In my career as a chef, I cooked everything non-kosher from squid and lobsters to rabbit and sea urchins, and rejected the Orthodox way of life of my childhood.
But in recent years, I've embraced my Jewish heritage, especially its connections to food and culture, and I am researching a book exploring Jewish culinary history through the spread of ingredients worldwide.
So I jumped at the chance to teach Jewish cuisine and culture to high schoolers and junior high kids at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College, whose mission is to educate Jewish teens about the heritage, traditions and language of the Jewish people. The course brings together my love and knowledge of food and culinary history with Jewish traditions. My weekly challenge is to come up with recipes from far-flung Jewish communities that the kids can make.
The students come from surrounding high schools, with diverse interests. While some bring a curiousity about their heritage, others are grateful for basic cooking skills.
Scott Fields, a 10th grader at Central Bucks High School South, wanted to learn about different foods Jews have eaten through the centuries and the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish foods.
"I like working with food," said his younger brother, Justin, in eighth grade at Tamanend Middle School in Warrington. "Especially because food is a key part of religion."
Max Lefton, a junior at Cheltenham High, had simple expectations: "Cooking is a new experience for me," he said. "I wanted to be able to cook from scratch instead of heating something in the microwave."
Nicole Kaminsky, a freshman at Wissahickon High School, whose family comes from Puerto Rico, was interested in learning whether some of the Hispanic cooking at her home was actually Jewish cooking. "I've learned that in Ashkenazi cooking, people used ingredients that wouldn't spoil easily. It all depended on the area and the trade routes."
Although we don't get much time for history and culture with all the chopping and mixing, we have learned that during the time of the Israelites' Second Temple, their Syrian/Greek rulers forbade Jews from practicing their religion and despoiled their holy temple. Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of the Maccabees, Jewish rebels, over their Greek occupiers at the battle of Bet Tzur. The Greeks destroyed stocks of the temple's sacred olive oil. A small amount - just one day's worth - was found and, miraculously, it burned for eight days. Jews commemorate this by lighting candles for eight days during Hanukkah, and follow the delicious custom of eating foods fried in oil, especially olive oil.
Because olive trees grew abundantly in the land of Israel as far back as biblical times, many Jews became olive oil merchants. In Rome's 2,000-year-old Jewish community many Jews became friggitori, street vendors of deep-fried bite-sized foods, mainly fish and vegetables. Across the Mediterranean, the Spanish custom of generously cooking and seasoning with olive oil is thought to have been adapted from Jews who arrived in Spain in the second century. Today, olive oil is especially important to Roman Jewish, Mizrahi (Middle Eastern), and Sephardi (of Spanish heritage) cooking. In cold northern Eastern Europe, olive oil was scarce and expensive, so goose or chicken fat was often substituted.
For our Hanukkah class, we made teiglach, a celebration dessert brought by Jewish traders from Italy to Eastern Europe. Teiglach in Yiddish means "little bits of dough." Its Italian name, cicerchiata, means "little bits of chickpeas."
We fried small bits of soft egg dough till they were puffy and crispy, simmered them in honey, mixed them with toasted hazelnuts, and formed the sticky mix into a large crown. The clusters of shiny honey-glazed dough and nuts make a spectacular centerpiece and can be made ahead.
Like my students, we might first think of latkes (potato pancakes) for Hanukkah. But it's the frying that's important, not the potatoes, which were one of the few vegetables available in Eastern Europe in midwinter. Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern Europe) also make apple fritters and pattypan squash latkes.
Mizrahi Jews add sugar and sesame seeds to potato fritters and fry all sorts of vegetables. In Spain, Jews would add cheese to their Hanukkah doughnuts and fritters. Greek and Turkish Jews eat loukoumades, fritters soaked in sugar or honey syrup. Moroccan Jews eat similar fritters called sfenj; Tunisians eat yoyo.
Members of Philadelphia's African American Temple Beth El add raisins to their potato latkes, and India's Jews enrich yeast dough with milk and butter and fry it for Hanukkah.
These fried Hanukkah foods are rich, and many are best made at the last minute for crispness. (Though desserts like teiglach, Moroccan sfinj and Tunisian yoyo, which are fried, drained, and then soaked in syrup, keep their freshness for several days.) So a lighter dish that can be made ahead is in order for the entree.
A good choice is this salmon loaf, chunky with colorful vegetables with a tangy cucumber-yogurt-dill sauce that pairs well with potato latkes or teiglach. Use cooked fresh salmon or canned salmon, preferably red (sockeye) for firm texture and attractive color. Be sure to leave room for that delicious teiglach.
Makes 8 servings
4 large eggs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Juice and grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons chopped dill
2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 cup soft breadcrumbs
1/2 cup thick Greek yogurt
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
1 1/2 pounds cooked salmon, trimmed of skin and bones
2 ribs celery, finely diced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, whisk together the eggs, 4 tablespoons of the butter, Worcestershire, lemon juice and zest, dill, and paprika. Add the breadcrumbs, yogurt, scallions, red pepper, and celery. (The mixture will be soupy.) Flake the salmon and fold into the mixture above.
2. Brush an 8-cup loaf pan with the remaining 2 tablespoons of melted butter. Fill with the salmon. Bake 40 minutes or until set in the middle and the loaf has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan.
3. Remove the loaf from the oven, cool, and then unmold and slice. Serve with Cucumber Yogurt Sauce With Dill.
Per serving: 371 calories, 26 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 188 milligrams cholesterol, 204 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 servings
1 seedless cucumber, peeled
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups thick Greek yogurt
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 bunch scallions (about 4), thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1. Grate cucumber and toss with salt. Allow cucumber to soak 15 minutes at room temperature, or until water is released. Drain, gently squeezing out excess liquid.
2. Whisk together the yogurt, lemon juice, scallions, dill, and pepper. Add the cucumbers. Serve cold. Store in the refrigerator up to 3 days.
Per serving: 73 calories, 3 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 4 grams fat, 11 milligrams cholesterol, 519 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Makes 12 to 16 servings
For the dough:
1/2 pound (2 cups minus 2 tablespoons) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, slightly beaten
Flour, for dusting
3 cups olive oil, grapeseed oil, or canola oil
For the syrup:
1 cup honey
5 ounces (1 cup) hazelnuts, lightly toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped (substitute almonds)
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Candy sprinkles, for decoration (optional)
1. First, make the dough: Spray a large pizza pan with nonstick baker's coating, or rub with oil.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, salt, and eggs, and beat until combined into a soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 5 minutes. Shape it into a ball, flatten it with your hands, and sprinkle it lightly with flour.
3. Roll the dough out to a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut into thin strips (about 1/4 inch wide) and dredge the strips in flour. Cut the strips into chickpea-size bits and dredge again with flour to keep the bits separated.
4. In a wok, large heavy-duty frying pan, preferably cast-iron, or an electric deep-fryer, heat the oil to 365 degrees or until shimmering hot and the air above the pot feels hot when you hold your hand about 3 inches above the oil. Scoop up about half the dough bits into a large sieve and shake to remove excess flour. Drop the bits a little at a time into the oil and fry until golden, stirring so they cook evenly. (They will puff up.) Fry until light golden brown, about 4 minutes. Scoop from the oil using a slotted spoon or a wire skimmer. Drain on paper towels and cool to room temperature. Repeat with the remaining dough bits.
5. Next, make the syrup: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the honey to a boil and cook over moderately high heat for 3 minutes or until slightly thickened. Add all the fried dough bits, the hazelnuts, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Reduce the heat and cook 6 minutes longer, stirring constantly, or until the syrup has darkened slightly, reaches 238 degrees on a thermometer and has mostly been absorbed by the dough bits.
6. Pour the hot mixture into the pizza pan and allow it to cool until it can be handled. Shape the mixture into an open circle, using heat-proof gloves, or lightly oiled hands and a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Sprinkle with colorful candy sprinkles if desired and allow the teiglach to cool thoroughly at room temperature (it will harden a little).
Note: Eat by breaking off pieces with your fingers or by cutting the teiglach into 2-inch segments. Store, covered and at room temperature, for up to three days.
Per serving (based on 16): 209 calories, 4 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 18 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 40 milligrams cholesterol, 160 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.