Brisket and vegetables, back, and latkes with sour cream, front, for Hanukkah dinner.
The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
It hasn’t happened since 1888. And it won’t happen again until the year 79811.
Because of an enormously unusual convergence of the Hebrew and secular calendars, Thanksgiving this year will fall during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Wags are already calling the combined holiday Thanksgivukkah.
Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of a small group of Jews over the powerful Greek army. The decisive battle took place on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev in 165 BC, when the Jews drove the Greeks out of the holy temple. The story is that the victorious Jews found only enough oil there to light a lamp for one day, but that the lamp miraculously stayed lit for eight days until more oil could be brought.
This year, the 25th day of Kislev falls particularly early, while the fourth Thursday in November falls especially late. Put it all together and for the last time in a very, very long time, the first night of Hanukkah will be celebrated on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving.
This coincidence leads to a cooking dilemma, albeit a tiny one. People who will be celebrating both holidays will want to cook two festive dinners in a row. That is a lot of time and effort, not to mention festivity. What is the Jewish-American cook to do?
That’s easy. Make Hanukkah a lead-in to the main event, Thanksgiving. Hanukkah is not a very important holiday, anyway. It’s sort of the Jewish equivalent of Columbus Day, only the mail is delivered and you get presents.
And so, because Hanukkah is really the appetizer to the Thanksgiving feast, this year may be a good time to take it easy. You might want to skip the fancy variations on Hanukkah and stick with the basics: latkes and brisket, prepared simply. Some people serve sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts that are traditional in Israel, but if you eat too many of those you won’t have room left for pumpkin pie the next day.
It’s important to choose your battles.
Latkes are potato pancakes, and they are associated with Hanukkah because the oil in which they are fried is meant to be reminiscent of the miracle of the oil that kept the lamp lighted. The same association is made for the oil used to fry sufganiyot. Brisket is associated with Hanukkah because, frankly, it is associated with every Jewish holiday that involves food.
“The brisket has nothing to do with any holiday,” said Faige Benstein, a local Jewish expert and self-described “bubbe” (grandmother).
“The truth about it is, it’s easy to prepare and it feeds a lot of people. It has nothing to do with the holiday at all, except when you have a lot of people for Hanukkah dinner, you have to feed them something. You can’t just feed them potato latkes. You put it in the oven and it fills people up.”
Because Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Thanksgiving anyway, I decided to make a very simple brisket. The essence of brisket is that it is a tough cut of meat that needs to be cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time, but that when prepared correctly it becomes fall-apart, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. So I cooked mine in a way that enhances and takes advantage of those qualities.
Brisket benefits tremendously from braising, cooking it in a tightly covered pot in a small amount of liquid. For the liquid I used equal amounts of beef broth and a hearty red wine that is a match for such a beefy meat as brisket. To this I added a can of tomato sauce and a standard mirepoix to punch up the flavor: onions, carrots, and celery.
I simmered it all together in the oven for two hours and removed the now-limp mirepoix. I replaced it with fresh pieces, so they wouldn’t be mushy when the time came to serve it, and added a handful of golden raisins and a couple of teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to give a hint of sweet-and-sour complexity to the sauce.
The result? Well, it was even better than I had hoped it would be.
Ms. Benstein said, “This holiday is really about religious freedom. And that is the value we have to insert into every brisket.”
Next up were the inevitable latkes. When I make potato pancakes, I usually just shred potatoes and onions, add salt and pepper, and fry them. Although I call them potato pancakes, most people would probably think of them as hash browns, and they’d have a point. Maybe I just really like hash browns.
So I looked instead for a recipe that was more like a pancake. Some that I found were too close to pancakes, with not enough potato. But then I saw a recipe by Wolfgang Puck. With its ratio of one tablespoon of baking power to eight medium potatoes and one onion, it seemed as if it would be just right.
Mr. Puck serves his potato latkes with garnishes of creme fraiche and caviar. That seems a bit much for Hanukkah, but these potato pancakes are so good that creme fraiche and caviar would not at all be out of place on top of them (he also recommends watercress and the more traditional applesauce).
What makes them so delicious? Is it the perfect proportions of potato and onion? Is it the egg and the milk? The faint sprinkling of fresh nutmeg? Is it the melted butter? Although the amount of melted butter used is very small, as they say, it couldn’t hurt.
Whatever the reason, this recipe for latkes is superb. It is one to serve every year, not just the night before Thanksgiving
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Preheat oven to 300°. Chop two of the carrots into 2-inch pieces. Chop two of the celery ribs into 2-inch pieces. Cut one of the onions in half and the other onion into thick slices. If brisket has a cap of fat on top, trim it.
Sprinkle both sides of brisket with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When hot, brown brisket on both sides. Remove with tongs and pour out the fat.
Add broth, wine, and tomato sauce. Return the meat to the pot. Add the two whole carrots, two whole ribs of celery, and the onion that has been cut in half; put as much of the vegetables as you can in the liquid. If the carrots and celery do not fit, break or cut them in half. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and place the pot in the oven. Simmer for 2 hours.
Remove the now-limp carrots, celery, and onion, and add the remaining chopped carrots, celery, and onion. Add the golden raisins, and stir in the vinegar. Return to a boil on top of the stove, cover, and simmer in the oven for one more hour.
To serve, slice the meat against the grain.
Source: Daniel Neman
Cook's note: This recipe makes 12 servings. It can easily be halved. If you do so, make ½ of an egg by beating an egg and pouring or spooning out about half of it.
Grate potatoes and onions on a large-hole grater. Splash with lemon juice and squeeze out excess water (This is an important step. Use paper towels to press and squeeze out as much water as possible).
Mix flour, milk, egg, baking powder, and a light sprinkling of nutmeg. Add to the potatoes and then add the melted butter.
Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a pan about 1/ 8 inch deep. When hot, drop in large spoonfuls of the mixture, whatever size you care to make them. Fry until golden on one side, flip, and cook the same way on the other. Keep pancakes warm and repeat until all the potato mixture is cooked, replacing oil if necessary.
Season with plenty of salt and pepper, and serve with sour cream and applesauce, plus caviar or watercress, if desired.
Yield: 12 servings; Source: Wolfgang Puck, via Food Network