Noah Bernamoff was eating a smoked meat sandwich as he talked latkes at the Mile End Deli in Brooklyn. More specifically, he argued for the pancake’s status as the iconic food of Hanukkah, which begins Saturday at sundown.
Sure, there are doughnuts if you’re from Israel, and maybe fried chicken in Italy. But generally, Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors settled in middle or northern Europe, gravitate to the potato.
“For Hanukkah, that’s what people do,” said Bernamoff, who, with his wife, Rae, owns Mile End and its satellite sandwich shop in Manhattan, and whose commercial kitchen took a hit in Hurricane Sandy.
His mother made latkes every year, slathered with homemade applesauce (never sour cream). I top mine with smoked salmon, frying up batches upon batches of the lovely, crisp-edged pancakes that are just greasy enough.
But every year I wonder: Is there something different I can make that still says Hanukkah?
Two excellent cookbooks can help answer that question: “The Mile End Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, 2012), which the Bernamoffs co-wrote, and “Jerusalem” (Ten Speed, 2012), by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi.
The books exemplify two trends in Jewish cooking: Ashkenazi Brooklyn hipster (in the Bernamoffs’ case, by way of Montreal), and cross-cultural, vegetable-based Israeli. Both volumes have recipes for classic latkes, but the overlap pretty much ends there.
“The Mile End Cookbook” is filled with familiar deli classics infused with a modern, DIY spirit. Along with the requisite gefilte fish, borscht (made from beet – rather than beef – stock) and kasha varnishkes with homemade egg noodles, you’ll find homemade beef salami, lamb bacon and smoked mackerel.
Bernamoff serves his classic latkes at Mile End all year long because, as he said, “that’s why people come to a Jewish deli.” Then at Hanukkah, he breaks out the variations. Celery root and parsnip replace potato in one version, the sweetness of the parsnips tempered by the grassiness of the celery root. Bernamoff suggests topping these with horseradish cream.
Hanukkah doesn’t get much play in “Jerusalem.” But I did find a stunning recipe for Swiss chard fritters, packed with fragrant dill and cilantro, and studded with loads of feta that melted and browned as it fried. I figured that since frying in oil really was the focal point of Hanukkah, this was as valid a holiday recipe as any, and it provides a green vegetable counterpoint to all the usual starchy potato.
You could absolutely crown both these fritters with smoked salmon and maybe a little yogurt, and they would be terrific. But in the end I decided not to.
After reading both books, the flavors of the Middle East and Eastern Europe started melding together in my head. I wanted to come up with a sauce or dip influenced by both cultures – something unusual, but familiar at its heart.
From the Ashkenazi tradition I borrowed cooked beets, dill, walnuts and horseradish. Then I mixed it all with the yogurt, garlic and olive oil of Israeli tradition.
Into the blender the ingredients went, whirling until everything came together into a pungent magenta puree. It was thick enough to dollop on top of the Swiss chard fritters, and creamy, tangy and garlicky enough to serve on its own as a dip with vegetables.
The beet puree would even work well on top of classic potato latkes. It wouldn’t be traditional, but it would still be Jewish. After all, as Bernamoff said: “Jewish food isn’t just one thing. It keeps evolving.”
Both his book and “Jerusalem” are proof of that.
SWISS CHARD FRITTERS
Adapted from “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Time: 30 minutes
14 ounces (2 bunches) Swiss chard leaves, stems removed
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped dill
1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 large eggs
3 ounces crumbled feta cheese (1/2 cup)
Lemon wedges, for serving (optional)
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add chard and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from pot and drain well, patting leaves dry with a paper or kitchen towel.
2. Place chard in food processor with herbs, nutmeg, sugar, flour, garlic and eggs. Pulse until well blended. Fold in feta by hand.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, spoon in 1 heaping tablespoon of mixture for each fritter. (You should be able to fit three fritters per batch.) Press down gently on fritter to flatten. Cook 1 to 2 minutes per side, until golden brown. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Add another tablespoon oil to pan and repeat. Serve warm, with lemon wedges (optional).
Yield: About 14 fritters, 4 appetizer servings
CELERY ROOT-PARSNIP LATKES
Adapted from “The Mile End Cookbook” by Noah and Rae Bernamoff
Time: 30 minutes
1 pound celery root, peeled and grated
1 pound parsnips, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, peeled and grated
1 1/4 cups matzo meal
3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon kosher salt, more for serving
3/4 teaspoon cracked black pepper
1. Place grated celery root, parsnips and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle in matzo meal and toss mixture together with your hands. Add parsley, eggs, salt and pepper and combine again using your hands until ingredients are incorporated.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Take a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and flatten between your palms. Fry latkes, without moving them, for 4 to 5 minutes, checking that they don’t over-brown. (You should be able to fry them in batches of 11 or 12, depending on pan size.) Flip latkes, turn heat down to medium-low and fry another 4 minutes, or until well browned and tender. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with additional salt. Serve warm.
Yield: About 4 dozen latkes
GARLICKY BEET SPREAD WITH YOGURT, DILL AND HORSERADISH
Time: 20 minutes, plus 1 to 1 1/2 hours for roasting
2 medium beets, trimmed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, more for beets
1/2 cup walnuts
1 very large clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1 cup Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons lemon juice, more to taste
2 teaspoons chopped dill
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place beets in small baking dish and drizzle with oil. Add 3 tablespoons water to bottom; cover tightly with foil. Bake until tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, turning beets after 45 minutes. Cool, then peel.
2. In a food processor, grind walnuts, garlic and salt until very fine. Scrape down sides of bowl. Add oil, yogurt, lemon juice, dill and horseradish and pulse until smooth. Taste; add lemon, salt or both, if needed. Serve with latkes or fritters, or use as a dip for vegetables.
Yield: 2 cups
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