I am no cooking class expert, but the setup of the Manhattan JCC’s Vegetarian Hanukkah Dinner class seemed quite unusual. As I briefly lingered in the doorway, a sea of friendly yet confused faces framed by gray and white hair met my gaze. Four people sat to a table and there was not an ingredient or cooking utensil in sight. “Are you…are you here for bridge?”
The next doorway down the hall revealed ten participants on high stools around a kitchen island. Chef Jay Weinstein introduced himself and the theme of the night: “Pancakes, Latkes, and Risotto.”
Weinstein shared a bit of his backstory as a chef and journalist before taking us through the night’s recipes. We would be making lentil-scallion pancakes with cumin cream, crisp yucca pancakes, wild mushroom risotto cakes, wild rice vegetable pancakes, spinach pancakes with cardamom, and cool yogurt cream.
The class began with a skills workshop. “If you walk away from the class with one thing, let this be it,” said Weinstein, demonstrating a pinch hold for cutting carrots into julienne strips.
“Putting your finger on the back of the knife like a steak knife risks losing digits. By pinching the knife, you stabilize it.”
After showing us how to julienne celery (cut strips 2-2.5 inches in length, following the natural curve), Weinstein gave the class some realistic instructions about how to julienne an onion.
“It’s never going to be straight,” he said truthfully. “So don’t kid yourself into thinking that you’re going to be the only one.”
Our class, with varying amounts of cooking experience, laughed. Weinstein’s good-natured and clear directions offered multiple entry points for participants of all levels.
One woman, who described herself as “more of a High Holiday chef,” said that she likes Weinstein’s classes because even though she doesn’t cook very much, she appreciates that the classes “give [my husband] new ideas.”
For the hands-on cooking portion of the class, Weinstein split participants into three groups. He offered each group challenges, should we choose to accept. Challenges included chopping, mixing, and flipping.
Weinstein created a structured yet homey atmosphere, with tips that were both practical and memorable. To the groups making yucca pancakes and wild rice vegetable pancakes, he said, “You know how a guy with a hammer thinks everything is a nail? Well, to a person with a spatula in their hand, everything looks like it needs flipping. So, resist.”
Although he is not a vegetarian himself, Weinstein has written a vegetarian cookbook called The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook. He decided to teach a Vegetarian Hanukkah Dinner class because of its versatility. “In this class, everything could be made parve. Or everything could be vegan. Or maybe you want the spinach pancakes to go with cheese blintzes. Maybe you even want them with lamb chops.”
In his instructions, Weinstein used both inventive and Yiddish vocabulary, telling us to “ooch up a little bit” and referring to the risotto as “the whole shmegegge.” The only thing we appreciated more than his creative use of words was the moment when we could finally taste our masterpieces.
Bite-sized and colorful, the latkes asted less healthy than they were, the fried deliciousness masking the leafy greens. If you think about it, we were basically eating magical mini salads.
Susan Hutman, captain of Team Risotto, said that this class inspired her to host a Hanukkah party with these recipes. She said, “This food can fix the world — it is ‘Tikkun Olam with latkes.”
Watch Chef Jay Weinstein make treats from this class, and several other vegetarian Hanukkah delights, in this clip: