Guest post by Bill St. John
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and KCNC-TV Channel 4, and nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. A Denver native, St. John lives in his hometown.
I remember reading a story about Ruth Reichl, the food maven and perhaps second-most-famous editor of the now-departed Gourmet magazine after its founder, Earle MacAusland. Before Gourmet and while she oversaw the food pages at the Los Angeles Times, she published a recipe for roast leg of lamb for a Pesach seder and got dozens of complaints because no observant Jew would roast meat (much less a leg of lamb) during Passover.
So when Chanukah came around and Reichl assembled the newspaper’s menu of recipes, she asked an expert in Jewish dietary law to look it over. He chuckled and said, “Ruth, Chanukah’s not a real holiday; your menu can include anything.”
Despite the fact that you can cook any food for Chanukah, many Jews definitely do cook specific foods for Chanukah in honor of this not-a-real-holiday holiday. They whip up batches of latkes or go to the extent of fashioning jam-filled doughnuts (sufganiyot).
Chanukah also means special treats like chocolate gelt and dreidel-shaped cookies with colored frostings for children, or gribenes (crisped bits of chicken or goose skin) fried in schmaltz for their elders.
All these foods and more—one of which will furrow your brows—are touchstones and, for many Jewish Americans, they are what makes Chanukah Chanukah.
But the most signal element of Chanukah is oil.
“Chanukah” means rededication and harkens back to the rededication of the Second Temple in the 2nd century B.C.E. After the Maccabees took back the Temple grounds from the Syrian-Greeks who had disallowed Jews their religious practices (here’s where the “not-a-real-holiday” gets its gas: these stories are recounted outside the canon of the Bible and are disputed even to have occurred), the triumphant Maccabees sought to re-light the Temple menorah but could find only sufficient unsullied oil to last one night.
Miraculously, the menorah burned for the eight nights of its candelabra. Hence, Chanukah also is called “The Feast of Lights.” For Chanukah, Jewish families ritualistically light a home menorah for eight evenings. And they also prepare foods cooked in oil, with latkes commonly taking center stage.
Georgian Jews (from the one over there, near Russia and Turkey, not the one in the American South) riff on the latke and cook what they call labda, made with mashed potatoes and strong with herbs and walnuts. Greek Jews fry a sort of puffy doughnut in oil that they call loukoumades; they dip them in honey.
A frighteningly interesting story is the origin of the popularity of eating cheese for Chanukah and foods such as blintzes, kugels, and knishes that may contain cheese. Another extra-canonical book, that of Judith, recounts the story’s main lines. At a banquet, Judith, a daughter of the Hasmoneans (descendants of the Maccabees and, as such, the solitary Chanukah connection), fed salty cheese to Holofernes, general of the army of Israel’s archenemy Nebuchadnezzar.
Holofernes became so thirsty that he drank copious cups of wine to slake his thirst; he passed out, though not promptly, at which point Judith took the general’s sword from his scabbard and lopped off his head, leading to a Jewish victory. In commemoration of this, Jews eat cheese at Chanukah.
And drink moderately.
Jews and Oil
For more than 5,000 years, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea have borne olive trees and the oil pressed from them. The ancient Israelites—perforce all Semitic peoples—have been steeped in that oil since that time.
The premier letters of the earliest Mediterranean alphabets such as Phoenician and Aramaic are like markers of the four fundamental facets or elements of everyday life: Aleph, the ox, or herds and flocks; Beta, “house” or shelter; Gamma, the camel, transportation; and Zeta or Zai, the olive, or agriculture. (Note the absence of any letter or term for “cereal.” The olive is the preeminent food.)
Clearly, the olive and olive oil were and are essential elements of the Mediterranean, therefore Jewish, diet. Moreover, they are foundations of the Jewish religion.
A dove returned to Noah with an olive branch in its beak as a sign of the abatement of both the waters and God’s wrath. Moses directs the children of Israel to make offerings to the Almighty of “cakes of wheat flour tempered with olive oil.” When his son Aaron is made a priest, Moses anoints him with olive oil—as were all the kings and priests of Israel so anointed.
Even up into the modern world and its times, oil has figured significantly in both the diet and traditions of the Jewish people.
To my mind, the most significant example of this is the use of olive oil in la cucina Ebraica and its significant influence on the history of Italian cuisine. Jews embraced vegetables such as the eggplant, which was new but strange to everyday Italians. Jews butchered meats uniquely (prizing offal, for example) and, of course, pioneered ways with non-porcine meats like lamb. All of this has left its mark on Italian cooking.
But most significant, I believe, was the Jewish use of olive oil for frying foods and initiating the preparations of other foods. Because it is dairy, Jews disfavored butter as a fat; they used olive oil. Fritto misto, carciofi alla giudia, squash blossoms fried in egg and oil, and fried salted cod are but a few examples of signature Italian (especially Roman) dishes that are, at their origins, Jewish.
Here in America, latkes fried in oil might be seen as the third aspect of the trinity of Jewish foods whose other modes are bagels and matzah ball soup.
Gerard Rudofsky’s Potato Latkes
In 1989, in downtown Denver, Gerard Rudofsky founded the much-beloved Zaidy’s Delicatessen which, in the ensuing years, has had three incarnations in three locations. Below is his never-before-published recipe for the latkes on the menus of those restaurants, scaled down for the home cook, from 50 pounds of potatoes—among other industrial quantities—to three medium spuds.
Gerard Rudofsky’s Legendary Latkes
For these latkes, the cook grates potatoes in the traditional way but also binds the mash with a sort of mortar made of matzo meal, a potato-onion mix and egg. The fried latkes merely hint at onion and pick up a beautiful tawny crust out of their pan. They are what a pancake wishes it tasted like.
Makes 6-8 depending on size.
3 medium- to medium-large russet potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup white onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
A few grinds white pepper, to taste
1/4 cup matzo meal
1 large egg, whisked in a small bowl
Canola or other neutral oil for frying
Sour cream and applesauce (see note)
After peeling the potatoes and before proceeding to grate them, be sure the whole potatoes are soaking in cold water. (For example, you may peel them ahead and keep them in the refrigerator covered in water.) When ready to cook, set up a wire cooling rack over a brown paper bag in a baking tray near the heat source.
Pat the potatoes dry and grate them on the large holes of a box grater, keeping back 1/3 of the grated potatoes. (If they are particularly moist, squeeze handfuls of them of excess liquid.) Proceed quickly with the remainder of the recipe so that the grated potatoes do not oxidize (turning grey or red-brown).
To a food processor, add the 1/3 of reserved potatoes, the onion, salt and pepper and matzo meal and pulse 7-8 times to mash them coarsely together; do not purée the mixture. In a large bowl, add the contents of the processor bowl to the remaining 2/3 of grated potatoes. Add the egg and fold in everything well, but do not overwork.
Meanwhile, over medium-high heat, warm a heavy-bottomed skillet (cast-iron or stainless steel are best for browning) and into it pour 1/4-1/3 inches of oil. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Drop a small bit of the potato mixture into the oil to see if lively bubbles form around it as a test of the temperature.
Scoop 1/2-cup portions of the latke mix and gently slide them into the hot oil. With a spatula, flatten each into a patty no more than 1/2-inch thick. Do not crowd the pan; you will cook more than one batch. Fry until the edges begin to brown, 3-4 minutes. Flip and fry for another 3-4 minutes. It may be helpful to use two spatulas to flip or move the latkes.
Watch the temperature of the oil: too hot and the edges will darken before the middles cook through. Too low and the latkes will become soggy with fat. Also, you may find it helpful to wipe off the back of the spatula, from time to time, on paper towels.
Before making the next batch, check the oil. If it smells “off” or is dark brown or is filled with many small bits of cooked latke, pitch it, wipe out the skillet with paper towels (taking care not to burn yourself) and begin a new batch with fresh oil.
Add a Dash of Color
Rudofsky “pinks up” his latke garnish of chunky applesauce with a few thawed frozen strawberries, crushed, and a spoonful of canned chunky pineapple.