Cooking according to Chanukah tradition doesn’t have to be boring! We are going to start with Smoked Salmon and Goat Cheese Bruschetta, a mouth-watering dish that I’m sure was a favorite of the Maccabees. Well, ok, we can make latkes too – though it’s unlikely that any Maccabee ever saw a potato either. Yes folks, that particular “traditional” dish is based on a South American tuber that didn’t cross the Atlantic until the sixteenth century. So don’t picture Mrs. Judah frying latkes; it never happened.
Anyway, my go-to Chanukah menu used to be some combination of Creamy Baked Ziti or Spinach Fettuccine, Sun-dried Tomato Caesar Salad, and/or Tilapia with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Parmesan. These family favorites are from the first Quick & Kosher cookbook.
That was then; this is now. In my new book, Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes, I explore so many non-traditional cuisines– for instance the Chanukah menu in my book is Indian-themed. It includes some recipes I’ve been just chaloshing to try, and I’ll share some with you here. Don’t ask me to define chaloshing: It’s one of those Hebrew/Yiddish expressions implying that I’ve gone weak with desire for it. In Yiddish, if you’re collapsing over something, it’s a good thing.
So, this year, for our blog readers I have planned another special not-so-traditional Chanukah menu, follow our Brushcetta starter with Butternut Squash and Sage Lasagna, served with Winter Citrus Salad (with radicchio), and Roasted Brussels Sprouts in Herb Butter. It’s seasonal, warm, comforting, creamy, delicious and fresh -- all in one meal! Finish off with a delicious fried Apple Zeppole with Jelly Dipping Sauce. Zeppole is an Italian doughnut hole best served hot and dusted (ok -- more than dusted, covered) with confectioner’s sugar. They are a sweet, doughy, chewy, greasy alternative to Israeli sufganiot, the traditional fried jelly donut.
Why do we eat dairy?
You’ve probably noticed that this is a dairy meal, something kind of unusual for a Jewish holiday. And you want to know WHY we are unabashedly eating dairy and fried foods and loving every minute of it.
There’s a good reason: In the Geller house, we eat dairy because it’s my absolute favorite! Ok, there’s a more traditional reason too, so here goes: It happens that there was a really spunky lady who is said to have lived at the time of the Maccabean revolt against the Greeks. She was a young widow whose name was Yehudit, and she had a stronger stomach than I do – stronger than most of us do. When her village was under siege and succumbing to starvation, she and her maid went to the commander of the Greek troops, pretending to give him valuable information about how and when to take the town. She charmed the general into trusting her over the course of several days, finally showing up with a “victory gift” of salty cheese, and wine – lots of wine. Anticipating an easy battle the next day, the general lustily dug into the cheese and chased it with drink after drink of her strong wine. After he collapsed in a drunken stupor, she took his sword, beheaded him, and quickly made her way back to her village (with his head!) When the Greek troops reported to the general’s tent in the morning, they found the headless body of their leader and fled in panic.
So to honor this heroine, we eat dairy foods on Chanukah, like the cheese she fed the unsuspecting general. Just watch how much wine you drink afterward. You never know.
Why do we eat fried foods?
In the Geller house, because we love them, and we need no excuse to munch away. But the rest of the Jewish world has a reason – several, in fact.
The simple answer is that foods fried in oil remind us of the oil that burned miraculously when the Maccabees purified and rededicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Latkes and sufganiot are fried, which is why we eat those specifically on this holiday.
Additionally, the Hebrew word shemen, meaning oil, contains the same letters as shemoneh, eight, which was the number of days that the miracle of the oil lasted. There are no coincidences in Jewish tradition, people.
Mystically, both the Temple Menorah and the oil used to light it are associated with chochmah, Torah wisdom. The war between the Greeks and the Jews was essentially a war of ideas – which culture and whose wisdom would endure? The Greeks wanted everyone under their rule to value their philosophy and think exactly as they did, so they were violently opposed to the idea of G-d’s wisdom and forbad the study of Torah. Many Jews obeyed these laws and were lured from Judaism by the attractive Greek culture. But Jews devoted to Torah just as adamantly refused to give in. Both sides knew it would be a fight to the death.
Well, we all know who won. We still live by the Torah, and somehow, the Greeks stopped thinking. A drop of oil symbolizes the whole thing, so it’s no wonder we indulge in oily delicacies!