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Home > Food > Lightening up the latke-laden menu

Lightening up the latke-laden menu

Jewish Telegraphic Agency
December 20, 2000

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."

© JTA Inc., 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission

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