Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Busy In Brooklyn blogger and Millennial Kosher author Chanie Apfelbaum shares a Greek salad recipe she makes during Hanukkah, alongside her other favorite holiday dishes.
If you aren’t familiar with the origins of Hanukkah, it may be a holiday that brings to mind gold chocolate coins and eight days of presents. But Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates a miracle that happened long ago. The story of Hanukkah is about a menorah that burned for eight days with very little oil.
This took place in Jerusalem in the second century, when the Greeks were in power. The Greeks came into the temple and destroyed everything in it, except for a small flask of oil. And that little flask of oil kept the menorah burning for eight days until a new supply of oil could be found. So that’s what we celebrate during Hanukkah, and the way we celebrate can be summed up in one word: food.
Since oil is central to the Hanukkah story, everything we cook to celebrate revolves around it. I especially love making a lot of Greek recipes during this time, since that ties back to the original Hanukkah miracle as well. Oil is liberally used to fry things, like crispy potato latkes so full of oil that they practically melt on your tongue. I like using olive oil—a Greek staple—to make chocolate olive oil gelt cookies, a favorite treat for my kids. My birthday actually takes place during Hanukkah, so it’s double the fun for me: extra celebrating, extra candles, and of course, extra treats.
Watch the video below to see how cooking with olive oil can be good for your health:
But of course, filling up solely on fried foods would give anyone a stomach ache—in my experience, you need something to balance it out. Several years ago I was prepping for a Hanukkah party, trying to think of some sort of salad I could serve that would still fit into the traditions of Hanukkah. It made sense to do a Greek salad, but I didn’t want to make just any Greek salad. After all, this was a Hanukkah Greek salad, not just an appetizer you’re ordering at a restaurant while you wait for your main course. So you know what I did to set mine apart? I made feta croutons.
Here’s the secret to getting the feta croutons just right. First, don’t use feta cheese in brine because it tends to be too wet and soggy to hold its texture. Second, add a small carrot to the oil when you’re frying. It keeps the oil clean and you won’t get any sediment in the oil. You also want to pat the feta really well so that it’s dry before you drop the cubes into the frying pan.
I used lettuce, onion, black olives, grape tomatoes, and cucumber for the base of the salad. Then, I whipped up an easy lemon dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, honey, salt, and pepper. Both the base of the salad and the dressing can be prepared while the croutons are frying, so the whole dish comes together really quickly.
The salad was a hit at the party—quite a feat when it’s on the table next to favorites like latkes and sweet noodle kugel. I plan on making it again this year, even though I’ll just be celebrating Hanukkah with my immediate family. Earlier this year, I had COVID-19. My symptoms were very severe and had to go to the hospital. It’s been a really tough year, which has certainly made me look at Hanukkah through a different lens. Normally it’s a time to celebrate with big parties and lots of loved ones, but this year I am just as happy to celebrate with my family and just be thankful we are all healthy and safe. I’m usually so busy during Hanukkah, but it’s nice to just slow down this year. We have so much to be thankful for.
Food is such an important part of Hanukkah, but it’s important to remember that this is really a holiday about light. The whole miracle is about the menorah continuing to burn, each day brighter than the last. This year has been dark. But if there is a way where you can be that light for people who are feeling lost in the darkness, how powerful it is to be able to be that. That’s what I want to focus on this holiday season: bringing light and positivity to the world in any way I can. It only takes a little oil to burn brightly.
Chanie Apfelbaum’s Greek salad with feta croutons
For the salad:
2 heads romaine lettuce
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut in half
1 English cucumber, sliced
1 red onion, thinly sliced into half rings
1 cup black olives, sliced
Lemons, for serving
For the feta croutons:
1 package feta cheese, cut into cubes
1 cup panko crumbs
1/2 tsp dried basil
1/4 tsp lemon zest
1/3 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup canola oil, for frying
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
1. For the croutons, prepare three bowls for dredging. Place the flour in one bowl and season with salt and pepper. Place the eggs in a second bowl and season with salt and pepper. In a third bowl, combine the panko crumbs, basil, lemon zest, salt and pepper.
2. Heat the oil in a saucepan. I prefer to use a small saucepan so I can use less oil, a wider pan will require more oil to make it deep enough for frying. Add a raw carrot to your cooking oil to keep it clean during frying. Dip the feta cubes in flour, then egg, and then panko crumbs. Fry in oil until golden brown and drain on paper towels. You may make the croutons a few hours in advance and warm in the oven to crisp up before serving, if necessary.
3. For the dressing, add all the ingredients to a container and shake vigorously before serving.
4. For the salad, spread all the ingredients out on a platter and top with feta croutons. Drizzle with lemon dressing.
As told to Emily Laurence
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