Today I’d like to welcome Astrid Amara and Nicole Kimberling to the blog–two writers whose work I much admire. They’re sharing festive recipes today as they take you through the preparation of the delicious Hanukkah meal from Astrid’s new book!
I’m not a foodie, I’m really not.
And yet it seems every Hanukkah romance I write has food as a central theme. In Holiday Outing, the entire Levinson family has to stretch their kitchen’s contents over the course of several days as a storm knocks out power and strands the guests. In Carol of the Bellskis the couple Lars Varga and Seth Bellski are on the outs until Lars shows up and offers to help Seth out of a jam by preparing kosher meals for his family’s B&B until the owners can be found. In the sequel, food preparation makes up much of the awkward and, later, bonding experiences between the characters and their extended family. And In Love Ahead: Expect Delays, my characters have to subsist on gas station snacks and pizza delivery. Okay, not really a central food theme there, but there IS food, I’d like to point out.
This prevalence of food is not intentional. I didn’t think, hey, I want to write a lot about baking! But somehow this just happens. I have a few theories as to why:
1. Food is the central part of a majority of family-oriented holidays. Christmas ham, Thanksgiving turkey, Easter… eggs…? (Jewish, remember?), it doesn’t matter. We are mammals and we like to eat. And what better excuse to stuff yourself senseless with mashed potatoes and gravy than a nationally-recognized holiday?
2. Food is the central part of Judaism. I’m sort of kidding. But food is important in Jewish households, whether kosher or not. A good Jewish mother always makes sure everyone has second helpings. And this isn’t a stereotype about Jewish women, I’ll have you know. As the book “How to Be a Jewish Mother” once said, “you don’t have to be Jewish, or a mother, to be a Jewish Mother.”
3. Food is something I’m not good at. Let me clarify – I’m good at eating food. I’m a champion eater. But cooking stresses me out. I much prefer hanging out with people who are willing to cook for me. I have some incredibly talented friends and family who love to cook, and I oblige them at any opportunity by offering up my discerning, princess-tuned palate and my insatiable gullet.
So when I came up with the idea of a man trying to run a deli and catering company, I realized Sweet and Sour was going to describe food preparation. A lot. And since all I actually ever prepare is the occasional tuna fish sandwich, strawberry banana smoothie, and maybe some pasta, it was time to turn to the experts. I asked Nikki to come up with a kosher, dairy-based celebration dinner menu.
(I also happen to know she loves challenges like this. During our weekly writer’s meetings years ago, she used to come into my apartment and look at all the random assortment of ingredients I had and would make a dinner out of them).
Of course, she went above and beyond the call of duty and not only came up with a menu, but she then cooked it for me. And I ate it. And it was good. Especially those Israeli donuts. Damn, now I’m hungry.
I better go see if someone happens to be cooking for me in the kitchen… Oh look! He is! Ha, it’s good to be a princess. And on that note, over to Nikki…
I’ve long been a fan of Astrid Amara’s Hannukah tales. For me they’ve got everything I want in a contemporary holiday romance: humor, family and food. So I was really excited when she asked me to create a dinner menu for Sweet and Sour.
During the course of the story the protagonist, Miles Piekus is called upon to cater a dinner for a passel of hungry rabbis. For the meal to be kosher, the menu could include either meat or dairy but not both. Now normally, this means that Hannukah meals are dairy-free affairs, but because Astrid loves dairy products more than any human being I’ve ever met, she wanted to do it the opposite way. So I was left with the challenge of making a satisfying three-course meal with no red meat. And did I mention this was to take place on Thanksgiving Day?
Because the story is set in Seattle I chose the iconic Pacific Northwest fish, salmon, for the primary protein. That part was easy—the difficult aspect was making a menu that I felt the main character Miles would imagine. All I really knew about him was that he made pickles and had as Israeli boyfriend. And just like that an idea clicked into place—the main dish would be salmon choucroute a specialty of the Alsace region of France.
Choucroute (or saurkraut as it is more commonly known) is created by the same process of lacto-fermentation as Jewish-style pickles. I thought that an adventurous, ambitious pickle maker like Miles would want to show off his skills as much as possible, so I wondered where else I could get a unique pickle into the menu. Looking at Miles’ romantic history, I thought he might have traveled to the Middle East—home of one of my very favorite salted products—the Morrocan preserved lemon.
A brief survey of traditional Hannukah desserts in Israel led me to the sufganiyot. Essentially, it’s a filled, raised doughnut, but who doesn’t like a fancy doughnut?
So I had the menu:
Appetizer: a dip of toasted local hazelnuts and tahini served with toasted pita wedges and crudités.
Main: parchment-wrapped salmon parcels with preserved lemon cream served with cranberry choucroute and kohlrabi and potato latkes
Dessert: sufganiyot 2 kinds Sugar-Coated with Rhubarb Jam or Mexican chocolate Glaze with marshmallow crème.
Next I went about actually creating the meal. The choucroute and pickled lemons were easy to make, through time-consuming—each item taking approximately three weeks to mature. (And just as a side note—saurkraut DOES off-gas as it goes through its maturation process. A lot. There’s a reason people keep this stuff in the garage.)
Then tragedy struck. On the day I was to demo the whole meal for Astrid I got held up at the restaurant and by the time I got to the grocery store I could not find a single piece of fresh, wild-caught salmon. Not one. I don’t know if some big grizzly bear had come by or what, but the fish case had been cleaned out. All I could find was a solitary can of farmed pink Atlantic salmon.
But if working in the restaurant industry for decades has taught me nothing else, it’s solidified in me the knowledge that the show must go on. On the spot, the poached salmon parcels changed to lemon-pickle spiked salmon cakes fried in clarified butter.
And you know what? They were just amazing—so delicious that Astrid changed the menu. (She also researched wine-pairings.)
Eventually the menu looked like this:
Hors d’oeuvres: Hazelnut tahini crudités, Melon-cheddar skewers, and Romano-stuffed mushrooms. Paired with a Baron Herzog White Riesling.*
First Course: Warmly spiced pumpkin soup with Gruyère served in seasonal squash. Paired with Kinneret Chardonnay from Israel’s Ella Valley.*
Dessert Course: Sufganiyot with Mexican chocolate glaze and marshmallow crème or strawberry-and-rhubarb jam fillings. Served with coffee or tea. Paired with Kedem Port.*
*All wines are meshuval.
Now while I can’t advise everyone to go buy a length of cheese cloth and food-grade bucket (yes, they really exist) and ferment your own cabbage, I can heartily recommend that anyone interested in a quick meal of salmon cakes try these out.
Miles Piekus’ Emergency Salmon Cakes:
Ingredients (for 2 people or 6 salmon cakes)
1 can salmon
clarified butter or Ghee (vegetable oil would also be okay)
Unflavored dry bread crumbs a handful or two
1 piece of preserved lemon the size of 1/2 a green olive, skin and pulp, chopped finely.
1 tsp dry tarragon
A pinch of pepper—any kind
2 Tbsp fresh, chopped cillantro
(Salt probably unnecessary as preserved lemon is VERY SALTY)
Step 1- Mix stuff with fork (mixture should
Step 2- Divide into 6 parts and fry in clarified butter 2-3 mins each side
NOTE: Commercial preserved lemon has been appearing in stores recently. The brand I’ve seen around in stores is this one:
But if you can’t find the lemons, just use a teaspoon of chopped capers instead.
Astrid Amara lives in Bellingham, Washington. She spends her days working as a civil servant, her nights sleeping, and the time in between either writing, riding horses, hiking around with her dogs, or staring at the wall. She is a Lambda Literary Award Finalist for her novel The Archer’s Heart , a contributor to the Irregulars anthology, and is the author of numerous titles including the Holidays with the Bellskis series and Half Pass. Learn more at www.astridamara.com.