Oh, Hanukkah — I adore you. Always have. Even as a kid, I drew to the warmth of the hanukiyah (holiday menorah) as though to a cozy fireplace. Little did I know I was tapping into the very heart of the holiday.
We may have heard the story of Hanukkah countless times: the victory of Judah and the Maccabees against Syrian-Greek rule; rededication of the temple; and the mythical bit of oil that kept the temple lamp burning for eight days. (That oil is why we eat fried foods like latkes, donuts, and other fried pastries to mark the occasion.)
But here's the part we might not know: Although the holiday’s start date slides around the Gregorian calendar, the Festival of Lights always begins on the same day on the lunar (Jewish) calendar — on the dark moon closest to the winter solstice. The shortest days and longest cold, dark nights are just when the ancient people would have most craved warmth and light. With no ambient light from a neighboring town, of course they'd want to place a lit menorah in the window like a welcoming beacon, to huddle indoors, celebrate the candle-glow, and perhaps tuck into a warming meal together. The holiday may be associated with fried foods of no particular season, but at its core it is about the cycles of the year. And that is why I've always loved Hanukkah.
Latkes as a Group Activity
This is the perfect moment for a casual buffet supper built from hearty seasonal ingredients and starring a mountain of crisp, freshly made latkes. You know, potatoes aren't the only vegetable that make a great pancake. Parsnips — sweet, spicy, and citrusy — make incredibly delicious latkes. If vegetable pancakes could be called complex and sophisticated, parsnip latkes would take the prize. In our family, we love to cook latkes together as part of the evening's festivities. It saves solitary KP duty on the front end and delivers hot latkes à la minute on the other.
Focus on One Dish
One rich, somewhat time-intensive dish is plenty in a menu. Keep everything else simple and do-ahead. I like an appetizer that wakens the taste buds, such as roasted Brussels sprouts with walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and shanklish (labneh with za'atar, Aleppo pepper, and fresh thyme). The crispy sprouts glazed in puckery-tart pomegranate molasses, served with an optional shanklish "dip," are a great cocktail nibble (or serve a beautiful platter full as part of the buffet). Either way, they can be made ahead and served at room temperature.
For me, some sort of a braise that I can make a day ahead is a must, with plenty of juices that soak into the latkes on my plate. This year, I'm making braised beef with semolina dumplings and late-autumn vegetables, inspired by a dish my Iraqi grandmother used to make. (She also made a vegan version with chunks of winter squash and potatoes.) I may skip the dumplings in deference to the latkes, but I promise those nubbly nuggets infused with gravy are sensational.
There should be a food rule that every hearty menu include a refreshing winter salad to "cut" the richness of the rest of the meal. Pummelo, fennel, and radish salad is one of my favorite "palate cleansers." It's got a frosty, eye-catching appeal, and you can prepare all the components ahead and quickly toss the salad together at the last moment.
Serve a Simple Make-Ahead Dessert
There are eight nights of Hanukkah; save the jelly donuts for another feast meal that doesn't include latkes. Rustic almond-orange macaroons should be made at least a couple days ahead — they're even better then — and can be made up to a week ahead. The chewy, orange-scented cookies are perfect with chocolate holiday gelt and early season tangerines for a sweet, simple finish to a joyous evening.
- Appetizer: Crisp Parsnip Latkes
- Salad: Pummelo, Fennel, and Radish Salad
- Main Dish: Braised Beef with Semolina Dumplings
- Side Dish: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts, Pomegranate Molasses
- Dessert: Rustic Almond-Orange Macaroons
Your Cooking Timeline
What to Prep Ahead
- Make the macaroons up to 1 week ahead and store in an airtight container at room temperature.
One to Two Days Ahead
- Blanch the Brussels sprouts, make the shanklish, and refrigerate.
- Clean and chop all the vegetables.
- Cook the stew 1 day ahead and assemble the dumplings (they are prettiest cooked in the stew right before serving). Refrigerate overnight.
The Day Of
- Early in the day, toast walnuts for the Brussels sprouts and set aside; prep salad components and refrigerate: clean and dry salad greens; slice radishes and fennel bulbs, and place in cold water; snip fennel fronds and chives; and peel and segment pummelo.
- Up to a few hours ahead, roast the Brussels sprouts. If you’re going to make all the latkes ahead and reheat to serve, do that a few hours ahead.
- Or up to two hours ahead, make the latke batter, and bring stew to room temperature.
One Hour Before Serving
- Reheat stew and simmer dumplings. You can also do this in a 350°F oven to keep the stovetop free for latke-frying.
- Start cooking latkes.
Just Before Serving
- Assemble Brussels sprouts dish and toss salad.
Your Shopping List
To buy at the store:
- Beef chuck roast (3 pounds)
- Fennel bulbs (about 1 pound)
- Radishes (1/2 bunch)
- Carrots (1 1/4 pounds)
- Celery ribs (2)
- Romano or snap beans (preferably Blue Lake, 1 pound), or cauliflower (1 small head)
- Brussels sprouts, small to medium (2 pounds)
- Parsnips, medium to large (2 pounds)
- Roma tomatoes (3) plus sun-dried tomato or tomato paste (1 tablespoon), or tomato sauce (1 8-ounce can)
- Mâche, mizuna, or tatsoi (2 ounces)
- Oranges (2)
- Lemon (1)
- Pummelo, Oro Blanco, or grapefruit (1)
- Fresh thyme (6 sprigs)
- Fresh cilantro or parsley (1 bunch)
- Fresh chives (1 bunch)
- Labneh (2 cups)
- Applesauce, roasted smashed apples and pears, and/or crème fraîche, for serving with the latkes
- Homemade beef stock (2 cups) or canned beef broth (1 cup)
- Coarse semolina (1 cup) or regular Cream of Wheat (210 grams)
- Walnut halves (1 cup)
- Skin-on whole almonds (7 ounces)
- Oil-cured black olives (1/2 cup)
- Almond extract (1/2 teaspoon)
- Orange flower water (1 teaspoon)
- Pomegranate molasses (1/4 cup)
- Za'atar (1 tablespoon)
- Aleppo pepper (1/2 to 1 teaspoon)
- Hot or sweet paprika, or a mix (1 1/4 teaspoons)
- Rice or thick slices of country bread, for serving with the braised beef (optional)
From your pantry (check to make sure you have enough):
- Large eggs (4)
- Onions (2 1/2)
- Garlic cloves (2)
- Unbleached all-purpose flour or potato starch (4 heaping tablespoons)
- Granulated sugar (1 cup)
- Ground cinnamon or cardamom or garam masala, for dusting the cookies (optional)
- Baking powder (1/2 teaspoon)
- Mild oil with a medium-high smoke point, such as grapeseed, sunflower, or avocado (5 tablespoons, plus more for frying latkes)
- Olive oil (5 tablespoons)
- Coarse finishing salt, such as Maldon sea salt
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- White pepper