dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes before serving.)
Serve the cheese blintzes dusted with confectioners' sugar, if using, and the accompanying Chunky Berry Sauce. Serve the vegetable blintzes with a sweet chili sauce for dipping.
VARIATION: For a sweeter cheese filling, double the amount of sugar and add a dash of vanilla extract.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using all-purpose flour and cheese filling): 370 calories, 20 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 21 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 145 mg cholesterol, 600 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using all-purpose flour, vegetable oil and vegetable filling): 220 calories, 6 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
CHUNKY BERRY SAUCE
Makes 2 cups
The sauce makes a nice accompaniment for blintzes; it also goes great with ice cream. Cranberries are plentiful in winter and blueberries in summer, so your blintzes never need to be without a homemade sauce to complete them.
MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
• About 4 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (from one 12-ounce bag) or fresh or frozen blueberries (2 pints)
• 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 teaspoon cornstarch
• Finely grated zest (1 tablespoon) and 1/3 cup juice from 1 orange, or more juice as needed
Stir together the fruit, butter, sugar, cornstarch, and orange zest and juice in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, stir gently until the berries pop and release their juices.
Remove from the heat; the sauce will thicken as it cools. If it thickens too much, stir in a little orange juice to loosen it.
Serve warm, at room temperature or chilled.
Nutrition | Per 2-tablespoons serving: 70 calories, 0 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar
KOOKOO SIB ZAMINI (Persian Potato Pancakes)
4 to 6 servings (makes about thirty 3-inch pancakes)
Those who know regular potato latkes will notice right away that these are different in texture and appearance, as they start with cooked potato, use more eggs and are a lovely golden color inside.
Instead of making individual potato pancakes, you can spoon the whole batch into a single layer in the skillet, creating one large rosti-type pancake.
Serve with dill pickles, tomato slices and lettuce, or serve with baguette slices for sandwichmaking.
MAKE AHEAD: The potatoes can be cooked, cooled, grated, covered and refrigerated a day or two in advance.
Adapted from Potomac, Maryland resident Ellie Dayan.
• 2 pounds red potatoes
• Sea salt
• 1 tablespoon flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 5 large eggs, beaten
• 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
Scrub the potatoes. If they vary in size, cut the larger ones in half. Put all the potatoes in a large pot with a couple pinches of salt and cover with cool water by at least an inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 30 to 40 minutes (depending on their size), until the potatoes are barely fork-tender. Drain and place in a bowl of cold water to cool completely.
Drain the potatoes and discard the potato skins. Use the large-holed side of a box grated to grate the cooled potatoes.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and turmeric in a large mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add the grated potatoes and beaten eggs, mixing until well incorporated.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Use your hands to form oval or round patties, using all the potato mixture. Once the oil shimmers, add several patties to the pan, gently flattening them with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook for about 8 minutes, turning them once, until both sides are a rich golden brown.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6, using 5 tablespoons of oil): 280 calories, 8 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 155 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
FASOULIA (Turkish Green Beans)
Makes 6 to 8 servings
This is a touchstone vegetable dish in Turkey that was incorporated into the country's Jewish cuisine generations ago. It's simple to make and consistently good, and it can be served hot, cold or at room temperature.
Although regular fresh green bean work just fine in this recipe, the more slender French beans called haricots verts are a nice touch, especially left untrimmed. Be sure to use a good-quality olive oil.
Serve with roast chicken or baked salmon, or with Persian Potato Pancakes (see related recipe).
MAKE AHEAD: If you're going to cook the beans in advance, do not add the lemon and parsley until just before serving. The cooked green beans taste even better after a day's refrigeration.
• 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 medium onions, diced
• 2 large or 3 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped, plus their juices
• 1 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
• 1 cup water
• 2 pounds untrimmed haricots verts (thin French green beans; may substitute regular green beans, trimmed)
• Lemon wedge, for serving
• About 1/2 cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped, for serving
Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onions; cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender and somewhat translucent.
Stir in the tomatoes and their juices (to taste), the teaspoon of salt and the 1/2 teaspoon of pepper; cook for 2 minutes, then add the water and green beans, stirring gently to incorporate. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 45 to 60 minutes, stirring only once or twice; the water should be absorbed and the beans should be soft. Taste and add salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Transfer to a platter or wide, shallow serving bowl. (At this point, the beans can be refrigerated for up to a day.)
Just before serving, squeeze the lemon wedge over the top and sprinkle with the parsley.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8): 170 calories, 3 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 14 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar