Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.
Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’aloukwith eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.
This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.
Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a happy and kosher Passover! I’m posting this from Israel, where I will be spending the holiday with my grandparents, who live in a seniors’ home for South Africans in the town of Herzliyya. Wherever you are, I wish you a happy holiday.
I want to end our Pesach series with a very simple and tasty Passover dish – the traditional Sephardic Balkan keftes de prasa, or leek fritters – whose black bits of crispy fried goodness are the final color. These treats are traditional Passover fare among the Sephardic communities of the Balkans – Serbia, Turkey, and Greece above all – but also have been served for other holidays as well. I first tried them at an event for Hanukkah – when, like latkes and doughnuts, a leek patty fried in oil would be most seasonal. Yet it is for Pesach that these crispy vegetable patties are now popular.
Leeks themselves have a lengthy Jewish history. The vegetable is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers as one the Jews yearn for from their time of slavery in Egypt, for they “were wont to eat…the leeks, and the onions.” Regardless, the vegetable was probably prominent in ancient Israelite cooking, and was spread by the Romans throughout the Mediterranean region. German Ashkenazim indeed would later use the vegetable, and it saw limited use in Eastern Europe, but this infrequent use paled in comparison to the leek’s appearance on the tables of Sephardim. Gil Marks remarked that the leek was the “single most important vegetable” of Sephardic cooking in the Ottoman Empire, and ended up in everything – soups, stews, patties, and pastries. The keftes de prasa are attested from the Ottoman period – and indeed, their name reflect the Turkish köfte (patty) and Ladino and Greek prasa (leek). These treats, however, are enjoyed by all.
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
…to chopped plantains…
…to frying plantains…
…to almost fried plantains…
…to fried plantains.
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.
Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
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.
Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)
4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)
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
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.
When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
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.
Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
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.
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.
Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.
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
Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.
There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.
Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah– an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.
Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”
Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj,an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.
I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with chouxpastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.
I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.
This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.
Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts
3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)
~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)
1.5 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)
Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil
Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.