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Chanukah: Lightening up the latke-laden menu

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NEW YORK, Nov. 13 (JTA) – Have you ever noticed how some people are always pushing the envelope?

Madonna in pop music, Martha Stewart in stylish living– and now food writer Jayne Cohen, author of “The Gefilte Variations.”

In this innovative kosher cookbook, Cohen spins recipes like variations on musical themes. Adding magic to familiar dishes and recipes spawned from her imagination, she offers readers sumptuous suggestions for entertaining during the Festival of Lights.

“There’s more to Chanukah cuisine than latkes,” says Cohen who enjoys tweaking the taste of traditional foods and discovering recipes from cultures outside the American Jewish mainstream.

“After a while, you get full of potatoes,” she says, discussing her motivation for expanding Chanukah’s culinary horizons. “You want to come home to a house that doesn’t smell like fried food for eight days.”

Paying homage to the one-day supply of oil that, according to tradition, lasted for eight days after the Maccabees defeated the Greek army, her recipes call for cooking oil, Chanukah’s hallmark ingredient. Yet these innovative Chanukah dishes are delicate in flavor and lighter in calories than potato pancakes. Loyalists leery to drop latkes will find them compatible on menus with her tasty suggestions.

One of Cohen’s favorite recipes is fried chicken cutlets, Italian-Jewish style. Traditional in Italy during the Festival of Lights, these cutlets are fried in olive oil and flavored with cinnamon. Performing without sugar or honey, the cinnamon acts in concert with savory garlic and lemon to produce a fragrant yet subtle marinade.

“To accentuate the delicacy of the dish, I dip the chicken in egg after dusting it lightly with matzah meal,” she says. “And I fry each batch with a few pieces of celery, which makes the chicken beautifully golden and more flavorful.” (Save this recipe for Passover, too.)

Cohen began stretching tradition early in life. As a child, she didn’t eat her grandmother’s crunchy potato pancakes with applesauce or sour cream like everyone else. Instead, she sprinkled them with sugar. But she credits her culinary creativity to her mother, whose passion for spinning the ordinary into the sublime inspired her imagination.

“My mother had her own way of doing things,” she says. “On New Year’s Eve, she would dust golden glitter over her red hair and Vaseline-glossed eyebrows. No Donna Reed at home either, there she potchked the mundane into the marvelous.”

A prime example is my mother’s fried cauliflower, a recipe that Cohen has fine-tuned. It’s impossible to settle for soggy white florets after tasting her crisp and garlicky bronzed nuggets.

“My mother always fried up cauliflower late at night,” Cohen explains. “Long ago she had decided it was the perfect antidote to flagging appetites, so she would make a batch after she noticed one of us had eaten very little at dinner.”

Today, Cohen prepares these flavorful nuggets for her daughter, who claims it wouldn’t be Chanukah without them.

Less saturated with oil than pan-fried food, oven-fried smoked salmon croquettes are elegant on the table and foolproof to prepare. Although her mother gave humble canned salmon the luxury treatment with slivers of buttery smoked salmon and lemon zest, Cohen has gently reworked the recipe, producing a slightly caramelized crunch to the crust.

Because of the holiday’s connection to oil, Cohen is keenly aware of the fat factor. To offset it, she recommends serving tart salads. “With Chanukah dishes, you need vegetables to balance the heaviness of fried food.”

Extending the “lite” theme to dessert, she ends Chanukah meals with a platter of fresh seasonal fruit: pears, assorted apples, clementines, fresh pineapple, papaya and persimmons, if available.

Coming by her originality honestly, Cohen treasures memories of her mother, who is now deceased.

“When sore throats stole our appetites at breakfast, she served us steaming oatmeal with a scoop of coffee ice cream,” she says. “I miss her a lot, especially at this time of year.”

FRIED CHICKEN CUTLETS, ITALIAN-JEWISH STYLE

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional oil for frying

Salt & pepper

11/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken cutlets

About 1 cup matzah meal

2 large eggs 2-3 celery stalks, washed, dried well and cut into 4-inch lengths

Lemon wedges

Fresh parsley sprigs for garnish

1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the cinnamon, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and salt & pepper. Add the chicken and toss to coat thoroughly. Cover and marinate for 2-3 hours in the refrigerator, turning chicken occasionally.

2. Set up a work station near the stove. Spread matzah meal on a plate and season it with 1 tsp. salt and 1/8 tsp. pepper. Next to it, in a pie pan, beat the eggs with a few drops of water until well blended and smooth.

3. Dredge the cutlets well with matzah meal, rubbing it lightly into the chicken. Make sure each cutlet is covered all over with meal. If necessary, add more meal, and seasoning too.

4. Heat about 1/2 cup olive oil in a 10-12 inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat, until hot but not smoking. Shake a cutlet to remove excess meal, then coat it thoroughly with the egg, and slip it into the hot oil. Repeating the process, add more chicken. Do not crowd the pan. Place a few pieces of celery in between the cutlets as they fry.

5. Using two spatulas, carefully turn the chicken when it is light golden, 2-3 minutes. Saute the other side for 2-3 minutes longer, or until cooked through. Turn celery when turning chicken.

6. Drain cutlets on paper towels. Discard celery. Transfer cutlets to an oven-proof platter. Warm in a 200-degree oven, until remaining pieces are done. Remove platter from oven. Garnish with lemon wedges and parsley. Serve immediately. Yield: 4-6 servings

MY MOTHER’S FRIED CAULIFLOWER

1 medium head of cauliflower

Salt

About 11/2 cups matzah meal

1 Tbsp. dried oregano

1 Tbsp. grated lemon zest 2-3 tsp. minced garlic

Freshly ground black pepper

2 large eggs

2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Olive oil for frying Lemon wedges

1. Break cauliflower into small florets and place in a large, heat-proof bowl. Sprinkle with 1 tsp. of salt. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil and pour over the cauliflower, covering it by at least an inch. Cover bowl and allow cauliflower to steep in water for 5-8 minutes. Stir around so all of the pieces are sloshed by water. If the florets test fork-tender (but before they become soft), drain them well. If not, let them steep a few more minutes.

2. In a bowl, stir together the matzah meal, oregano, lemon zest, garlic and plenty of salt and pepper. Divide the mixture in two, spreading half out on a plate and setting the other half aside. Beat the eggs well with lemon juice in a pie pan.

3. Taking one floret at a time, dip it into the beaten egg, coating well on all sides. Let the excess egg drip back into bowl. Dredge florets all over with meal. When the meal mixture gets lumpy with egg bits, discard and replace with the reserved mixture. Pat coated florets firmly so the meal adheres. Place them on a rack. Let stand for 15 minutes.

4. Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a heavy 10-12 inch skilled over medium-high heat, until hot but not smoking. Saute florets in batches until golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels.

5. Salt and pepper florets and serve with lemon wedges. Serve immediately.

Yield: 4-6 servings

OVEN FRIED SMOKED SALMON CROQUETTES

3/4 cup matzah meal

About 1 pound canned salmon, drained, bones and skin removed

2 large eggs beaten

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill

1/4 cup finely minced onions

5-6 ounces smoked salmon, cut into fine shreds

1/4 cup flour

freshly ground black pepper to taste

Coating:

3 Tbsp. mayonnaise

2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Olive oil for frying

Lemon wedges

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a baking pan, warm some olive oil. Add matzah meal. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Spread in an even layer. Toast in oven until golden. Stir occasionally to avoid burning. Reserve.

2. Raise oven temperature to 450 degrees.

3. In a large bowl flake the canned salmon well. Add eggs, dill and onion, smoked salmon, and flour. Combine thoroughly. Season with pepper. Form mixture into 4-6 hamburger shaped patties.

4. Prepare coating. In a shallow bowl, whisk mayonnaise, mustard and lemon juice. Put reserved matzah meal on a plate. Using your fingers, spread each croquettes on all sides with mayonnaise mixture. Roll each in the meal to coat well. Pat coating firmly on croquettes. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

5. With the oil, generously grease a baking sheet large enough to hold croquettes without touching. Heat it in the oven until oil sizzles. Gently shake off excess meal from croquettes. With a spatula, arrange them on the hot baking sheet. Bake until the bottoms are crisp and golden, 5-7 minutes. Turn and bake until golden on the other side, 3-4 minutes longer. Serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Yield: 3-4 servings

(Recipes adapted from “The Gefilte Variations” by Jayne Cohen, Simon and Schuster, 2000).

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