Celebrating Chanukah with Levana: Foodie Innovator of NYC

Levana restaurant   credit  AJ Wilhelm, Carmen Lopez

Levana restaurant , NYC credit AJ Wilhelm, Carmen Lopez

A recent article claimed that Jews who keep kosher have all become “foodies”. If there is one person to credit for kicking off this phenomenon, it is probably Levana. She brought upscale kosher dining to NY when the stereotype and expectation of kosher food was that it was deli food. And while there is nothing wrong with great deli, Levana showed everyone that there is much more to kosher food than ethnic food. Here restaurant (called, surprise, Levana) was a game changer for NY kosher restaurants. Today there are many fine kosher restaurants in NY, Levana set the standard. Open for decades, serving food people loved and looked forward to, Levana introduced many to new foods, warm hospitality and higher standards.

Levana & bookSince then, Levana has been very prolific and published a number of critically acclaimed cookbooks as well as speaking, doing food demos and educating widely about how delicious recipes can also be healthy and relatively simple to prepare. She is a woman with a mission and quite busy, so I am super pleased that Levana is taking part in the 8 for 8 celebration of Chanukah here on my blog!

Levana, do you have memories of celebrating Chanukah in Morocco? What are some highlights? Any special food related memories?

To be frank, growing up in Morocco, Chanukah was absolutely no big deal in terms of social gatherings. We made a much greater deal of Tu BiShvat and Purim, they were huge bashes. On Chanukkah, in each house, everyone made their favorite fried treat, just one night. My mom made the Arabic donuts, Sfenj. But that was about it, beside Chanukah lighting every night, of course.

What do you do to create a special holiday atmosphere for your family during Chanukah?

Seriously: Lots of Latkas! Homemade a must!

 How has your Chanukah celebration changed over the years?

I have happily adopted my husband’s minhagim (customs), which include making a much greater deal of celebrating Chanukah than I ever did in the past. Lots of Latkas (not just potato Latkas), donuts, kids presents, menorah lighting at home and in public places. My son Yakov and his wife Elisheva are Chabad Shluchim in Washington Heights, which means menorah lighting in one of the Washington Heights Parks, a kids Chanukah party etc. It’s always a wonderful time to put family and friends together, and do silly stuff. We need all the fun we can get!
What was it like to be a restaurant owner during Chanukah?

It meant getting ready for more family reservations. It also meant always including Latkas on the menu to go with dinner, and even whole Chanukah parties with fun menus including Latkas and fritters, both savory and sweet.

Latkes or sufganiot?

I’m going with Latkas!

What are the things you must eat or do during Chanukah, no matter what?

I must get all my kids and grandkids together one of the Chanukkah nights, make lots of Latkas, and a homemade apple sauce, and watch it get all devoured. Give out gifts to everyone big and small. Loving Bubbie, loving Zaidie, what do you expect?

Will you please share a few Chanukah recipes with us?

Happy to share! I am going to share my latka recipe plus my thoughts of “fear of frying therapy” (which you can also find on  my blog).

 

Levana Latkas4Latkas from Levana:

Ingredients: Makes 24 latkas.

vegetable oil for frying

1 cup flour, any flour, including gluten-free

4 eggs

1 medium onion, grated in a food processor

salt and pepper to taste

pinch nutmeg

8 large Idaho or russet potatoes, peeled

Instructions:

Heat 1/3 inch oil in a heavy frying pan until very hot. While the oil is heating, place the flour, eggs, onion, salt and pepper, and nutmeg in a bowl, and mix thoroughly. Quickly grate the potatoes in a food processor, and immediately stir them into the batter, making sure not to squeeze so as not to extract unwanted extra moisture. Work very quickly so they do not have time to get discolored. Form small patties, and lower them into the hot oil, or drop the batter by heaping tablespoons. Fry until golden, about 3 minutes on each side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve with applesauce (try my homemade applesauce: nothing to it, and it’s wonderful!), or plain yogurt.

Variations:

Vegetable latkes: Replace the potatoes with a mixture of zucchini, carrots and parsnips. Add seasonings of your choice such as oregano, minced fresh garlic and basil.

Sweet potato latkes: Substitute sweet potatoes for the regular potatoes, and add brown sugar, cinnamon, curry and ginger to taste. Try serving them with my Hot Pepper Jelly!

Potato Kugel: That’s right: What else is it but a giant latka? Add 1/3 cup of vegetable oil to the potato latka batter. Pour the batter into a greased loaf or square pan, and bake uncovered in a preheated 375*F oven for one hour or until the top is golden brown.

 

Levana’s Frying Tips

I rarely fry anything, but there is no Chanukkah without Frying! In my catering career and for my friends and family at home, I have made thousands upon thousands of them and always watch them disappear at a flatteringly alarming rate. There is no doubt about it: latkas are a heavenly treat, and once we enter a house where the glorious fragrance of latkas frying wafts through the kitchen, even a very spartan dieter (whom I have yet to meet) will sheepishly watch his or her noble resolution not to “get near it” turn to dust.

You may have guessed it: I have nothing nice to say about frying. Getting burned long ago while fishing out a schnitzel from the frying pan, which eluded me and defiantly jumped back into the pan splattering my hand, turning it into a human dumpling for days and leaving its ugly scar for many months, didn’t help endear this method of cooking to me. But my love for latkas has not suffered at all, thank you.

Frying (stir-frying does not fall into this category, as it requires very little oil and minimal cooking) is the nemesis of every health-conscious cook, this one included. However, fried foods are irresistibly delicious. I am happy to provide a few frying tips and guidelines for making occasional treats efficiently and safely: consider the following frying tips a mini crash course on conquering the fear of frying! These frying tips apply not only to latkas (any latkas, savory and sweet) but anything you might be frying (shnitzels, fish fillets, etc…)
– Keep it dry. Too much moisture will steam food instead of frying it, yielding soggy results. Be sure to dry whatever you are frying thoroughly with paper towels.
– Keep it thick. With a firm (not runny) batter, you will be able to form thicker patties, which will absorb much less oil than thinner ones. The ouside will be crisp and the center will be tender yet cooked through.
– Keep it hot. Less-than-hot oil will seep into your food, making it inedibly greasy. If you are adding oil to your pan while frying, chances are your oil was not hot enough to begin with. When your oil is good and hot, you will need to add very little if any to finish frying an entire batch of food. How hot is hot enough? Drop a smidgen of batter into the oil. If it sizzles and rises to the surface, the oil is hot and ready for frying.
– Keep it steady. Do not crowd the pan. First of all, you will make handling the food more difficult. Also, crowding will bring down the temperature of the oil. Adding what you are frying at steady intervals ensures that the oil has time to return to the desired temperature.
– Keep it lean. I have my mother to thank for this advice. Rather than using spatulas or slotted spoons, work with two forks when frying. Lift each fried item with a fork on each side, and hold it vertically for a second or two over the frying pan: You will be surprised by how much oil drips off it. Immediately place the items on a plate lined with several layers of paper towels, which will absorb any remaining unwanted grease.
– Keep it white. This applies only to potato dishes. Peeled potatoes will oxidate when exposed to air and turn an unappealing gray color. So when making latkes (or a potato kugel), get everything ready and peel and grate the potatoes last, adding them immediately to the otherwise finished batter.
– Keep it fresh and hot. A word about freezing and reheating. If you are entertaining a large group, it won’t be enormous fun spending the afternoon frying while everyone is having a good time. If you must fry in advance, follow all the above guidelines, but fry each item until it is ninety percent cooked through, no more. Store it in a shallow pan in one layer. You can also place the latkas in the pan vertically, like a deck of cards; you will be able to fit quite a few in a pan in this position (again, one layer). Cover tightly. Refrigerate or freeze, depending on how long in advance you are preparing the dish. Reheat uncovered, at about 350*F, for fifteen to twenty minutes if it was frozen, until golden and crisp.

 

 

Leave a Reply