When the sun descends below the horizon tomorrow evening, the holiday of Hannukah will begin. The Festival of Lights, as this commemoration of the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem following the Maccabee revolt in the second century BCE is known, is today less a pious religious holiday than a yearly celebration bringing family together over games, gifts, and grub. But before we get into the grub, a little more background information. As the story goes, after the revolt, the Jewish synagogue was desecrated. Judah Maccabee, the leader, ordered the temple cleaned and restored, and the menorah – an oil lamp that traditionally burned all night – to be re-lit. Upon entering the temple, however, they discovered only enough oil remained for one night, whereas it would take at least a week to replenish the supply. Still, the lamp was lit, and it miraculously burned for eight days and nights. Today, the miracle of the oil is celebrated through consumption – aka, fried foods! And, Rome, with its historical Jewish population and its never-ending quest to match the greater-Midwest in enthusiasm for frying anything and everything, proves to be the perfect culinary match for this festive holiday.
Unfortunately, Jewish Rome’s greatest culinary contribution to the city (nay, the world!), the carciofi alla giudea (Jewish-style fried artichoke), is woefully out of season at the moment. And so, while you could still find it on the menus of some enterprising restaurants in the Ghetto, the sustainable foodie in me recommends you stick with something a little more seasonal. Fortunately, there are plenty of options in this oil-slicked town. A traditional fritto misto at any Roman restaurant will certainly fit the bill, provided you go with the vegetable option and skip the fried shrimp and other non-Kosher shellfish. Stop by Dar Filettaro near Campo de’ Fiori for a beautifully battered piece of fried cod (baccala). Indulge your Sicilian side with an arancino from Mondo Arancino (various locations) or Mizzica (near Piazza Bologna) – these deep fried, battered, and stuffed rice balls give those wimpy little Roman suppli a serious complex.
The one thing you won’t find, however, is what we think of as the traditional latke back in the States (or at least at my house). These shredded potato pancakes are a staple at any dreidel party, and, actually, quite easy to make.
• 1 pound potatoes, peeled
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 1 large egg
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil
1. Coarsely grate the potatoes, transferring them to a bowl of cold water as you go. When all are grated and soaking, drain well in colander.
2. Get a large kitchen towel, and spread the drained potatoes and chopped onion on it, then roll the towel up from the end as tightly as possible to squeeze at any excess liquid.
3. Transfer the mixture to a mixing owl, and add the egg and salt.
4. Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high until just shy of smoking.
5. Fry your latkes, each should be about two tablespoons worth of mixture. Take care not to crowd them in your skillet, and flip after about five minutes.
6. If not eating right away, keep them warm in the oven, although it’s pretty hard to resist crispy potato deliciousness, straight out of the oil.
7. Serve warm, traditionally with applesauce and sour cream. Applesauce is totally another make at home venture, and I suggest a nice Greek yogurt if you can’t find sour cream (panna acida) here in Rome.