- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

CONCORD, N.H. — The holidays are upon us, and that means there is a lot of eating to be done. Thankfully, the season is scheduled to create the perfect celebratory eating circuit. Start with Thanksgiving, follow it closely with Hanukkah, then cruise through Christmas and end with a New Year’s banquet bash.

Not Jewish? So what? Just as you don’t need to be Christian to celebrate Christmas, you also need not be Jewish to appreciate Hanukkah — or at least to savor some of its traditional foods.

Although I’m not Jewish, my father is. That meant that though I may never have had a bar mitzvah, I have enjoyed plenty of great Jewish foods, including my grandmother’s raisin kugel.(Think chewy cake and cookie in one.)

If you’re new to Jewish cuisine, start with latkes, deliciously crunchy fried potato cakes that go very nicely with apple sauce. Depending on the recipe, latkes will remind most people of really crispy hash browns.

Or there is matzo brei, a sweet french-toast-like dish in which sheets of matzo bread are soaked in warm water, then squeezed dry before being coated in egg, fried and served with cinnamon and sugar.

When I was a teenager, my father and I would make matzo pizza as a midnight snack. Take a large sheet of matzo bread, spread a thick layer of tomato paste (sauces are too watery), top with cheese and bake until the cheese melts.

While we’re on matzo, don’t forget matzo-ball soup, a dish in which delicious doughy balls seasoned with ginger, onion, allspice and nutmeg are served in a rich broth.

Perhaps my favorite Jewish food, though, is the knish, a sort of burrito for the Hanukkah set. Soft dough is baked around a variety of fillings — potatoes and mushrooms are among the more traditional choices.

We usually bought our knishes from a grocer. They were good, but not great. Too bad we didn’t know how easy they can be to make, and how much better than anything you can buy.

A great source for a wide variety of vegetable-friendly Jewish recipes — including a number of knish options — is Steven Raichlen’s “Healthy Jewish Cooking” (Viking).

Among the many tempting options is what he calls Jewish polenta (traditionally known as mamaliga). The recipe is similar to its Italian cousin, but Mr. Raichlen stirs in cottage cheese instead of Parmesan.

For a great starter knish, try Mr. Raichlen’s Fat Grandma’s potato knishes, which he says are easier to form than the more traditional bread-coated variety.

Fat Grandma’s potato knishes

This recipe is from “Healthy Jewish Cooking.” The preparation time is 1 hour, 5 minutes.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, minced (about 2 cups)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon paprika

2½ pounds baking potatoes (about 3 or 4), peeled and cut into ½-inch dice

Salt

3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs, such as chives, parsley, basil and dill

1 egg

Freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 tablespoons flour or bread crumbs

Spray oil

OPTIONAL CRUST:

1 cup unflavored bread crumbs

2 teaspoons paprika

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add the onion and cook about 6 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add garlic and paprika and cook until caramelized, another 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a large pot with cold salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Drain the potatoes and return them to the pan. Cook the potatoes over a medium flame 1 to 2 minutes to evaporate any remaining liquid. Remove the pot from the heat and let cool slightly.

Mash the potatoes in the pot. Stir in the onion mixture, herbs, egg and salt and pepper, to taste. Mix in the flour or bread crumbs. Potato mixture should be thick enough to form with your hands.

Wet your hands and form the potatoes into patties about 1½ inches thick and 3 inches across.

To use the optional crust, combine the bread crumbs, paprika, onion powder and garlic powder in a shallow bowl. Dredge each knish through the crumbs, shaking off any excess.

Arrange the knishes on a nonstick baking sheet lightly sprayed with oil. Spray the tops and sides of the knishes with oil. Bake until golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes, turning the knishes with a spatula after 15 minutes. Makes 8 knishes.

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