Amelia Saltsman’s Hanukka cooking

With a mother born in Romania and a father born in Iraq who met in the Israeli army, it’s no wonder that Amelia Saltsman enjoys cooking Jewish dishes from many lands.

Potato latkes with roasted smashed apples and pears (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Potato latkes with roasted smashed apples and pears
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Even experienced potato latke makers appreciated Amelia Saltsman’s tips at her recent cooking demonstration of Hanukka specialties from her new cookbook, The Seasonal Jewish Kitchen: A Fresh Take on Tradition.
To make latkes the way her family likes them – thin and crisp – Saltsman uses starchy potatoes such as baking potatoes, and not waxy ones like boiling potatoes. The results are best when you grate the potatoes on a box grater; you can use a food processor but the shreds come out too long, and after they are removed from the processor, they should be cut in a few pieces with a knife. For frying, use a slope-sided pan but not a nonstick one, or the latkes won’t brown. Latkes can cause trouble if the oil used for frying isn’t hot enough. Begin heating the oil over medium, not high, heat, so you have more control. It’s best to fry the potato pancakes just before serving time, but you can make them a few hours in advance and reheat them uncovered in one layer in a moderate oven. (See recipe.)
“Roasting is one of my favorite techniques,” said Saltsman, because it concentrates and caramelizes the natural sugars. At her demonstration, which took place at the Westlake Culinary Institute near Los Angeles, she made a delightfully simple accompaniment for latkes – roasted smashed apples and pears. There’s no need to peel the fruit in advance, as the skin pops up during roasting. All you do is pull off the skin and with a fork, mash the soft, roasted fruit coarsely. (See recipe.)
With a mother born in Romania and a father born in Iraq who met in the Israeli army, it’s no wonder that Saltsman enjoys cooking Jewish dishes from many lands. Her food is “inspired by the cooking of the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, Spain, Eastern Europe, California, and more.”
Parsley pesto provides a fresh finishing touch for Saltsman’s tasty Yemenite vegetable soup, made of winter squash and carrots seasoned with cumin, coriander and black pepper. Her roast chicken is garnished with olives and caramelized tangerines, and is flavored with harissa, the hot pepper paste that she calls “North African ketchup,” and with silan (date syrup). (See recipes.)
Saltsman enthusiastically advocates eating each fruit or vegetable at the height of its season for maximum pleasure. At the store there might be out-of-season berries or other fruit available, but they will be a shadow of what they can be at their peak. “Whenever possible, seek out foods that are grown nearest you,” she wrote, “for they are, by definition, in season and at their freshest and tastiest. They will make the dishes you cook more delicious.”
In potato latkes, “the starch helps bind the pancake together,” wrote Amelia Saltsman. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled, and it works well with other winter vegetables, such as parsnips.
Makes 24 latkes, 6 servings
■ 900 gr. (2 lb.) starchy potatoes, peeled
■ 1 small onion
■ 2 heaping Tbsp. unbleached all-purpose flour or potato starch
■ 1 tsp. kosher salt
■ ½ tsp. baking powder
■ Freshly ground black pepper
■ 2 eggs, lightly beaten
■ Mild oil with a medium-high smoke point, such as grapeseed, sunflower, or avocado, for pan-frying
■ Coarse finishing salt, such as Maldon sea salt
■ Applesauce or “Roasted Smashed Apples and Pears” (see recipe below) and/or sour cream
Using large holes of a box grater or a food processor fitted with grating disk, grate potatoes. You should have about 5 cups (730 grams or 1.6 lb.). Place potatoes in a sieve to drain. Grate onion on large holes of box grater or fit processor with metal S-blade and grate. It should look like pulp; mince or discard any large onion pieces.
In a large bowl, stir together potatoes, onion, flour, salt, baking powder, and a few grinds of pepper. Stir in eggs.
Line 2 or 3 sheet pans with paper towels. Place prepared pans, latke batter, a large spoon, and a spatula near the stove. Heat 1 or 2 large skillets over medium heat. Generously film the skillet( s) with oil (not more than 6 mm. or ¼ in. deep). When oil is shimmering and a tiny bit of batter sizzles on contact, start spooning in latke batter, making sure to add both solids and liquid. Using the back of the spoon, flatten each spoonful into a circle 7.5 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in.) in diameter. Do not crowd latkes in pan. You’ll get 4 or 5 latkes in a 30.5-cm (12-inch) skillet.
Cook latkes, flipping them once, until golden on both sides, 5 to 6 minutes total. Transfer latkes to a prepared baking sheet. Cook remaining batter in the same way, stirring batter before adding more to pan and adding oil as needed at edge of pan.
Arrange the latkes on a warmed platter, sprinkle with finishing salt, and serve with applesauce or sour cream.
“Roasting apples and pears in their skins produces concentrated fruit-forward flavors that don’t need any added sweeteners or seasonings to shine,” wrote Saltsman. “If you must gild the lily, add spices sparingly so that you don’t mask the flavor of the fruit. Use any of the interesting tart apple varieties available at farmers’ markets...If you like your fruit sweet, include Golden Delicious... apples in the mix.” It’s best to use mostly “melting-flesh” rather than very firm apples so they will turn into applesauce.
This dish can be made using all apples or all pears.
Makes about 3 cups
■ 3 lb. (1.4 kg) medium-size apples and pears (8 or 9 total)
■ A few sprigs thyme (optional)
■ 2 to 3 Tbsp. water, fresh lemon juice, Calvados (apple brandy), pear brandy or eau-de-vie, hard cider or dessert wine
■ Ground cinnamon or nutmeg (optional)
Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Halve pears and apples through stem ends, then core them and place halves, cut side down, on one or more sheet pans, spacing them 2.5 to 5 cm. (1 to 2 in.) apart. If using thyme, scatter it among the fruit. Cover pans tightly with foil.
Bake apples and pears until tender when pierced with a knife tip, 30 to 40 minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, slip fruits from skins and back into pan, scraping any pulp from skins. Discard skins and thyme sprigs.
Mash fruit with a fork, stirring in enough water to help scrape up any brown bits from pan bottom and lighten the texture of the fruit. Stir in cinnamon to taste, if using. Scrape mixture into a bowl and serve warm or at room temperature; or cover and refrigerate up to a day ahead and serve cold.
Saltsman notes that in this soup, instead of the individual spices, you can use hawaij marak, the Yemenite spice blend for soups and stews. Serve the soup as is or dressed up with a swirl of pesto.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
■ 225 gr. (½ lb.) carrots (2 large), finely chopped
■ 1 large onion, finely chopped
■ 2 ribs celery with leaves, finely chopped
■ ¼ cup (15 grams or ½ ounce) chopped fresh parsley, plus more finely chopped for garnish (optional)
■ Coarse salt
■ 3 Tbsp. mild oil, such as avocado, grapeseed, or safflower
■ 680 gr. (1½ lb.) winter squash, such as butternut, peeled and cut into 1-in. (2.5-cm) cubes (see Note 1 below)
■ ½ tsp. ground coriander
■ ¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
■ ¼ tsp. ground cumin
■ 7 cups (1.7 liters) homemade chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
■ 4 cloves garlic, peeled
■ Smoked salt or Parsley or Cilantro Pesto (see Note 2 below), optional
In a wide pot, sauté carrots, onion, celery, and ¼ cup parsley with a little salt in the oil over medium heat until vegetables have softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Add squash to the pot along with the coriander, pepper, cumin, and about ½ teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the color brightens and the squash is no longer rock-hard, about 10 minutes.
While vegetables are cooking, bring stock to a simmer in a saucepan, then adjust heat to maintain a bare simmer. Add 4 cups (960 ml.) of the stock and the garlic cloves to softened vegetables, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer soup until vegetables are very tender, 20 to 25 minutes, adding more stock as necessary to keep soup from becoming too thick.
Remove soup from heat and let cool slightly, then puree using a stand blender or an immersion blender, adding remaining stock as needed until soup is a pleasing consistency, and adding salt to taste. Reheat to serving temperature.
Ladle soup into warmed bowls and top each with finely chopped parsley and smoked salt or with the pesto.
Note 1: Instead of raw squash, you can use 3 cups roasted squash puree; add it to the pot with the spices and cook it for five minutes to develop the flavors.
Note 2: Parsley or Cilantro Pesto: Pound with mortar and pestle or process in a food processor fitted with an S blade a couple garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of cilantro or parsley leaves. Work in ¹⁄3 to ½ cup of extra-virgin olive oil until pesto is a rough purée. Drizzle a little on each serving of soup.
“What a great way to celebrate the arrival of early winter citrus and the season’s holidays,” wrote Saltsman: “tender roast chicken burnished with a sweet-hot rub of silan... and harissa, and... tangerines that are the oven. If you don’t like it hot, feel free to reduce the amount of harissa or substitute sweet smoked paprika...You can use the same weight in chicken parts (thighs and drumsticks work best). Use lightly brined olives...that marry well with the other flavors of the dish; avoid overly brined or sour varieties.”
At her cooking demonstration, Saltsman advised that when you are roasting, give the ingredients, such as the tangerines in this dish, enough space to allow them to brown.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
■ 1 chicken, 1.8 kg (4 lb.)
■ About 5 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
■ 2 Tbsp. silan (date syrup)
■2 to 3 tsp. harissa spice mix, harissa paste, or ½ tsp. each cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, coriander, and cumin
■ Coarse salt or sea salt
■ 340 grams (¾ lb.) shallots (about 4 large or 8 small)
■ 6 tangerines or other sweet mandarins
■ 1 cup (175 gr. or 6 ounces) lightly brined green olives
■ 1 to 2 cups (240 to 480 ml.) white wine, stock, or water
Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F). Pat chicken dry. Whisk together 4 Tbsp. olive oil, the silan, harissa to taste, and 1 teaspoon salt. Peel shallots and cut into quarters if large or halves if small. Cut unpeeled tangerines into quarters or sixths and poke out visible seeds.
Scatter shallots and tangerines in a large roasting pan and toss with a little olive oil and salt. Rub chicken inside and out with harissa-silan mixture. Toss a few tangerine and shallot pieces into chicken cavity. Place chicken, breast side up, in pan and tie legs together loosely with twine, if desired.
Roast 30 minutes, baste with juices that have collected in pan, and add olives. Continue roasting, adding wine to pan as needed to prevent juices from burning and basting the bird once or twice more during cooking, until skin is a rich brown and chicken is cooked all the way through, about 30 minutes longer.
Transfer chicken, shallots, olives, and tangerines to a platter and tent loosely with foil. Place roasting pan on stove top over medium heat, pour in 1 cup of wine, and stir to deglaze pan, scraping up any brown bits. Cook until heated through, reduced, thickened, and glossy, about 2 minutes. To defat the juices, pour them into a fat separator or skim off fat with a large spoon.
Carve the chicken and serve with shallots, olives, tangerines, and the warm pan juices.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.