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Books explore the tastes and tales of Hanukkah

Technically, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday. Explained simply, it celebrates the miracle of one day's worth of oil burning for eight days. That's why Jews celebrate the holiday by lighting a special nine-branch candelabrum called a menorah— one for each day, plus one to light the other candles — as well as by eating foods fried in oil.

Its importance has expanded over the decades, in an effort to give Jewish kids something to look forward to on par with Christmas. That works better when Hanukkah actually overlaps with Christmas, but since the holiday is governed by the lunar calendar, the dates shift between late November and late December. This year, the eight-day Festival of Lights begins at sundown tonight.

Two impressive new books provide history, insight and, of course, recipes.

Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (Wiley, 2010, $40) is a weighty tome full of definitions, historical summaries and a number of recipes — a sort of Larousse Gastronomique for the Jewish world.

Joan Nathan's Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France (Knopf, 2010, $39.95) is more like a Jewish take on Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Nathan, the doyenne of Jewish cooking in America, spent several years eating in the homes and restaurants of French Jews, exploring the ways that "Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Provencal Jewish food developed side by side and often melded with French regional cooking."

Both books explore the ways in which Jewish communities throughout the world have created different dishes that are tied together by a shared holy calendar and set of dietary laws.

Both books are detailed enough to offer up plenty of interesting new options for the holiday.

Potato latkes, the most famous Hanukkah treat among Ashkenazic Jews, weren't widely accepted until the 19th century. Before that, holiday pancakes were made from cheese or a flour-based batter. Nathan includes several historical and modern interpretations of the latke. Throw in a few with different root vegetables and you'd have latkes for every night of Hanukkah.

I tried a version made from buckwheat flour, because I had some in my freezer. Earthy and substantial, they were quicker to make than the grated-potato version and just as good a vehicle for sour cream and apple sauce.

As I pored over recipes and contemplated options, I decided that Hanukkah has something very important in common with Thanksgiving. What I really wanted was a fresher version of the same dishes I make every year: latkes, citrus salads and brisket. The accompanying three recipes help satisfy that desire.

>>easy

Fennel Salad With Celery,
Cucumber, Lemon and Pomegranate

1 large fennel bulb, fronds intact

2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cucumber, sliced into rounds

1/4 cup diced red onion

Juice of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds

Cut the fennel bulb in quarters, then lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Snip 2 tablespoons of the fronds and set aside. Toss the fennel, 1 tablespoon of the fronds, the celery, the cucumber and the onion together in a medium-sized salad bowl.

Squeeze the lemon over the vegetables and drizzle on the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Serve sprinkled with the remaining tablespoon of fennel fronds and the pomegranate seeds.

Serves 6.

Source: Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $39.95)

>>moderate

Brisket With Ginger,
Orange Peel and Tomato

3- to 5-pound veal or beef brisket

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

12 small spring onions, trimmed and halved, or 2 medium onions, thickly sliced

6 carrots, peeled

8 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 cup dry white wine

3 cups veal, beef or chicken stock

3 small tomatoes, halved

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

5 sprigs fresh parsley, plus 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2-inch slice of fresh ginger

Green top of 1 leek

2 lemons

2 oranges

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Season the brisket with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Pour the oil into a Dutch oven over medium heat. Brown the meat for about 4 minutes on each side. Remove and set aside. Add the onions, carrots and garlic cloves to the Dutch oven, cooking until they are just beginning to soften, adding more oil if necessary.

Raise the heat, pour in the cider vinegar and stir with a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits that have stuck to the pan. Add the white wine and continue stirring, allowing the liquid to reduce for a few minutes.

Put the meat back in the pot, along with the stock. Bring to a simmer and add the tomatoes, thyme, bay leaf, parsley sprigs, ginger and leek top.

Using a straight peeler, remove the zest in long strips from 1 of the lemons and 1 of the oranges. Add to the pot. Cover and place in the oven for 45 minutes.

Lower the oven temperature to 275 degrees and continue cooking for 2 to 2 1/2 more hours or until tender.

Remove the meat and vegetables from the pot. Discard the citrus peels, thyme and parsley sprigs, ginger, bay leaf and leek top. If cooking in advance, let the pot cool and refrigerate the brisket in the sauce.

Before serving, remove the meat and slice on the bias. Put the meat back in the sauce and reheat in a warm oven or on the stove top. Arrange the meat on a serving platter along with the vegetables. Strain the sauce into a pan and reduce it over high heat to concentrate the flavor and thicken. Pour the sauce over the sliced brisket and, before serving, sprinkle with the grated zests of the remaining lemon and orange and the chopped parsley.

Serves 6 to 10.

Source: Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $39.95)

>>moderate

Brandade
Potato Latkes

2 pounds fresh cod, skin and bones removed

Sea salt to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup milk

5 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

8 garlic cloves, crushed

2 1/2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and halved

1 large egg, well beaten

2 cups matzo meal or fine, dry bread crumbs, plus more if needed for batter

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Liberally coat each side of the cod with sea salt, about 3 tablespoons in all, and let rest for 15 minutes. Rinse the cod with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place the cod in an 8- by 12-inch baking dish or rimmed jelly roll pan. Pour the olive oil and milk over it, and lay the thyme sprigs and garlic on top. Cover with aluminum foil and cook for 20 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through and begins to flake apart. When the fish has cooked, remove it, reserving the thyme and the cooking liquid; discard the garlic.

Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a large pot of cold water and season with 2 tablespoons sea salt. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until a knife passes effortlessly through them. Strain in a colander and return to the pot, cooking over very low heat for about 4 minutes to get rid of any excess moisture. Remove from the heat and mash in the pot until smooth.

Lightly beat the egg in a large bowl. Stir the mashed potatoes, little by little, into the egg. Add the leaves of the reserved thyme. Using a fork, flake the cod, and then fold it into the mashed potatoes. If the batter is too stiff, mix 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of the reserved cod-cooking liquid into the batter. If the batter does not hold together, add up to 1/4 cup matzo meal or bread crumbs. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper if needed. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat about 1/4 inch of vegetable oil in a large skillet. Scoop up 1/4 or 1/2 cup of the cod-potato mixture. Form into a 1/2-inch-thick disc and roll it in the matzo meal or bread crumbs. Fry in batches of 2 or 3 for about 2 minutes on each side, or until golden. Drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining cod-potato mixture. Reheat, if necessary, on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven.

Source: Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France by Joan Nathan (Knopf, $39.95)

Books explore the tastes and tales of Hanukkah 11/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:25pm]

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