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I Can’t Believe I Can’t Use Butter! Cooking Kosher on Thanksgiving

November 17, 2006
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The problem with Thanksgiving is the food. Although it’s a lovely family holiday, most traditional Thanksgiving recipes — the mashed and sweet potatoes, chestnut stuffings, cornbread dressings, whipped parsnips, pastries and pies — call for butter. Riddled with fat and cholesterol, butter also poses a challenge to people who keep kosher. Jewish dietary laws prohibit the mixing of dairy with meat. On Thanksgiving, it means the autumn foods Americans love must be tweaked to share a sideboard with turkey.

Most kashrut observers simply substitute margarine for butter and move on. It’s the way Jewish cooks have operated for decades. But what happens to flavor in the process?

“I never use margarine,” says chef Laura Frankel, co-owner of Shallots, a Chicago-area restaurant renowned not only for fabulous dining, but for being among the top kosher restaurants in America. “You can’t take a recipe calling for butter and shove margarine into it instead.”

Butter melts at body temperature, while margarine melts at higher than 98.6, explains Frankel, the author of “Jewish Cooking for All Seasons: Fresh, Flavorful Kosher Recipes for Holidays and Every Day” (Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2006). “Because margarine doesn’t melt while you’re eating it, the stuff ends up coating your teeth. With margarine, there’s no clean wash away in the mouth.”

Some brands of margarine also contain trans fats, the result of adding hydrogen to vegetable oils. “The product was created in a chem lab,” Frankel says. “It has nothing to do with real food.”

The American Heart Association warns that trans fats and the saturated fats found in dairy products are the main dietary culprits in raising blood cholesterol.

But when a little indulgence is called for, Frankel prefers butter to margarine, because of its superior taste and performance.

High quality butter contains between 78 percent and 82 percent fat, as compared to margarine with 69 percent to 79 percent fat, depending on the manufacturer. The rest of the product is water.

“In cakes made with margarine, the fat sinks to the bottom. The water rises and evaporates. The end result — a cake which is dry on top and gooey at the bottom.”

Furthermore, margarine doesn’t brown like butter. Therefore, it can’t impart butter’s rich flavor into sauteed foods, such as vegetables and other Thanksgiving side dishes.

“Why would anyone take autumn squash and drown it in chemicals in a frying pan?” Frankel asks.

Before substituting a non-dairy ingredient for butter, she considers — what was butter’s purpose in the recipe? Moisture? Rich flavor? Thickening?

Once you realize what you’re looking to duplicate, it’s easier to find something that plays the same role, ideally imparting great taste in the most natural way.

Sometimes beef stock will mirror butter’s deep flavor. If it’s simply moisture you’re after, oil will do the trick.

Frankel favors canola and olive oils, both monounsaturated fats. During the fall, when nuts are harvested, pumpkin seed and walnut oils, polyunsaturated fats, impart toasty earthy taste. These four healthy oils are ideal for sauteing.

On Thanksgiving, Frankel opens Shallots, roasting between 30 and 40 turkeys for her customers. Then she goes home to prepare venison for her family’s celebration.

“It’s important to acknowledge this holiday because it’s all-inclusive, which is good for the Jews,” she says. “Thanksgiving foods, essentially meat and produce, are welcoming to kashrut.”

But what does Frankel serve to family and friends on this all-American holiday?

This year, she’s going to start with Roasted Pumpkin-Chestnut Soup, a recipe that she’s never published anywhere until now. Visually appealing, this wholesome bisque is quintessential harvest fare. Frankel suggests serving soup the way she does — passed around in cups to milling guests, while she’s putting the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner.

Her Maple Mashed Sweet Potatoes are a deep orange puree, deriving sweetness from maple syrup and crunch from pecans. Use high-quality maple syrup, rather than pancake syrup, and no one will miss the shortening.

Pan-Fried Smashed Potatoes taste similar to hash browns, but are much easier to prepare. They’re far tastier than their competition, mashed potatoes whipped with butter and milk. Frankel suggests using extra-virgin olive oil and the season’s best bliss or new potatoes.

On cool autumn days, Braised Chestnuts, Fennel, Leeks and Golden Raisins are as comfy as a cashmere sweater. While the chestnuts take some time to prepare, the rest of the recipe is so easy, it’s well worth making. The taste is divine, and the brunette color so gorgeous, Frankel wishes she could duplicate it in her hair.

She feels it’s time for kosher cuisine to come into its own. “Look where the rest of the country is going. Everywhere else, I see uncomplicated, no-fuss food.” People are into farmer’s markets, organic produce and Whole Foods, the ubiquitous chain purveying fresh vegetables and fruit.

“Somehow kosher food got off on a different path,” Frankel says. Instead of oil, people still rub turkey skin with margarine, which clumps and then, in the oven, runs off like water. They’re still opening overly salted flavor packets and tossing them on meat and other foods. “Too many kosher recipes call for processed ingredients. Why are we eating chemicals? Why are kosher recipes not going natural? To comply with kashrut, somehow we got into the habit of substituting and adjusting with things that taste bad and are bad for us.”

Frankel believes in honest food, freshly prepared. Because she made the decision to become kosher as an adult, she’s sensitive to the taste differential between the two worlds. That’s why she’s driven to infuse delectable flavor into kosher cooking.

She explains that the Mediterranean diet is the one to which nutritionists keep returning because it’s the best way to eat. It’s a healthy diet, revolving around olive oil and vegetables, roasted meat and fish, and a wide variety of fresh fruit.

Jews originally came from the Mediterranean, she says. “Why can’t kosher cooking go back to the clear, light foods of our roots?”

In a country blessed with pumpkins and apples, pears, potatoes and a farmer’s market worth of possibilities, this Thanksgiving — forget flavor packets and margarine. Think fragrant, fresh and natural.

These recipes are by Laura Frankel. Pumpkin Chestnut Soup is a debut recipe created for JTA readers. The side dishes are from “Jewish Cooking for All Seasons.”


2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons carrot, small diced

2 tablespoons onion, small diced

2 tablespoons celery, small diced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon chopped ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Pinch nutmeg

Pinch ground cloves

1/2 cup pumpkin puree, fresh or canned

1/2 cup canned chestnuts

3-4 cups chicken stock or water if using cream

1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

Salt, pepper and honey

Garnish: chervil, chives, tarragon and parsley

1. In a 1-quart saucepan, heat olive oil until smoking.

2. Brown the carrots, onions and celery.

3. When they are browned, add the garlic and the ginger. Cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Add the cinnamon, coriander, thyme, nutmeg and ground cloves. Cook the mixture for another minute.

5. Stir in the pumpkin and chestnuts, and cover with chicken stock or water, about 2 inches above the vegetables.

6. Cook until all the vegetables are soft, keeping the liquid at the same level.

7. Puree the mixture in a blender until smooth, strain through a fine strainer and return to a 1-quart saucepan.

8. Add the cream and season the soup with salt, pepper and honey.

9. Thin the soup with water, if necessary.

10. To serve: Garnish the bowl with a mixture of chervil, chives, tarragon and parsley. Soup can be stored covered in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Yield: 4 servings


2-3 large sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds), peeled and cut into large dice, (yields about 4 cups)

1/2 to 1 cup warm chicken stock or water reserved from cooking sweet potatoes

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup pure maple syrup

1/4 cup toasted pecans, optional

1. Cover sweet potatoes with lightly salted water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.

2. Cook the potatoes until tender, about 20 minutes.

3. Drain the potatoes, reserving a cup of cooking liquid, if desired.

4. Mash them in a large bowl or put them through a ricer.

5. Add 1/2 cup warm stock or potato water, salt and pepper.

6. Stir until smooth and creamy. If potatoes are too thick, stir in more liquid, a spoonful at a time, until they reach desired consistency.

7. Stir in maple syrup and pecans, if using.

8. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Yield: 4 servings


11/2 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed well

Olive oil

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Roast the potatoes on a baking sheet for 1 hour, or until they are easily pierced with a thin knife.

3. Cover your hand with a kitchen towel and gently smash each potato to flatten it.

4. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and generously coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil.

5. Pan-fry the potatoes until they are crispy and golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side.

6. Transfer the potatoes to paper towels to drain and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Yield: 4 servings


1 pound chestnuts in the shell

Olive oil

1/2 cup water

1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced 1/4 inch thick

2 medium leeks, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock (preferably freshly made, but canned if necessary)

1/2 cup golden raisins

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

1. With a sharp paring knife, cut a small X shape into the rounded side of each chestnut shell.

2. Toss the chestnuts in a large bowl with a drizzle of olive oil, until lightly coated.

3. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat and add the chestnuts.

4. Cook, stirring the chestnuts occasionally to prevent them from burning, about 10 minutes.

5. Add 1/2 cup water to the pan and cover.

6. Lower the heat and allow the chestnuts to steam for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are quite tender and most of the water has evaporated from the pan.

7. Remove the chestnuts and allow them to cool, until they can be handled comfortably.

8. Peel the chestnuts. The shells and skins should be easy to pull off.

9. Heat the same pan over medium-high heat and lightly coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil.

10. Add the fennel and leeks. Saute until the vegetables are golden brown, about 10 minutes.

11. Add the stock, peeled chestnuts and raisins, and salt and pepper to taste.

12. Cover the pan and lower the heat to a simmer.

13. Simmer the chestnuts until they are tender and the liquid has reduced to a glaze, about 20 minutes.

14. Add the thyme and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

Yield: 4-6 servings

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