Holiday Foods for Everyone

This season of festivity and family embraces cultural diversity

By Corbie Hill
Photos by Matt Williams Photography

As we near year’s end, everyone has something to celebrate—yet we don’t all celebrate the same. There’s Christmas and Thanksgiving, yes, but also Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. There are people slow-roasting brisket or turkey, and others who haven’t eaten meat in years—and won’t have it in their kitchens. Yet, what binds all these traditions together is the desire to see friends and family, to feast, and to celebrate.

Hanukkah Gets Healthy

In a Hanukkah meal, oil is the star of the show.
It’s symbolic of the Hanukkah Miracle, in which a tiny quantity of oil kept the menorah alight in the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days. Today, it’s more commonly incorporated into Hanukkah meals as frying oil. Add to that the other traditional Hanukkah foods—dairy and brisket—and you have a holiday feast that tastes great, but isn’t always super healthy.“Growing up, we always had my dad’s macaroni and cheese and tuna salad and latkes, so not the healthiest approach,” says Rachael Weisman.
    She’s a health coach, a healthy-cooking teacher, and a personal chef, and she recently ran a special program—the Holiday Classic Side Makeover: Healthy Holiday Foods You Can Really Celebrate—at the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center. This course wasn’t specific to Hanukkah, she points out, but could be applied to any holiday in the season.
    Weisman’s idea wasn’t to deprive feasters of the foods they love (she’s not going to force everyone to eat carrots, she jokes), but instead to find healthier ways to achieve beloved familiar tastes.
    “Traditionally, the two main things fried for Hanukkah are latkes, which are potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled donuts,” Weisman says.
    One way to make latkes healthier is to cut back on the potatoes: Fried latkes can be made with any root vegetable or even cauliflower, which can either be mixed with white potatoes or used instead of white potatoes. Or, you can keep the potatoes and dial down the oil, as Weisman does with her oven-fried latkes (see her recipe on page 112). The result still tastes like childhood memories, she says. “I didn’t want to take that away entirely, so I’ve got a lighter oil version that’s baked in the oven,” Weisman says.
    Oil isn’t bad for you, in and of itself, and Weisman has suggestions to bring it into Hanukkah meals in healthy quantities. She recommends getting a really nice bottle of extra virgin olive oil to make a vinaigrette. The brisket, a traditional main course, pairs well with a side salad topped with vinaigrette.
    The side salad can also bring dairy into the meal, and Weisman’s suggestion for that is similar to her suggestion for oil: Splurge on a small amount of really nice cheese, she says, as you get more taste per bite from the good stuff. You can put crumbled feta or goat cheese on the salad with your vinaigrette.
Roasted vegetables serve the same purpose, she adds. They need oil, but not much of it, and then you can sprinkle a nice cheese on top once they’re out of the oven.
    For ingredients that will be used in moderation, she suggests making an indulgent purchase to a higher quality. “I splurge on them because I’m not going to eat a lot of them,” Weisman says. “It’s in there and it honors the stories that are being celebrated without necessarily being the only thing on the plate.”

Visit the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center site at

Rachael Weisman’s Baked Latkes with Applesauce Topping

1 pound russet potatoes
    (approximately 2 medium potatoes)
1 egg
½ small yellow onion
2 T potato starch
1 T olive oil
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400°. Wash and dry the potatoes, leaving
the skin on. Shred the potatoes in a food processor or with a grater. Place shredded potatoes in a colander. One handful at a time, squeeze extra moisture out of the shredded potatoes over a bowl, then put the potatoes into a separate mixing bowl. Allow the liquid from the potatoes to sit for a couple of minutes, then pour off the liquid. You will have some potato starch left at the bottom of the bowl. Shred the onion in the food processor or with a grater. Put the shredded onion into a fine mesh sieve and press out as much extra liquid as you can. Add the potatoes. Add the egg to the bowl with the leftover potato starch and beat. Add egg mixture to the potatoes. Add the potato starch, baking powder, and salt; mix all ingredients thoroughly. Grease one cookie sheet with the olive oil and put it in the oven for a couple of minutes to heat. Remove from the oven. Using a heaping tablespoon as a guide for size, quickly form 10 latkes and place on the cookie sheet while it’s still hot. Bake for 10 minutes, then flip them and bake another 15 minutes. (You may want to flip them one more time and bake for another 5 minutes to get even more golden brown and crispy.) Serve immediately.

Out of Africa

Food is also central to Kwanzaa, the African-American and Pan-African holiday celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. Locally, there are public Kwanzaa celebrations in Cary and Durham, most notably the African American Dance Ensemble’s long-running KwanzaaFest, which is celebrating its 34th year.
    Raleigh resident Gina Pehot will be a vendor at this year’s event, and she is intimately familiar with the foods of Kwanzaa. Her family is from central Africa and her husband, Blaise, was born there. Growing up, she ate a lot of African dishes. In fact, she hopes to share the food she loves and open an African-inspired restaurant in the Raleigh area by mid-2019.
    “Kwanzaa is a celebration of faith and love,” she says. “A lot of it is inspired from our Swahili language in Congo, which is an international language in Africa.”
    The holiday is all about love, family, and togetherness, Pehot says, and many of its traditions are expressed through food. One of her favorites is Mikate. These African doughnuts, also called Puff-Puff, are traditionally served during Kwanzaa as well as other celebrations in south, west, and central Africa. However, as Pehot points out, anyone can enjoy a doughnut—no matter what holidays they celebrate.

Mikate (mee-ka-tay)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup self-rising flour
1 package instant yeast
½ T salt
½ cup water*
1 cup milk*
¾ cup sugar
1½ T vanilla extract
Vegetable Oil (for frying)

*Milk & water should be at room temperature.

Instructions: In a small bowl, add yeast and water. Stir until yeast dissolves. Set aside. In mixing bowl, combine
both flours and salt. Add sugar, vanilla extract, milk, and yeast mixture. Mix batter until smooth (small lumps may appear). Cover mixture tightly with aluminum foil, place kitchen towel over covered bowl, and set aside for 1 hour. After 1 hour, mixture will have doubled in size, with air bubbles. In a medium pot, pour oil about halfway. Heat oil to 325°. Using a tablespoon, spoon mixture into a round form and drop into oil. (Drop eight at a time.) With a slotted spoon, turn doughnuts frequently for even browning. Fry doughnuts for about 5 minutes, or until they are a nice, golden brown. Set doughnuts on a paper towel to absorb oil. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes.

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