Leave time for latkes by slow-cooking Hanukkah dinner
Adam Sandler sings about Hanukkah's "eight crazy nights."
The only crazy thing -- aside, perhaps, from a few of the relatives -- is the effort required to prepare a nice Hanukkah meal during this busy time of year.
To simplify the process, Skokie-based chef Laura Frankel encourages cooks to consider using an often underutilized kitchen tool: the crockpot.
Frankel's new book, "Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes -- 120 Holiday and Everyday Dishes Made Easy" (softcover, $18.95, Agate Surrey) is packed with timesaving ideas for long-simmering, restaurant-worthy dishes made with crockpots. The kosher recipes aren't specifically geared toward Hanukkah, so they can be prepared for any type of holiday gathering or family meal.
But when you've got potatoes to grate and latkes to fry, a slow cooker for the main course can save time.
"(The slow cooker) is a great way to take one source of pressure off entertaining," said Frankel, the former executive chef at Wolfgang Puck Kosher Catering at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.
The cookbook is an update to the 2006 version of her book and offers recipes for everything from soups to cheesecake. Some of the dishes are things Frankel's Jewish ancestors likely never dreamed of eating on Hanukkah (or ever), such as Shepherd's Pie and Thai Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaves with Jasmine Rice.
"People who keep kosher don't want to eat matzah balls and brisket every single day of the week," she said.
Most Hanukkah meals feature traditional potato latkes, which can be time-consuming if made from scratch. Meant to be fried in oil, the pancakes can't be done in a slow cooker, but Frankel likes to pair them with long-simmering slow cooker meats. Among the options are Garlicky Pot Roast, flavorful Coq Au Vin or Falling-Off-The-Bone Short Ribs, flavored by the meat's marbling and bones.
Cooking meat slowly in the crock pot makes the meat softer and more flavorful, Frankel said.
"People always know they're gonna eat latkes for one of the nights of Hanukkah, but they don't know what they're going to serve with them," she said. "If you can have your entree in the bag, that's much more doable."
Oil is a central theme in the Hanukkah story as well as Hanukkah cooking. So on the holiday, Frankel will make non-crockpot dishes such as fish and chips, tempura vegetables and sufganiyot -- deep-fried yeasty jelly doughnuts that are popular in Israel and growing in popularity here.
Of course, she'll also fry latkes, using a mixture of white russet potatoes and shredded sweet potatoes.
Frankel uses all types of oil for frying and shares three important rules: Never re-use oil. Buy a good thermometer to keep your oil from getting too hot. And pay attention -- don't leave frying food unattended.
Modern, kosher food is Frankel's specialty. She founded Shallots Bistro, an upscale kosher restaurant in Skokie, and has helped elevate kosher fine dining around the U.S. She's cooked for many famous people, including President Barack Obama, Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Michael Bloomberg, Steven Spielberg and Ivanka Trump. A mother of three, Frankel now does freelance food consulting through LaurasKosherKitchen.com.
Frankel acknowledges that slow cookers sometimes conjure up images of overcooked, mushy meat, but her recipes offer a different view. One example is browning the meat first as a way to bring out added flavor.
Frankel originally just used her crockpot for Friday night Shabbat dinners, a perfect option since religious laws prohibit using the stove after sundown. Then she realized she could make creative, imaginative meals with it, and started using her crockpot all the time. The idea for the cookbook was born.
"A lot of people think you can't dress up the food that comes out of (the slow cooker), but that's not true," she said.
Regardless if you keep kosher (which prohibits pork, shellfish and the combination of meat and dairy, among other restrictions), the recipes in Frankel's cookbook are appealing to all types of diners, especially as the temperatures drop.
"If you keep kosher, you're bound by rules ... but Hanukkah lets you be free to play food-wise." she said. "Plus, as it gets colder out and people are busy, it's just nice to come home and have dinner waiting for you."
Slow cooker tipsSkokie-based chef Laura Frankel offered a few slow cooker suggestions:
• DO consider using the crockpot for melted chocolate. You can dip food and it keeps the chocolate at an even temperature.
• DO compare models when buying a slow cooker, as all are not created equal. Frankel's favorite is an All-Clad 6½ quart oval model with a Teflon-coated aluminum insert. The insert can double as a saute pan.
• DO brown the meat before you put it in the slow cooker. It will coax out its fullest flavor.
• DON'T try making vegetable dishes in the slow cooker.
• DON'T repeatedly lift the lid to check on the cooking process. Every time the lid is lifted, you'll need to add an additional 20 minutes of cooking time.
• DON'T think you have to do all the preparation that morning. You can do food preparation ahead of time and then cook it in the crockpot.