MONSEY, N.Y. — Chanukah, O Chanukah ... it's one of my favorite times of year -- and certainly one of the busiest!
I host several parties because you know how it goes: Aunt Jenny won't come if Uncle Oscar is in the room, and Scott isn't talking to Heather, and Barbara won't bring the kids if Steve is coming. You have to check your opinions on politics and religion at the door with your coat (that leaves only sports and weather).
So there is at least a party a night before the week is out. That's a lot of cooking.
You may not believe that I don't like to cook, being that I am a cookbook author (the Quick & Kosher cookbook series), run a kosher food blog (blog.kosher. com) and host an online cooking show ("Quick & Kosher with Jamie Geller"). The fact is, I wrote my first cookbook, Quick & Kosher: Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing, precisely because I needed easy recipes that would get me out of the kitchen fast. Once I had a sizable collection, I wanted to share my beginner's expertise with the hungry waiting world.
I actually had to learn how to use an oven. I'm not pointing any Freudian fingers here, but the truth is that my mother never cooked. It was my grandparents, immigrants from the Old Country, who showed me that there are other ways to get food besides dialing a phone. (They didn't have phones in the Old Country, so they had to cook.) In fact, Mom's folks were professional chefs who ran a terrific little restaurant in Philadelphia.
They fried up our latkes year after year -- the kind of latkes that would be gone before the tray reached my end of the table. It never occurred to me that I could learn, but Chanukah miracles continue to happen, even in my own kitchen.
I've learned a thing or two -- enough to write a second cookbook (Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes) -- while juggling a career and four children under the age of 5. I have learned to cook great food in a fraction of the usual time, and I love sharing my tips with other busy people.
For those planning a Chanukah bash, my goal is to keep you calm and confident, while thoroughly versed in prepping the customary fried and dairy treats.
I'm not an expert at explaining those customs, but here goes.
Take the fried foods -- specifically the noble potato pancake, or latke. The main miracle of Chanukah was that the supply of sacred oil needed for the golden menorah of the Holy Temple (when it was resanctified by the Maccabees) was only enough to last one day, yet it burned for eight. So we fry Chanukah foods in oil. In Israel, they do doughnuts, called sufganiyot -- little pieces of sugar-coated heaven.
The dairy thing goes back to one of the gorier stories of the Jewish victory. Suffice it to say that a clever woman used abundant dairy cuisine to lull a certain Greek general to sleep, then promptly dispatched him over the River Styx, or wherever dead Greeks go. To celebrate her triumph, we favor dairy meals.
So whether you're rejoicing over energy-efficient oil, the guts of a smart woman, the smarts of a gutsy woman, or the fact that Scott and Heather are talking again, it's time to party. You'll need lots of good food, so here are shortcuts to culinary success, with or without a miracle.
When you want to pull out all the stops, try this different type of Chanukah menu. It'll look like you slaved all day.
Russet potatoes are the best for baking.
3 baking potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 cup matzah meal
2 large eggs, beaten
1/4 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup canola oil
1 jar (10 oz.) chutney, any variety
Line a cookie sheet with paper towels.
In a large bowl, mix together the potatoes, onion, peas, matzah meal, eggs, curry powder and salt.
In a large nonstick sauté pan, heat 1/4 cup oil over high heat until shimmering, but not smoking, about 1 minute. Ladle about 1/4 cup batter per latke into the hot oil, spreading batter to form a 3-inch round. Make 3 latkes at a time.
Reduce heat to medium and cook for 4 minutes on each side, until latkes are golden. Remove from oil and place on paper towels to drain.
Continue making the latkes, three at a time, until all of the batter is used. Add oil to the pan as necessary, heating the oil after each addition before adding more batter.
Serve with chutney of choice.
Bombay Salmon With Jasmine Rice
A salmon steak is cut across the fish to form a slice containing the bones. A filet is taken from the side of the fish, leaving the bones behind.
1/4 cup olive oil
6 salmon steaks (10 oz. each)
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. kosher salt, divided
1 Tbsp. canola oil
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cube frozen crushed ginger
2 tsps. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. turmeric
pinch ground cloves
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk
1 cup jasmine rice
Preheat oven to 475°.
Place a 7x9-inch ungreased baking pan in the oven.
Rub 1/4 cup olive oil all over salmon steaks, and season with pepper and 2 teaspoons of salt. Set aside.
In a medium saucepot, bring 2 cups water and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil over high heat.
In a medium sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes.
Stir in the garlic, ginger, curry powder, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric and cloves. Mix well and cook for 1 minute more.
Slowly stir in the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
Add the rice to the boiling water. Reduce heat to a slow simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes.
While rice is cooking, remove the baking pan from the oven. Place the salmon steaks on the pan and return it to the oven.
Immediately reduce heat to 300 degrees. Bake for 20 minutes, or until fish flakes with a fork.
Plate the salmon steaks and spoon the sauce over top.
Serve with jasmine rice.
Persian Cucumber Salad
3 Persian cucumbers or 1 English cucumber
1/3 cup red-wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. minced shallots
2/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, halved lengthwise and sliced
1/2 cup golden raisins
Quarter cucumbers lengthwise and then slice them into 21/2-inch sticks.
Place the red-wine vinegar, honey and shallots in blender or food processor. With the blender or processor running, slowly add olive oil.
Add salt and pepper.
In a large salad bowl, toss the cucumbers, onions and raisins together.
Pour dressing over salad and serve.
Mango Cardamom Shortcakes With Ginger Whipped Cream
Chilling the dough makes it easier to roll out and helps the gluten relax so the dough isn't tough. Lining your baking sheet with parchment paper makes clean-up a snap, helps food color more evenly and prevents food from sticking.
2 cups flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsps. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cardamom
5 Tbsps. shortening
2/3 cup whole milk
flour for kneading
11/4 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. confectioners' sugar
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
2 mangoes, pitted, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Line a jelly-roll pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and cardamom.
Using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut the shortening into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse meal.
Add the milk and mix together just until combined.
Turn out onto a floured board or work surface. Knead until a dough is formed, about 2 minutes, adding flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky.
Be careful not to knead too much or the shortcakes will become tough!
Refrigerate for 30 minutes or overnight.
Roll out the dough with a rolling pin to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into rounds with a 21/2-inch-diameter biscuit-cutter or the top of a glass.
Place the shortcakes on the prepared pan and bake for 10 minutes.
Whip the heavy cream with the confectioners' sugar and ginger until soft peaks form, about 2 minutes.
Transfer the shortcakes to a serving platter.
Split each shortcake in half horizontally and distribute the cubed mango among the shortcakes.
Top each cake with whipped cream.
Jamie Geller is author of Quick and Kosher: Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing and its sequel, Quick and Kosher: Meals in Minutes. For more recipes, log on to: blog.kosher.com.