Looking Beyond the Latke

To latke or not to latke? Serving up alternative Chanukah fare

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Who doesn't love a latke? As the official food of Chanukah, it is loved by Jews and non-Jews alike. It's crispy potato goodness—kind of like an entrée version of the potato chip. I love them with both applesauce and sour cream (or Greek yogurt), and I'll be making a big batch at my daughter's daycare this week.

Latkes are delicious, but what about other Chanukah foods? My husband and I often debate the merits of Jewish food. On the whole, he finds it bland, too tied to tradition, and lacking the grandeur and tastiness of Christian holiday foods. When it comes to things like gefilte fish, a chilled fish patty, often jarred in a gelatinous goop, it's hard to argue.

Frances Largeman-Roth

Traditional Chanukah foods involve frying in olive oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil that burned in the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days instead of just one. Latkes help illustrate the miracle of the oil, and so do sufganiyot, which are delicious jelly-filled doughnuts that are usually dusted with powdered sugar. Mmm ... fried dough.

Frying is tasty, but for those of us who would like to expand our Chanukah food repertoire or incorporate some healthier items, what else is there? I did a little digging and found that other traditional foods do exist.

Dairy

Written in 100 B.C., the book of Judith details the story of Judith—a wealthy, beautiful widow who was able to derail Assyrian conquerors and encourage the successful uprising of the Israelites. Although the story is separate from the Chanukah one, its message and heroine was celebrated in the Middle Ages.

In a nutshell, Judith got the top Assyrian general drunk and then decapitated him. She apparently also fed him lots of salty cheese, to get him to drink more (a common ploy still used today in bars). This story apparently led to the tradition of eating items made with cheese, like cheesecake, kugel, and blintzes.

Those are all delicious, but why not do a gorgeous cheese plate instead? I like to include a hard cheese like aged Manchego, a mild goat cheese topped with herbs, and either aged cheddar or a Gorgonzola dolce for bite. Add some sliced dried figs, fresh grapes, honey, marinated olives, and some rustic bread, and you have a lovely Chanukah offering.

Poultry

I never would have imagined that fried chicken could be part of the traditional Jewish food canon (who knew?), but after spending some time with Claudia Roden's excellent The Book of Jewish Food, I discovered that crispy poultry is indeed a time-honored Chanukah specialty in Tuscany. The oil that the chicken is fried in commemorates the miracle of the lighted Temple, of course, and the chicken is prepared in much the same way as Southern-style fried chicken. You cut the chicken into small pieces (keeping the skin on), and then marinate it in lemon juice, salt, and pepper for an hour. Before cooking, the chicken takes a dip in flour, then a beaten egg, and then gets fried in vegetable oil until golden.

If, like me, you're not so into deep-frying or chicken parts, you can do something similar, but healthier, with skinless chicken cutlets or tenders. This easy recipe is adapted from my book, Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide

Lemony Chicken with Capers

Makes 4 servings

• ½ cup all-purpose flour (you won't use all of it)

• ¼ teaspoon salt

• ¼ teaspoon pepper

• ½ teaspoon herbs de Provence

• 1 pound organic or natural chicken cutlets

• 1 tablespoon olive oil

• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

• ½ cup chicken broth

• 2 tablespoons capers, drained

1. Combine the flour, salt, pepper, and herbs de Provence in a small bowl. Dredge the chicken cutlets in the flour mixture, and transfer to a plate.

2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken cutlets to the pan, and cook for four minutes per side, or until golden brown. Transfer to a clean plate, and cover with foil.

3. To the same skillet, add the lemon juice, chicken broth, and capers. Use a spatula to scrape up any browned bits in the pan. Cook for three minutes. Pour sauce over chicken, and serve.

Nutritional breakdown: 187 calories; 5 grams of fat (Sat 1g., Mono 3g., Poly 1g.); 66 mg. cholesterol; 27 g. protein; 7 g. carbs; 1 g. sugars; .5g. fiber; 1 mg. iron; 418 mg. sodium; 18 mg. calcium; 17 mcg. folate.

Couscous

Whether you're a Sephardic Jew (from North African, Middle Eastern, Portuguese, or Spanish descent), Ashkenazi Jew (from Eastern European descent), or just a wannabe member of the tribe, you can take a cue from North African Jews and serve a huge, pyramid-shaped pile of couscous. Not just the plain stuff mind you, but the dish that's referred to as "couscous," which is often scented with cinnamon and saffron and adorned with raisins or dates and walnuts or almonds.

Along with the couscous, small meatballs made from beef, chicken, or fish, are served. Since Chanukah is typically celebrated with rich food, I think that meatballs made from ground lamb would be wonderful. You can also sprinkle your couscous with some festive pomegranate arils—the seeds from the fruit.

No matter how you decide to celebrate the Festival of Lights this year, I hope it's tasty and that you're surrounded by family and friends. And heck, with eight nights to celebrate, you can get super creative in the kitchen.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.