Indulging in fried foods is traditional during the eight days of Hanukkah, which begins this year on the evening of Dec. 24 and concludes on Jan. 1.
That’s because the customs of the Festival of Lights commemorate the miracle of the oil, said to have taken place in Jerusalem in the second century BC; the story goes that one day’s worth of ritually pure oil for rekindling the Holy Temple’s eternal light lasted for eight days. Since olive oil was the oil available in ancient Israel, some use it during the holiday for frying and for lighting menorahs.
For our Hanukkah menus, we prepare fried appetizers using ingredients from the lands of the Bible.
From bulgur wheat, a staple in the eastern Mediterranean for millenniums, we make fried mini bulgur meatballs like those we tasted at the Bulgur Festival in Turkey’s gastronomic capital, Gaziantep, near Syria. These meatballs, which are flavored with semi-hot red pepper, onion and garlic, are cooked by a special technique — first they’re steamed, then sautéed in olive oil. The bulgur contributes a delicate crunch to these bite-size treats.
In southeastern Turkey, people make a variety of such meatballs, from egg-sized to some as tiny as garbanzo beans. Gaziantep culinary expert Filiz Hösükoğlu told us that the minuscule balls are made only on special occasions, when mothers want to reward their children for being good.
Potato latkes were not on the menu in ancient Israel, as spuds were not known in the Old World. People might have made latkes from lentils, the star ingredient in Esau’s famous pottage in the Book of Genesis. Our hearty Turkish lentil latkes gain a pleasing crust from bulgur and are easier to make than potato latkes because you don’t need to shred potatoes. We serve them with a creamy topping — yogurt sauce with chard and garlic.
Dairy foods were central to the diet of the Land of Milk and Honey, and we use cheese in two Hanukkah appetizers. One is cheese cigars, also called cheese rolls or cheese boreks. This favorite Turkish mezze item, which is made of crisp pastry with cheese filling, makes a fun finger food for the holiday. You need only four ingredients to prepare them — filo dough, feta cheese, fresh dill and oil for frying.
Feta cheese also flavors our zucchini latkes, which are popular throughout Turkey. In Israel, people whose families emigrated from Turkey, Syria or Greece make these pancakes dairy-free if they plan to eat them at a kosher meal that includes meat.
Just in case someone might miss potato latkes at a Hanukkah celebration, you can serve them together with the zucchini latkes. The yogurt-dill-garlic topping is delicious with both kinds of pancakes.
With Hanukkah beginning on Christmas Eve this year and with many families celebrating both holidays that night, these appetizers can do double duty. After all, the Christmas story took place in the same land as the Hanukkah story, and everyone there feasted on Middle Eastern foods.
Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” and “1,000 Jewish Recipes.”
Tomato pepper sauce
Heat the oil in a wide-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the bell pepper and chile and cook over medium-low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook about 1/2 minute, stirring frequently.
Add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt and cook, covered, for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender and the sauce has thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Taste for salt, and season to taste with black and red pepper. This makes a generous pint of sauce. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.
In a food processor, combine the bulgur, onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, red pepper and allspice and process briefly to blend. Add the ground meat in 4 portions and process briefly to mix. Add 2 cups water in 4 additions, processing to blend after each addition. Scrape down mixture. Add 6 tablespoons water, 2 tablespoons at a time, and process after each addition. The mixture should be sticky. Process the mixture until smooth, 2 to 3 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and knead until it is very smooth, adding the last 3 tablespoons water. Check that the mixture is evenly moistened. This makes about 1 quart mix.
Make a test meatball: Take about 1 teaspoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Fry the meatball in a small skillet heated with a thin layer of oil until the meatball is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if desired, then test again until the flavors are right.
Moisten your hands and roll the mixture into small meatballs, using a rounded teaspoon of mixture for each one. Set them on a plate.
Prepare a steamer (make sure the boiling water doesn’t touch the steamer top). Add 1/3 the bulgur meatballs, or enough to make one layer, to the steamer top. (They expand a little while steaming.) Cover and steam over medium heat for 18 to 20 minutes or until they are cooked through. Refrigerate the rest of the mixture until all of the meatballs are steamed.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot. Add about 1/4 of the bulgur meatballs and sauté until lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side; shake the pan to turn the meatballs over, or use a slotted spoon. Just before removing them from the pan, add 1/4 teaspoon pepper flakes and sauté for a few seconds. Transfer the meatballs to a plate. Wipe the pan if necessary, add more oil and repeat until all the meatballs are cooked.
Serve the meatballs on a platter garnished with parsley sprigs. Serve the sauce separately.
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