Certain holidays lend themselves to creative menu exploration, but the Festival of Lights is not one of them. What would Hanukkah be without potato pancakes? Case in point: The season’s celebrations are as often called latke parties as they are Hanukkah ones.
Nevertheless, when I started dreaming up holiday recipes this year, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for yet another latke. Please don’t stop reading — I’m not suggesting that you refrain from making them, only that you probably have a favorite recipe already; and if you don’t, you’ll find a slew of tempting options throughout our food section.
Instead, I decided to clear the slate this season and come up with fresh ideas for Hanukkah-party fare. I worked within certain parameters: The foods should be easy to eat standing up, symbolic of the holiday, equally appealing to grownups and kids, and of course fun and delicious.
A couple of years ago we published Leah Koenig’s recipe for fried olives, from her “Little Book of Jewish Appetizers.” This was the sort of delightful nosh I had in mind. And suddenly I remembered a dinner one of my kids and I had last summer at a Vermont restaurant. When we sat down, the waiter dropped a basket on our table. We thought it would contain bread, but it turned out to be filled with crunchy fried rounds of… something. I took a bite. Pickles! These were a revelation to me (though I soon learned that they were not exactly a new concept).
Fried pickles for Hanukkah (see recipe below) check a number of boxes. First, they’re fried; therefore, they’re an appropriate acknowledgement of the miracle of the oil. Second, pickles are an iconic, beloved Jewish-deli item. Third, they are traditionally coated with cornmeal, which renders them gluten-free and therefore edible to the ever-increasing number of family and friends who avoid wheat.
I decided I’d oven fry them — cooking them on a preheated sheet pan in a thin layer of hot olive oil — and amp up the flavor by making a harissa mayonnaise to dip them in. Harissa is a spicy condiment based on red pepper — it’s the North African version of sriracha — and was likely brought by Moroccan Jews to Israel, where it’s very popular today.
Once I thought of harissa, the next dish came to me quickly: a version of Buffalo chicken wings substituting harissa for regular hot sauce. Wings tend to be much beloved, yet, because I hardly ever fry, I’d never attempted to make them. Hanukkah offered the perfect excuse. Buffalo wings are traditionally served treyf-style with blue cheese sauce, but I substituted a bold take on tahini sauce, with extra lemon on it, with extra lemon and garlic and a big handful of fresh parsley.
Now all the party needed was a festive cocktail or two — something fizzy to cut the fat and offset the spice in the finger food. Over the summer, I’d kept two sparkling cocktails in rotation: the ubiquitous Aperol spritz (made with the bitter-sweet, Campari-like aperitif and prosecco) and the French 75, a refreshing mix of gin, lemon juice and champagne. What if I could winterize them?
First I created a holiday spritz by combining pomegranate juice, gin and simple syrup to replace the Aperol and topping it with prosecco. A sprig of rosemary for garnish added the wintery note of pine. I spiced up the lemon cocktail by subbing ginger ale for the champagne; this gave the drink a warming quality. (Ginger beer would add even more.) Using fresh thyme sprigs for garnish provided an herbal, forestlike note that seemed in keeping with the season.
The resulting combination of sips and nibbles — with or without the addition of latkes — nod respectfully in the direction of tradition while offering a delightful divergence for a fun, fresh Hanukkah celebration.
Fried Pickles With Harissa Mayonnaise
Yields about 45 pieces
1 cup cornmeal
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon smoked (or regular) paprika
1 egg white
1 24-ounce jar dill pickle chips (round slices) or 6 whole dill pickles cut into ¼ -inch rounds
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup harissa (mild or spicy)
Heat oven to 425˚ F. Place a rimmed sheet pan in oven to preheat.
In a gallon-size plastic zip-top bag, combine corn meal, salt, garlic powder and paprika.
Whisk egg white in clean, dry metal bowl until stiff peaks form.
Pat pickle slices dry with paper towel, put in bowl with egg white and stir to coat.
Brushing off excess egg white, place pickle slices in bag with cornmeal mixture. Seal bag and toss to coat.
Carefully remove heated pan from oven, pour in enough olive oil to create a thin layer, and lay pickles in a single layer on top of the oil. Return to oven and cook for 8 minutes. Remove pan from oven, turn pickles over with a spatula and cook for 8 more minutes.
Combine mayonnaise and harissa in a small bowl.
Using a spatula, gently transfer pickle slices to a platter and serve with harissa mayonnaise.
Liza Schoenfein is the senior food writer of the Forward. Her blog is Life, Death & Dinner. Follow her on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner