Holidays.

From Amy, 4 December 2009, Hanukkah help, and making celery delicious – can you?

Q: Thanks for your great website with all the recipes and helpful information. I’m really enjoying keeping up with it.

I have two questions, with the first one nicely segueing into the second one.

1. I’m having a very small dinner party (six people, one toddler) next Friday to celebrate the first night of Hannukah. I’ll be making most of the food after work, with said toddler running around and not a huge amount of time to get it together.

I’m planning on making sweet and sour meatballs. I have a recipe that’s really popular so everyone’s looking forward to it.

I’ll be serving some sort of (very) simple appetizers (cheese and crackers, spiced nuts and/or olives), a green salad, and brownies or cake (if I feel ambitious).

I feel like I may need one more thing with the dinner. Maybe a cooked vegetable? But what would you make with sweet and sour meatballs? Any suggestions?

2. Which leads me to my second question: What the heck does a person do with a whole bag of celery? The meatball recipe uses celery, but I always end up with a huge back of it and there’s only so much raw celery a girl can eat. Any easy celery recipe suggestions?

I look forward to your informative and helpful response. Thanks!

A: Thanks for your questions! First, hats off for tackling the Hanukkah dinner celebration. That sounds like a great time.

One obvious choice for a Hanukkah accompaniment is potato latkes. Another reader recently posted a question about latkes, and I’ve answered that below on this page. Latkes take a certain amount of work, though, and you noted that you want to keep things simple. It’s mostly just standing and frying, but you’re already going to be standing and frying the meatballs, so you may not want to do that twice.

So you’re probably looking for an easier option. If your meatballs are sweet and sour from a sauce, a great accompaniment is soft polenta. You can eat the meatballs with the polenta, and the sauce from the meatballs flavors it up nicely. And to use up the remaining celery, make a celery salad and serve it on top of the meatballs, which will add texture and flavor to the dish. For a dramatic presentation, if you’re going to serve family-style, follow the instructions below.

Polenta:

You can use a meat broth or stock instead of water to flavor the polenta and give it a little body. In that case, do not add salt initially. I don’t recommend canned broth.

6 c water or stock (veal, white beef, or chicken)
scant 1 tbsp salt
1 1/2 c coarse yellow polenta (cornmeal) – you can substitute coarse-ground cornmeal or grits

Bring the water or stock to a boil. Add the salt.

Begin adding the polenta in a slow, thin stream, whisking continuously as you add. The water should be boiling the whole time.

Rather than the traditional method of stirring continuously, try this method, which does not involve constant stirring. Once all the polenta is in the water, stir for a couple of minutes with a wooden spoon. Then cover and reduce the heat so the polenta simmers but does not boil. Every 10 minutes, lift the lid and stir for a minute, then replace the lid. After about 40 minutes have elapsed, stir it vigorously. Before this point, if you sense the polenta is finished (eg it has achieved the creamy texture), stir vigorously and remove from heat. Cover and hold for service if necessary, or proceed to the following step for a dramatic family-style presentation.

If you have a metal bowl large enough to hold the polenta, rinse it with cold water and turn the polenta into the bowl. Let it sit for about 15 minutes, until it has begun to firm slightly but is still moist. Turn it out onto a large platter. It should form a dome.

Scoop out the center of the dome using an ice cream scoop or a large spoon. Reserve that polenta for another use. Fill the center with your meatballs, and top with some of the celery salad (below).

Celery salad:

If you have leftover celery, this is a good way to use it. It’s very simple and adds texture and mild celery flavor.

Celery stalks, with leaves, washed and dried
olive oil
celery salt
pinch espelette pepper, or cayenne pepper

Variant: juice of 1 lemon

Remove the leaves from the celery stalks and place in a small bowl.

Using a vegetable peeler – a Y-peeler is best – peel the strings from the celery stalks and discard. (Peel as you would a carrot.) After discarding the strings, using the peeler, thinly slice the celery stalks as though you were continuing to peel them. You should have nice, thin slices. Add them to the leaves.

Drizzle a little olive oil over the shaved celery – just a tablespoon or so, to coat lightly. Season with a pinch of celery salt, a couple grinds of pepper, and a pinch of espelette or cayenne pepper. Serve on top of the meatballs and polenta.

Salad variant:

If you want to serve this as a separate salad, place the lemon juice in a bowl with a pinch of celery salt, a couple grinds of pepper, and a pinch of espelette or cayenne pepper. Drop by drop at first, and then in a thin stream once the mixture emulsifies, whisk in the olive oil to form a dressing. The juice of one lemon probably requires about 1/4 to 1/3 c olive oil, but it varies depending on how much juice you get out of the lemon, and how mild/strong is your olive oil.

Toss with the shaved celery – enough to coat – and taste for celery salt. You may have leftover dressing.

From R., 1 December 2009, Hanukkah: the best latkes, and other snacks?

Q: Thanksgiving is over, but Chanukah is just around the corner. Can you give me some latke advice?

What is your preferred potato? I assume there’s some ration of wax versus starchy that would yield the optimum pancake. Also, do you have some new vegetable variations I could work in the mix?

I’m thinking of making ahead and freezing, then reheating for the festivities. Anything special I should know?

Finally, since I’m being a nudzh, any other special Chanukah nosherai you’d like to share?

A: Thanks for your question! When you make latkes – or any other potato pancake – you really want to rely on the starch in the potato to hold the cake together, rather than a batter, which make the cake heavy. So you want to use a starchy potato. You’ll still need to use some egg and flour to bind the potato, but you won’t need much.

What’s a starchy potato? Potatoes run the gamut from “waxy” – meaning high water, low starch – to starchy. How can you tell? Starch content varies by variety, but, generally speaking, russet potatoes – large, with a dark, tougher skin – are starchier at 20-22% than the thinner-skinned, smaller red potatoes (16-18% starch). Yellow varieties, like Yellow Finn and Yukon Gold, are in between. There’s another difference relating to two components of starch – amylose and amylopectin – which relate to the way the starch diffuses or holds its shape. Waxy potatoes contain more amylopectin, and hold their shape better. But that’s more information than you need for this purpose. Brown good, red not so much. And that holds true as well for hash brown potatoes, when you want them to stick together.

So here’s my recipe for latkes. Good any time of year, and not just Hanukkah. I recommend you pre-sauté your onions to deepen their flavor and avoid any potential for a sharp raw bite. If you consider this fussy or want to save about five minutes, you can skip this step, but I recommend it. Finally, I use a food processor with the julienne disc to shred the potatoes into long thin strands, but a box grater works well also. Either way, squeeze the potatoes in kitchen towels as dry as you can – do it twice if you have time.

1 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 large yellow onion, minced
2 tbsp flour [you can substitute matzo meal if you like]
1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
4 large eggs, beaten with a fork
2 scallions, washed and root end removed, minced
kosher salt to taste (you will need at least 2 tsp)
black pepper
oil – preferably a blend of olive oil and canola, or just canola

Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, flour, nutmeg, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet (or wash and return to the stove).

Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes to the egg mixture and stir to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1/4″ of oil to the pan. Reduce the heat slightly. Cook a Fry heaping tablespoonfuls of the latke mixture. Some egg mixture may remain in the bottom of the bowl – don’t feel compelled to use it all. Do not overcrowd the pan – in a 12″ skillet you probably can cook about four at a time. Drain cooked latkes on a rack and hold in a preheated 220F oven. Repeat until all the latkes are cooked. If the oil becomes dark or dirty, start over with fresh oil.

Season with salt if necessary and a grind of black pepper. Serve with applesauce or sour cream. Enjoy!

You can vary the vegetables in the latkes, sure. The older I get, the less I want this – I consider fried potatoes a perfect food and am increasingly uninterested in adulterating them with other components – but two variations I consider worth trying are celery root-potato latkes and sweet potato latkes. With these, you need more flour since neither of these vegetables is as starchy as the potato. Sweet potatoes are about 12%, and celeriac weighs in at about 5%. Do not try to use butternut squash or other high moisture vegetables such as zucchini, as these will not brown effectively and will produce soggy latkes.

To prepare sweet potato latkes, prepare the recipe as above with the following changes: Substitute sweet potatoes for the potatoes and skip the squeezing step. Increase the flour or matzo meal to 1/3 cup. When sautéing the onion at the start, add 1/2 tsp ground cumin and 1 tsp madras curry powder. You may need to increase the heat in the pan when frying to achieve a golden brown color.

To prepare celery root latkes:

1 celeriac root, washed and peeled (use a knife to peel, not a peeler)
1 lb russet potatoes, washed and peeled
2 medium yellow onions, minced
2/3 c flour [you can substitute matzo meal if you like]
1/2 tsp ground celery seed
pinch of cayenne or espelette pepper
5 large eggs, beaten with a fork
2 scallions, washed and root end removed, minced
kosher salt to taste (you will need at least 2 tsp)
black pepper
oil – preferably a blend of olive oil and canola, or just canola

Place a skillet over medium heat and, when hot add 1 tbsp oil. Sauté the onion until translucent and just beginning to color slightly. Do not brown. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.

Combine the eggs, flour, celery seed, cayenne, scallions, onion, 2 tsp salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Wipe out the skillet (or wash and return to the stove).

Shred the celeriac in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Toss with about 1/2 tsp lemon juice to prevent browning (try not to use more or it will be sour). Shred the potatoes in a food processor or grate on a box grater. Place in a clean kitchen towel (one that does not smell of detergent or dryer sheets), fold the towel over, twist the ends, and squeeze the towel over a bowl. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of the potato. If necessary, repeat in another towel. Add the grated potatoes and celeriac to the egg mixture and stir to combine.

Return the skillet to medium high heat and add about 1/4″ of oil to the pan. Reduce the heat slightly. Cook a Fry heaping tablespoonfuls of the latke mixture. Some egg mixture may remain in the bottom of the bowl – don’t feel compelled to use it all. Do not overcrowd the pan – in a 12″ skillet you probably can cook about four at a time. Drain cooked latkes on a rack and hold in a preheated 220F oven. Repeat until all the latkes are cooked. If the oil becomes dark or dirty, start over with fresh oil.

Season with salt if necessary and a grind of black pepper. If you have celery salt, now is the time to use it. Serve with applesauce or sour cream. And again, enjoy!

Noshwise, cured salmon and eggs are always nice with latkes. Does that seem breakfasty? Not special enough? Try making your own gravlax and serve deviled eggs instead of breakfast eggs. I’ll post recipes for both over the weekend. Or, on the sweet side, sufganiyot, the jelly doughnuts. I’ll post a recipe for that as well.

From E., 1 December 2009, Holiday gifts for cooks… under $30?

Q: Christmas gifting season is upon us!

My brother-in-law’s fiancee is a great baker and a pretty good cook. Any gift ideas for food/gear gifts that she’ll really love? As far as I can tell, she has a lot of the basic gear, but I don’t know whether specialized gear would be awesome and helpful, or a waste of drawer space. I know she’s especially into Italian cooking if that’s helpful at all. We’re looking to spend around $30.

Help me, Kitchen!

A: I love food and gear, and so does every other cook I know. Specialized gear can be great if you hit the mark, but it can be hard to figure out whether someone already has something, or whether they’ll use what you buy. Esoterica is likely to sit on a shelf collecting dust. I see you’ve already identified this problem.

Here’s what I think. For about $30, you can buy a really nice splurge-y food item that she might not buy herself. You say she likes Italian cooking? Buy a really, really nice olive oil. Or if you want a more-ish gift, you could take a basket and put in a $15 bottle of olive oil, a couple cans of San Marzano DOP tomatoes, and some good quality Italian dried pasta; toss in a couple of handfuls of Italian hard candy.

You also could try a different-themed basket. Try a Spanish olive oil, a tin of pimenton de la vera (the smoked Spanish paprika that is the taste of spain), a dry-cured chorizo, and a small sack of calisparra or bomba rice, for a Spanish theme (you could include a jar of red piquillo peppers and a can/jar of really high quality Spanish sardines/bonito tuna, if you think that suits better). Or how about a French theme? A crock of Dijon mustard, maybe flavored with herbs, a bottle of wine, and a tin of fleur de sel? A Japanese basket might include a nice rice wine vinegar, an unusual soy sauce (like white soy), some bonito flakes, and konbu seaweed, soba noodles, and a bottle of sake. An Indian basket could include red lentils, yellow split peas, basmati rice, and an assortment of spices and blends – cumin, coriander, cardamom, garam masala, black cumin, black mustard seeds.

If you line the basket with a kitchen towel in a color that complements the gift, it’s a great additional gift – no one ever has too many kitchen towels. And if you’re committed to throwing in a little gear, every kitchen needs metal locking tongs, wooden spoons, silicone spatulas, good whisks, and a good thermometer that goes from 0F to 450F. You can never have too many of any of these items.

Cookbooks always are welcome, especially if the gift recipient doesn’t have a large cookbook library. Hmm…maybe that’s a topic for another post.

Feel free to e-mail me if you need gift ideas…I’ve got a long list.

4 thoughts on “Holidays.

  1. Pingback: Three latke recipes, answers to a Hanukkah dinner conundrum, and more. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Pingback: Under pressure. « The Upstart Kitchen

  3. Pingback: Recycling is good: the Please Let It Be Autumn edition « The Upstart Kitchen

  4. Pingback: Hats off to Hanukkah. « The Upstart Kitchen

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