Several Chanukahs ago my husband came home with an electric deep fryer large enough to accommodate a 12-pound turkey. I’d heard of suburban folks frying turkeys in their garages, but because we live in a Manhattan apartment I was less than thrilled with the gigantic appliance – which I had no room to store.
That first Chanukah, however, I acquiesced to deep-frying a turkey, which turned out to be more delicious than you can imagine. The bird was moist on the inside and crisp on the outside, an achievement that anyone who has roasted a turkey can tell you is no easy feat. Surprisingly the bird didn’t taste greasy.
Better yet, the preparation time was reduced from several hours to 45 minutes.
Since then, fried turkey has become one of our most treasured holiday traditions. Of course on the first night of Chanukah, we fill four skillets with latkes. Nothing is crunchier than grated potatoes browned in spattering oil. But on another night of this eight-day holiday, we invite a crowd and deep-fry a turkey. As we light colorful Chanukah candles, our apartment fills with the scent of serious searing. Watching the candles twinkle, our family and friends can’t wait to gobble the turkey.
Deep-fried turkey is a fitting way to celebrate Chanukah, the festival of oil, because its preparation requires several gallons of oil. But how did fried foods become entwined with Chanukah’s culinary history?
It started more than 2,100 years ago when the Greek king of Syria, Antiochus, occupied Israel. During his reign, the Jews and their customs fared poorly. When one of his officers arrived in a town outside of Jerusalem, he demanded the Jews take part in a Greek ceremony that entailed bowing to an idol and eating pork, both of which are forbidden by Jewish law.
Outraged by such disrespect, the Maccabee family led a revolt to overthrow the occupiers. After defeating the Greek army, Judah Maccabee and his men began restoring the great Temple in Jerusalem, which lay in ruin.
Candles had not yet been invented, so specially prepared olive oil was used to light the Temple’s menorah. Finding only a one-day supply of the oil to keep the menorah burning, the Maccabees were awestruck that it lasted eight days, long enough for a new batch to be made.
This spawned the eight-day celebration of Chanukah and the custom of observing the holiday by frying foods in oil.
During the Maccabees’ time, cheese pancakes were a popular fried food. Latkes weren’t added to the Chanukah repertoire until centuries later. Jews from various countries now fry many kinds of foods, including doughnuts, fritters, and pancakes to celebrate the holiday.
My husband’s family hailed from the Jewish community of Trieste, Italy, so every Chanukah we also deep-fry rice balls. An Italian delicacy, these crunchy balls, held together with ricotta cheese, are a sensational hors d’oeuvre or side dish.
While fooling around in my kitchen, I’ve successfully fried some unexpected foods from Jewish cuisine into a whole new identity. Slices of sour pickles undergo a crusty transformation when they hit hot oil.
Chopped fish, eggs, and matzoh meal are usually mixed together to form patties that are simmered in broth to produce gefilte fish. But instead of boiling these large oval patties, I roll the batter into small balls and deep-fry them. After one taste, you’ll never settle for bland gefilte fish again.
Frightened by the thought of dealing with raw fish? Forget the stories about your bubbe who tackled a live carp in her bathtub every time she cooked gefilte fish. Instead, ask your fishmonger to grind the haddock, whitefish, or pike you order. From there, handling the fish batter is as easy as forming hamburger patties.
On the theory that you can fry anything, I suggest widening your Chanukah repertoire. Here are some ideas:
“¢ Submerge any kind of pitted black or green olives (but not bottled or canned) into hot oil, where they will develop a delicious pucker within a minute or two.
“¢ If pressed for time, slide thinly sliced potatoes or florets of broccoli and cauliflower into a pot of hot oil until they turn delightfully brown. After placing them on paper towels and sprinkling with kosher salt, you’ll savor every crisp mouthful.
“¢ Canned chickpeas can be fried into a sensational hors d’oeuvre or snack. Dry them on paper towels. Put a mixture of curry powder, cumin, flour, paprika, and a dash of cayenne pepper into a plastic storage bag. Place the chickpeas into the bag in batches, seal, and shake them until they’re coated. Deep fry them in oil, drain on paper towels, sprinkle with kosher salt, and serve them immediately.
In spite of these other delicacies, I have to admit that I wait all year for Chanukah because of the crackling texture of potato pancakes. But I find I can eat latkes for only so many days in a row before seeking other foods to fry.
1. While some people fry turkeys by rigging up garbage cans on barbecue grills or above open fires, this is a dangerous practice. A safer route is to purchase a deep-fryer from a reputable company, such as Masterbuilt. You can reach Masterbuilt online at http://www.masterbuilt.com, or by phone in Columbus, Ga., at (800) 489-1581.
2. For safety’s sake, it is imperative to follow all instructions that accompany a deep-fryer.
3. When deep-frying, you must use fresh (not frozen) turkeys.
4. Use an oil with a high smoking point (preferably 450 degrees). Aficionados recommend peanut oil as it imparts the most marvelous flavor. However, corn oil, safflower oil, and canola oil are also safe choices. With the quantity of oil required, about two to four gallons, I suggest purchasing the oil at one of the big box stores.
Non-kosher turkeys must be brined before you deep-fry them. However, because kosher turkeys have already been salted, they should not be brined. Before deep-frying the turkey, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for technique, timing, and amount of oil needed.
Deep-fried gefilte fish balls
1 cup breadcrumbs, or more, if needed
1 lb. haddock, ground
1 egg beaten
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 1/2 tsp. granulated salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp. dill, chopped
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 qt. corn oil, or more if needed
Kosher salt for sprinkling
Red horseradish, optional as an accompaniment
1. Place breadcrumbs on a plate and reserve.
2. In a large bowl, mix together until well incorporated haddock, egg, onion, granulated salt, white pepper, flour, dill, and sugar. If mixture is too liquid to hold together, slowly add more flour until mixture is pasty.
3. Because mixture is sticky, you should wet hands with water often while forming balls or else mixture will be difficult to handle. Place a clump of the mixture in your wet palms and roll it into a ball 1-inch in diameter. Roll well to form a tight ball that won’t fall apart while frying.
4. Roll ball in breadcrumbs until coated all around. Shake off excess breadcrumbs and place on a clean platter. Continue until all batter has been rolled into balls and covered with breadcrumbs.
5. Pour corn oil to a depth of 3 inches in a medium-sized deep saucepan. Heat corn oil on a medium flame to 375 degrees on an oil and candy thermometer, or until a drop of water sizzles in the oil.
6. Using a long handled slotted spoon, place a few balls at a time in the oil. Fry for 3 minutes, rolling balls occasionally, until they are dark brown on all sides. Move balls to a plate covered with paper towels and drain them momentarily. Serve immediately with horseradish, if desired.
Beer batter deep-fried sour pickles
2 or 3 sour or half sour pickles, sliced 1/8-inch thick. Discard ends and tiny pieces.
1/4 cup flour
1 cup beer
2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup panko, Japanese-style breadcrumbs. Can be purchased in most supermarkets, many gourmet food stores, and Asian groceries.
1 qt. corn oil, or more, if needed
1. Drain pickle slices on both sides on paper towels. Place flour on a plate and roll slices in flour.
2. Place corn oil to a depth of 3 inches in a medium sized deep saucepan. Heat oil on a medium flame to 375 degrees F on an oil and candy thermometer, or until a drop of water sizzles in oil.
3. Using an electric mixer, whisk together egg, beer, and baking powder. Add panko and blend until well incorporated.
4. Immediately dip floured pickle slices into batter. Let excess drip off. Using a long handled slotted utensil, submerge a few slices into the oil. Fry for 2 to 3 minutes, or until batter puffs and turns crunchy. Remove slices with long-handled utensil and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.
Yield: Approximately 30-40 pickle slices
Fried rice balls Italian-style
2 cups of cooked rice of any kind
1 tbsp. flour
3 tbsp. ricotta cheese
3 tbsp. olive oil, or more, if needed
1. Beat egg in a large bowl. Add the cooked rice. Stir to blend. Add the flour and ricotta cheese. Blend until well combined.
2. With your fingers, form rice mixture into balls 1 inch in diameter. Your hands will be sticky, but manipulate rice mixture until you form perfect tight spheres or they will fall apart while frying.
3. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place balls on the foil. Cover balls with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for 1 hour, or until they are firm.
4. Place olive oil in a large skillet, rolling it around until bottom surface is well oiled. Place as many rice balls as will fit comfortably in the skillet, leaving room to turn the balls with a wooden or plastic spoon. When bottom of balls brown, roll them around until another surface browns. Continue frying until balls are completely brown all around. With a long-handled slotted spoon, move balls to a plated line with paper towels. Continue frying until all balls are crunchy and brown. Serve immediately.
Yield: 20 rice balls