Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

fried seasoned plantains

As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too.  Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….

One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!

And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.

How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains

  1. Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)

The Hanukkah Classic: Latkes

Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in my college apartment – these are savory ones with onion inside! December 2013, photo mine.

If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.

Latkes being fried in a deep pan
Frying the last of a batch of “test” latkes before Hanukkah – these soaked up the juices from the latkes fried before! Photo mine, November 2015.

As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes  are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes  have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.

Potato grating
Grating the potatoes by hand. The effort is worth it! Photo mine, November 2015.

I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.

Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.

Spices on apples for applesauce
Adding spices to the apples in the process of making applesauce – we have cinnamon, turmeric, sugar, rosemary, and cloves in this one. Photo mine, November 2015.

I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot, a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.

These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!

Latkes in the pan with chunks of apple in them
Latkes in progress – these have chunks of apple, which make them quite unwieldy, but oh-so-soft and juicy! Photo mine, December 2014.

Potato Latkes

Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)

4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)

4-5 eggs

1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)

½ cup flour

Oil for frying

  1. Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
  2. When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
  3. Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
  4. Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
  5. Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
  6. Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
  7. Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
  8. Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
  9. Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.

 

Homemade Applesauce

Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck

Makes four to six cups applesauce

5 apples, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup sugar

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground turmeric

1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)

1 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp salt

3 cloves

water

  1. Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
  2. Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
  3. Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
  4. Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
  5. Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
  6. Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)

Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta): A Childhood Favorite

Cabbage soup with kneidlach

Cabbage Soup With Apple: The Childhood Favorite

Cabbage soup with kneidlach
Kapushta (cabbage soup) served with kneidlakh (matzah balls), November 2015. The recipe for kneidlakh is not included here. Photo mine.

My grandparents used to take over our house every year. And when I say take over, I mean they would occupy our house for up to six weeks – filling our ears with the Afrikaans from their mouths, our brains with the stories of the pre-war South Africa of their childhoods, and our kitchen with what they liked to eat. My grandfather, a creature of culinary habit, would fill the pantry with the various European pickles and South African staples he subsisted on – delicious herring and onions for the former, various forms of dried cracker and jam for the latter. On the other hand, my grandmother – knitter, soup maestro, and shade-thrower extraordinaire –filled our stomachs and freezer with an arsenal of soups. Many of my childhood memories either involve eating her soup, or the effort to find adequate containers to store the amount she had made.

Chopped cabbage and apples
Chopped cabbage and apple for inclusion in the soup. Here, I am using Honeycrisp apples, which are sweeter than a Granny Smith. November 2015, photo mine.

My favorite soup as a child was her kapushta – a cabbage soup imported from her parents’ homeland of Lithuania. Tart, beguilingly sweet, and traversing the boundary between “light” and “dense,” kapushta – or, more commonly, “cabbage borscht,” is a world on a plate. It is also a deeply vernacular food. Russian and Ukrainian peasants were making cabbage soup in the 11th century; by the 18th century, the soup was consumed from Vienna, to Perm, to Helsinki, to Bucharest. Around that time, tomatoes and potatoes arrived in Eastern Europe from the Americas  Even today, in Eastern Europe, one can find soup on the menu of many a “home-style cooking” establishment. Or, as the Russians say, “cabbage soup and kasha – this is our food!” The name kapushta – common in Poland, and in Slovakia as kapustnica, simply means “cabbage.” “Cabbage borsht” – or borsht mit kroyt – seems to be a bit more common as a name than kapushta. I asked many of my friends who had this soup as children, and more of them called it “borscht” or something along those lines – and even more just “cabbage soup.” I wonder, after some research, if kapushta is a regionalism based on the Lithuanian kopūstienė or kopūstų sriuba.

Kapustnica from slovakia
Kapustnica – the Slovak cabbage soup, with some very non-kosher additions (Maciarka via Wikimedia Commons)

The Jewish versions are generally kosher renditions of their neighbors. This fact stands to reason, since Jews were not exactly wealthy at this time either, cabbage was cheap and plentiful, and folks have copied each other’s cooking since the dawn of humankind. So here, we Ashkenazim swapped the lard for other fats, and skipped the sausage-smetana combinations as garnish. Sometimes, however, there are more specific additions: kneidlach (matzoh balls) or farfel (an egg pasta). The preparation can also be a hint as to the region of origin: apples added a tartness often associated with Lithuanian Jews and their taste for the sour, whereas some sugar could indicate a recipe from Galitzia (Southern Poland and Western Ukraine, known as “Galicia” during the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and the sweet tooth of the Jews there. It is the former that my very Litvak grandmother cooks: she even slices the apple thinly to make crisp the tartness of the soup.

Spices and garlic.
Spices and garlic for the soup – in “the old country” such a spiced mix would have been inaccessible to most, but the cabbage and apple alone would have provided wonderful flavor. November 2015, photo mine.

Then there are the traditions surrounding cabbage soup in various parts of Ashkenazi Jewry. Some serve the sweet-tangy soup on Hanukkah because of its “warmth” and to commemorate the sweetness of victory. German Jews, however, eat it on Hoshanah Rabah, as part of a pun: the German and Western Yiddish Kohl mit Wasser (cabbage with water) sounds like the Hebrew qol mevaser (voice proclaiming) – and thus celebrates the proclamation of G-d’s divine mercy. Many more groups associate the soup with the solemnity and celebration of the Friday night Shabbat (or Shabbos, for many Ashkenazim) dinner. Indeed, in our family, that was kapushta’s frequent stage.

Apples and cabbage in the pot
Throwing the apples into the pot to cook alongside the cabbage – here, I used Jonagold for a tarter flavor. October 2015, photo mine.

My grandmother recently resent me her recipe – one that I had received and mislaid many times. This message triggered a renewed flurry of kapushta-making, one that has given my kitchen and my mother’s kitchen a cabbage smell. It is not everyone’s favorite odor, but it is the smell of my childhood – and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

This kapushta is slightly adjusted from my grandmother’s recipe: I like to find chunks of sweet apple in the tangy soup, so I dice the apple rather than slice it thinly. Furthermore, I use water rather than stock or bouillon for the soup itself: I find that a flavored liquid can drown the flavors too much, whereas water allows the apple, vinegar, cabbage, and tomatoes to do their magical work.

Kapushta with farfel
Halfway through dinnertime I thought to snap a photo of this “uglier” kapushta – I threw in farfel, small egg noodles, as an afterthought. October 2015, photo mine.

Cabbage Soup With Apple (Kapushta)

Based on the recipe of Esther Back

3 tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large head green cabbage, washed and chopped into thin slices

16 oz. canned tomatoes in water*

1 large or 2 medium apple(s), cored and diced – use Granny Smith or Jonagold for a more tart flavor, Honeycrisp for a sweet-tart balance, or Jonathan for a sweeter addition

3 tbsp apple cider vinegar

3 tbsp white sugar

2 tbsp salt (and more to taste at serving)

2 tbsp dried dill

1 tbsp ground black pepper (and more to taste at serving)

2 tsp ground paprika (optional)

1 tsp dried thyme

Water (amount varies)

 

Small egg noodles or farfel (optional)

Matzoh balls, prepared according to your favorite recipe (optional)

 

  1. In a large soup pot, sauté the onions in the oil until translucent but not brown.
  2. Add the chopped cabbage and garlic and mix thoroughly with the onions.
  3. Cover the whole mixture in water up to two or three inches above where the cabbage reached in the pot. If you needed to take your pot off the stove to do this, place it back on the flame and add the tomatoes, and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Add the apple, vinegar, sugar, salt, black pepper, paprika, and thyme once the water is boiling.
  5. Boil for a few minutes, then reduce to a simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half, by which time the cabbage should be very soft and translucent.
  6. If you are serving noodles or farfel with the soup, cook the noodles or farfel according to package directions. For noodles, cut off a minute or so from the cooking time – they will cook in the soup. For homemade farfel, you can cook them directly in the soup.
  7. When the soup is ready, you can serve it as is, add noodles or farfel, matzoh balls, and/or another starch – my grandmother likes a baked potato in hers. I like to add a dollop of sour cream to mine. It freezes well.

*Eve Jochnowitz discusses Lithuanian Jewish canning and food preservation in her translation of Fania Lewando’s (hy”d) 1938 cookbook, The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (which you should get). Jews in Europe canned extensively in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Lewando included many recipes for home canning in the book. As Jochnowitz noted, many of those preserving methods would not be considered safe today.

Additional note: In regards to the name, I would like to thank Susan Rosenberg, Yael Wiesenfeld, Josh Schwartz, Sara Liss, Maurice Farber, Donna Druchunas, Tova Reiter, Ilana Newman, JS Biderman, Laynie Soloman, Amanda Jermyn, Shana Carp, Ziva Freiman, and others for their contributions to the discussion about names.