So, how did fried foods become entwined with Chanukah's culinary history?
It all started some 2,100 years ago, when the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus, occupied Israel.
During his reign, the Jews and their customs faired poorly. When one of his officers arrived in a town outside of Jerusalem, he demanded that the Jews take part in a Greek ceremony that entailed bowing to an idol and eating pork, both of which are forbidden by Jewish law.
Outraged by such disrespect, the Maccabee family led a revolt to overthrow the occupiers. After defeating the Greek army, Judah Maccabee and his men began restoring the great Temple in Jerusalem, which lay in ruin.
Candles had not yet been invented, so specially prepared olive oil was used to light the Temple's menorah. Finding only a one-day supply of the oil to keep the menorah burning, the Maccabees were awestruck that it lasted eight days, long enough for a new batch to be made.
This spawned the eight-day celebration of Chanukah and the custom of observing the holiday by frying foods in oil.
During the Maccabees' time, cheese pancakes were a popular fried food. Latkes weren't added to the Chanukah repertoire until centuries later. Jews from various countries now fry many kinds of foods, including doughnuts, fritters and pancakes.
My husband's family hailed from the Jewish community of Trieste, Italy, so every Chanukah we also deep-fry rice balls. An Italian delicacy, these crunchy balls -- held together with ricotta cheese -- are a sensational hors d'oeuvre or side dish.
While fooling around in my kitchen, I've successfully fried some unexpected foods from Jewish cuisine into a whole new identity. Slices of sour pickles undergo a crusty transformation when they hit hot oil.
Chopped fish, eggs and matzah meal are usually mixed together to form patties that are simmered in broth to produce gefilte fish. But instead of boiling these large oval patties, I roll the batter into small balls and deep-fry them. After one taste, you'll never settle for bland gefilte fish again.
Frightened by the thought of dealing with raw fish? Forget the stories about your bubbe who tackled a live karp in her bathtub every time she cooked gefilte fish. Instead, ask your fishmonger to grind the haddock, whitefish or pike you order. From there, handling the fish batter is as easy as forming hamburger patties.
On the theory that you can fry anything, I suggest widening your Chanukah repertoire. Here are some ideas:
· Submerge any kind of pitted black or green olives (but not bottled or canned) into hot oil, where they will develop a delicious pucker within a minute or two.
· If pressed for time, slide thinly sliced potatoes or florets of broccoli and cauliflower into a pot of hot oil until they turn delightfully brown. After placing them on paper towels and sprinkling with kosher salt, you'll savor every crisp mouthful.
· Canned chickpeas can be fried into a sensational hors d'oeuvre or snack. Dry them on paper towels. Put a mixture of curry powder, cumin, flour, paprika and a dash of cayenne pepper into a plastic storage bag. Place the chickpeas into the bag in batches, seal and shake them until they're coated. Deep-fry them in oil, drain on paper towels, sprinkle with kosher salt and serve them immediately.
Tips for Stovetop Deep-Frying
· Use a deep pot or saucepan, not a skillet or frying pan. A pot that comes with a basket insert is preferable.
· Face the pot's handle away from the edge of the stove to reduce the chances of knocking over a pot of hot oil. If possible, place the pot of oil on a back burner.
· To reduce the chances of spatters or oil bubbling over, do not fill the pot or saucepan with oil more than halfway.
· Heat the oil on a medium flame. Do not raise the flame.
· Always use a long-handled, slotted utensil to submerge or retrieve food from hot oil. Wear pot mitts when touching this utensil.
· Never submerge frozen, ice cold or wet foods into hot oil, as they may cause flare-ups.
· To drain fried foods, lay down paper towels a reasonable distance from the flame so they do not catch fire.
· Keep small children away from the stove when you are deep-frying foods.
· If the oil in the pot sputters or boils up, turn off the flame. Do not use that oil again.
· When you are finished deep-frying, turn off the flame and let the oil cool to room temperature before discarding it, preferably in a bottle or can with a top.
Deep-Fried Fish Balls
1 cup breadcrumbs, or more, if needed
1 lb. haddock, ground
1 egg beaten
1 small onion, chopped fine
11/2 tsps. granulated salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. dill, chopped
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 quart corn oil, or more if needed
kosher salt for sprinkling
red horseradish, optional as an accompaniment
Place breadcrumbs on a plate and reserve.
In a large bowl, mix together until well-incorporated haddock, egg, onion, granulated salt, white pepper, flour, dill and sugar. If mixture is too liquid to hold together, slowly add more flour until mixture is pasty.
Because the mixture is sticky, you should wet hands with water often while forming balls or else the mixture will be difficult to handle. Place a clump of the mixture in your wet palms and roll it into a ball 1-inch in diameter. Roll well to form a tight ball that won't fall apart while frying.
Roll ball in breadcrumbs until coated all around. Shake off excess breadcrumbs and place on a clean platter. Continue until all batter has been rolled into balls and covered with breadcrumbs.
Pour the corn oil to a depth of 3 inches in a medium-sized deep saucepan. Heat the corn oil on a medium flame to 375° on an oil and candy thermometer, or until a drop of water sizzles in the oil.
Using a long-handled slotted spoon, place a few balls at a time in the oil.
Fry for 3 minutes, rolling the balls occasionally, until they are dark brown on all sides.
Move the balls to a plate covered with paper towels and drain them momentarily.
Serve immediately -- with horseradish, if desired.
Beer-Batter, Deep-Fried Sour Pickles
2-3 sour or half-sour pickles, sliced 1/8-inch thick (discard ends and tiny pieces)
1/4 cup flour
1 cup beer
2 tsps. baking powder
1 cup panko, Japanese-style breadcrumbs
1 quart corn oil, or more, if needed
Drain pickle slices on both sides on paper towels. Place flour on a plate and roll slices in flour.
Place corn oil to a depth of 3 inches in a medium-sized deep saucepan. Heat oil on a medium flame to 375° on an oil and candy thermometer, or until a drop of water sizzles in oil.
Using an electric mixer, whisk together the egg, beer and baking powder. Add the panko and blend until well-incorporated.
Immediately dip the floured pickle slices into the batter. Let excess drip off.
Using a long-handled slotted utensil, submerge a few slices into the oil. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until batter puffs and turns crunchy. Remove slices with long-handled utensil and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
Makes approximately 30 to 40 pickle slices.
Fried Rice Balls, Italian-Style
2 cups cooked rice of any kind
1 Tbsp. flour
3 Tbsps. ricotta cheese
3 Tbsps. olive oil, or more, if needed
Beat the egg in a large bowl.
Add the cooked rice. Stir to blend.
Add the flour and the ricotta cheese. Blend until well-combined.
With your fingers, form the rice mixture into balls 1 inch in diameter. Your hands will be sticky, but manipulate the rice mixture until you form perfect tight spheres, or they will fall apart while frying.
Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place the balls on the foil. Cover the balls with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for 1 hour, or until they are firm.
Place the olive oil in a large skillet, rolling it around until bottom surface is well-oiled.
Put as many rice balls as will fit comfortably in the skillet, leaving some room to turn the balls with a wooden or plastic spoon.
When bottom of balls brown, roll them around until another surface browns. Continue frying until balls are completely brown all around.
With a long-handled slotted spoon, move the balls to a plated line with paper towels.
Continue frying until all the balls are crunchy and brown. Serve immediately.
Makes 20 rice balls.