On the first night of Chanukah, which this year falls on Sunday, Dec. 21, Ashkenazi Jews all over America will light the first candle on the menorah. And potato latkes will be on lots of dinner tables. Some will be homemade, some store-bought, but all will adhere to the ancient custom of serving foods cooked in oil.
Oil emphasizes the miracle of the cruse of oil found in the Temple that burned for eight days, though there was only enough for one day. Dairy products commemorate the heroism of Judith. She fed the enemy general Holofernes large quantities of salty cheese and wine, perhaps the specialties of the area. He fell into a drunken stupor; Judith killed him; the enemy army fled, and the Jews were saved from annihilation — thus, the Chanukah custom of serving dairy dishes and fried foods or foods containing oil.
It's tradition. Back in Eastern European shtetls, the crisp, golden potato discs fried in goose fat were the essential Chanukah dish. Though times were hard, potatoes and onions were cheap and plentiful, and geese slaughtered in the fall provided the rendered fat for frying.
You may cling to the tradition of chicken and brisket dinners. But there are seven more nights to celebrate and observe. Consider a finger-food feast with dishes to appeal to young and old. Try making potato latke people — tiny latkes make the head and ears, insert raisins for the eyes and the nose, and a red apple wedge for the mouth. Use the same potato mixture to make medium-sized latkes, along with almost-instant accompaniments.
Pineapple "candles" are easily put together by even the youngest kids, who love to help in the kitchen. Insert a blanched almond into a maraschino cherry and press into the top of a pineapple spear. If desired, use a tiny piece of cantaloupe, instead of almonds.
With nutrition in mind, include vegetable dishes, such as a Sweet Potato and Apple Kugel or an Israeli vegetable wrap. Nova Enchiladas and Salmon Schnitzel, along with platters of mini-designer latkes, will add to the tempting table.
For designer latkes, add vegetables, such as grated carrots, chives or diced bell peppers, to a potato latke mixture. For a sweet variation, stir in chopped fresh or dried fruits to the pancake batter before cooking.
And for a change from potato latkes, try the Potato-Zucchini Kugel. Cut into small squares and serve warm. A salad of baby greens tossed with goat cheese, dried cranberries and mandarin orange sections completes the feast — so popular, you will have set a new Chanukah tradition.
Worried about calories? Preserve and treasure the rich symbolism of Chanukah by serving smaller portions.
Sweet Potato and Apple Kugel
Chop the apples and sweet potatoes in the food processor before beginning.
1 cup matzah meal
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
3 large Granny Smith apples, unpeeled, cored and coarsely chopped
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and finely chopped
3/4 cup raisins
3 Tbsps. thawed, frozen orange juice concentrate
grated rind of 1 orange or lemon
4 Tbsps. margarine, melted
3 Tbsps. vegetable oil, divided
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spray a 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
In a bowl, mix together the matzah meal, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Add the apples, sweet potatoes, raisins, orange juice, orange or lemon rind, margarine and 11/2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Stir to mix well.
Transfer to the prepared baking dish. Drizzle remaining oil over.
Bake for 1 to 11/4 hours. Top should be nicely browned and kugel soft throughout. If browning too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil. Cool slightly before cutting into squares.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 192; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 32 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 51 mg.
Israeli Vegetable Wrap
1/2 cup prepared hummus
1/4 cup salsa
3 (10-inch) flour or whole wheat tortillas
11/2 cups baby arugula or spinach, shredded
1 ripe avocado, peeled, stone removed, and thinly sliced
1 cup shredded carrots
2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 medium zucchini, thinly sliced
cumin to sprinkle
In a small bowl, combine the hummus and salsa. Spread over the tortillas. Layer the remaining ingredients over. Sprinkle lightly with cumin.
Roll up tightly. With a serrated knife, cut each tortilla diagonally in four. Cover and refrigerate before serving.
Makes 12 pieces.
Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 99; protein, 3g; carbohydrates, 11 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 135 mg.
A nice variation on potato latkes, and it freezes well.
3 large baking potatoes, peeled
1 medium onion, peeled
2 medium zucchini
1/4 cup chopped canned pimento
11/3 cups matzah meal
11/2 tsps. minced garlic
11/2 tsps. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground pepper
4 Tbsps. margarine, melted and divided
1/4 cup snipped fresh dill
Preheat oven to 350°.
Spray a 9-inch square baking dish with nonstick baking spray.
Cut the potatoes and onion into chunks large enough to go through the food processor tube. Chop coarsely and transfer into a mixing bowl.
Using the grater blade, shred the zucchini and add to the potatoes and onion. Stir in the remaining ingredients using only 3 tablespoons melted margarine. Spoon into the prepared baking dish. Drizzle the remaining margarine over. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour or until nicely browned and firm in center. Cut into squares and serve warm or hot.
Serves 10 to 12.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 123; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 16 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 354 mg.
From Everyday Cooking for the Jewish Home by Ethel G. Hofman.
8 corn tortillas
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
3-4 oz. smoked salmon
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced
1 sweet onion, very thinly sliced
11/2 cups shredded lettuce
Heat a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over high heat. Warm tortillas, 1 or 2 at a time, until pliable, about 30 seconds on each side.
Spread the cream cheese over each tortilla. Layer the salmon, tomatoes, onion and lettuce over. Squeeze a little lime juice over. Roll up and serve.
Makes 10 pieces.
Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 200; protein, 7 g; carbohydrates, 23 g; fat, 9 g; cholesterol, 18 mg; sodium, 603 mg.
2 lbs. salmon fillet, 1-inch thick
11/2 cups chopped mushrooms
2 Tbsps. chopped parsley
2 Tbsps. fresh or frozen chopped chives
11/2 Tbsps. matzah meal
2 tsps. lemon juice
1/4 cup walnut oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400°.
Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
Cut the salmon into 10 equal pieces. With a sharp knife, cut a pocket in each, almost all the way through. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the mushrooms, parsley, chives, matzah meal and lemon juice. Stuff the salmon packets with the mixture.
Place on prepared baking sheet. Brush generously with walnut oil.
Bake for 20 minutes or until salmon is opaque throughout. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 10 pieces.
Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 214; protein, 18 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 15 g; cholesterol, 60 mg; sodium, 43 mg.
Sweet Baby Greens
May substitute shredded lettuces, such as romaine or iceberg, for baby greens. Save the drained juice from canned mandarin oranges for the dressing.
Sweet Dressing Ingredients:
1/4 cup oil-and-vinegar salad dressing
2 Tbsps. mandarin orange juice
1 Tbsp. honey, warmed
6-8 cups baby greens
2 cups fresh basil leaves
3-4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 can (8 oz.) mandarin- orange sections, drained
To Prepare Dressing: Whisk together the oil-and-vinegar dressing, orange juice and honey. Set aside to use at room temperature.
In a large bowl, toss the baby greens, basil, goat cheese, cranberries, walnuts and mandarin oranges.
Before serving, toss with the dressing.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 208; protein, 5 g; carbohydrates; 18 g; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 13 mg; sodium, 169 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.