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It’s all a matter of cause and effect.
The cause is that in 164 B.C., a group of Jews led by Judah Maccabee captured the former Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine by brutal King Antiochus IV.
The effect is Jews today eat latkes for Hanukkah.
Latkes — potato pancakes — are a delicious reminder of the Hanukkah story. The story is when the Jewish warriors made their way into the desecrated Temple, they found only enough oil to light the eternal flame for one day.
But the flame miraculously burned for the eight full days needed to secure more oil. And this miracle, which is now at the center of the Hanukkah celebration, is commemorated by eating food fried in oil, specifically latkes.
That makes sense. Any excuse to eat latkes is a good one, and an oil-based miracle is better than most.
But a lot of Jews also eat brisket on Hanukkah and, to be fair, most other religious holidays. Why is there a tradition of eating celebratory brisket?
I have done a fair amount of research into this very question, and I have uncovered what appears to be the two main reasons for the holiday tradition:
1. It’s cheap.
2. It’s good.
Most American Jews trace their families back to Eastern Europe where, as a people, they were generally quite poor. As is the case with all poor communities, they could not afford to eat the best, most tender, cuts of meat. So they ate what they could, the tougher meats that needed to cook at low temperatures for hours before they could be served. Shanks and chuck roasts were popular, and so was the marvelously flavorful brisket.
Brisket is particularly suited to being cooked with a wide variety of ingredients because, although it has a distinctive flavor of its own, it also easily absorbs the taste of the other ingredients in the pot. You can cook it in a tomato sauce or in beer, in a sweet-and-sour sauce or even with sauerkraut. You can use it in Korean barbecue or turn it into a Scandinavian soup using Akvavit, a liquor flavored with caraway or anise.
Any way you make it, it is going to be good. The collagen and fat marbled throughout the cut slowly melt in long, low cooking, and they flavor and moisten the meat and give it its richness.
So for our Hanukkah meal, we have a traditional entree and a traditional starch. All we need is a traditional vegetable dish.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t one for Hanukkah. So I decided to make tzimmes, a dish of sweet, stewed root vegetables and dried fruit often served at Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) but suitable for any meal in the fall and winter. Like brisket, tzimmes was especially popular in the Old Country, whichever old country in Eastern Europe that happened to be. And also like brisket, there are as many different ways to make it as there are people who cook it.
I decided to go with a stovetop version, because my oven would be taken up with a brisket.
What makes this tzimmes so delicious is the mixture in which it is cooked. Orange juice, honey, brown sugar, cinnamon and chicken stock give a luscious sweetness to the already sweet-but-earthy root vegetables, in this case carrots, sweet potatoes and parsnips. The whole thing is then topped with dried cranberries and prunes and cooked until perfectly tender.
You don’t like prunes, you say? Try them in tzimmes. Seriously, try them.
The brisket is cooked in much the same way as the tzimmes, in liquid at a low temperature for a long time. The liquid in this case is primarily red wine, but it also benefits from a can of tomatoes. More onions than you would think go into the mix as well, along with celery and, eventually, carrots. A dash of thyme, a smidgen of rosemary and a bay leaf are added to the pot, which gently simmers for 3« hours until the flavors are beautifully melded and the meat is so tender you can cut it with a table knife.
Which brings us to the latkes. I am picky about my potato pancakes — I like them crispy, with only a little onion mixed in and virtually nothing else, other than a hint of nutmeg. I have always thought people who pollute their potato pancakes with baking powder are thinking too literally about the word “pancakes.” All I need, besides the potato, onion and hint of nutmeg, are an egg or two and a light sprinkling of flour to hold it together while it fries.
The latkes that result are nothing short of a Hanukkah miracle.