Crispy Polenta Fritters for Hanukkah
Plus: "The Four Questions" Interview with Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet
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Hear ye, hear ye, Hanukkah is arriving early this year! I repeat, Hanukkah is arriving early (November 28)! To kick off the next few weeks of fried food splendor, I have a recipe for Crispy Polenta Fritters for you. I’m also thrilled to welcome The Amateur Gourmet, Adam Roberts for this week’s The Four Questions Interview. I’m a long time fan of his work, so particularly excited about this one.
But before we get to all that, let’s take a quick look at The Jewish Table over the last month. To those of you who aren’t subscribed to the weekly newsletter yet, here’s what you missed:
A recipe for Pastrami Spiced Schnitzel that combines two of the most desirable Ashkenazi foods into one Ashkenazi super food.
An ode to your Borscht Belt bubbe’s breakfast of choice: “Just a Nice Half Grapefruit,” plus some tips to bring your morning citrus to the next level.
A dive into Joan Nathan’s Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous as part of my “Adventures in Cooking My Cookbook Collection” series, and an adaptation of her recipe for Winter Squash with Caramelized Onions (Cassolita).
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I love potato latkes. Like, *love love* them. Ethereally crisp and lacy-edged, creamy and custard-centered, or heavy and oversaturated with oil - honestly, whatever. I will take them all. Throw on some apple sauce AND sour cream (team both, for life!), and I am happy.
But I do worry a little that American Jews are too singularly focused on potato latkes. The starchy fritters have become so deeply tied to this country’s Hanukkah celebrations, that I think we lose sight of the fact that the core of the holiday’s culinary traditions is about oil, not potatoes. As I wrote a few years back for The Kitchn:
The holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a small Judean army called the Maccabees recaptured it from the ancient Greeks. According to legend, the Maccabees were only able to find enough olive oil to light the Temple’s menorah (candelabra) for one night. But miraculously, the oil lasted for eight full days and nights. Today, Jewish families all over the world celebrate their own “miracle of oil” by indulging in all matter of fried foods.
So yes - a miracle of oil, not spuds. Potatoes, which are a “New World” crop (native to Peru) didn’t enter into the Hanukkah equation until the 18th or 19th century, when they became widely adopted across Eastern Europe. But once they caught on, they quickly dominated the scene - at least in Ashkenazi cuisine.
Jewish families around the world celebrate Hanukkah with a wide variety of non-latke fritters, like Moroccan Jews’ freeform sfenj doughnuts, the Sephardi leek patties, keftes de prasa, and Greek Jews’ honey-soaked loukoumades. But while I often use Hanukkah as a chance to bring global Jewish fritters to my family’s table, I also like to go rogue. With sizzling oil as my guide, almost anything goes.
My kids love briny foods, so I have started serving fried pickles and olives on the first night of Hanukkah. (More on that in an upcoming newsletter!) Schnitzel usually makes an appearance sometime mid-holiday, and I have seriously considered (though haven’t yet gotten up the courage to actually do it) taking a page from the American county fair play book and deep frying Oreos.
But today, I offer these Crispy Polenta Fritters that are decidedly non-traditional, but might just become a Hanukkah standard in my house. They transform a pot of cooked polenta into a crunchy, decadent treat. Topped with crispy Panko breadcrumbs and threaded through with mozzarella, parmesan, and scallions, they hit all the right notes for fried food bliss. Will they replace latkes on my table? Never. But there are eight holiday nights to fill and plenty of room at the table.
Crispy Polenta Fritters for Hanukkah
Serve these crisp, savory fritters with marinara sauce spiked with harissa, with pesto, or with your favorite dipping sauce.
Makes about 32 fritters
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups water
1 cup (150 g) quick-cooking polenta
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (140 g) grated mozzarella (not fresh mozz, the block kind)
1/2 cup (50 g) grated parmesan
3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion (white and green parts)
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley
Sunflower oil, for frying
3 large eggs, for coating
Panko breadcrumbs, for coating
Add the milk and water to a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Bring to a low boil, then turn heat to medium and slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly, followed by the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the polenta thickens, 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the brand.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and immediately stir in the grated mozzarella, grated parmesan, scallion, and parsley. Transfer the mixture to a bowl to firm up and cool to room temperature, about 1 hour.
In a medium saucepan, heat about 2 inches of vegetable oil over medium heat until shimmering (350F/180C), and line a large plate with paper towels. Meanwhile, add the eggs to a shallow bowl and beat well. Add a layer of breadcrumbs to another shallow bowl.
Scoop out rounded tablespoons of the mixture (I used a small cookie scoop and it worked very well) and form into balls. Dip the balls in the egg, allowing the excess to drip off, then coat on all sides in the breadcrumbs.
Working in batches of 4 to 6 (depending on how big your saucepan is, be careful not to overcrowd the pan), slip the coated polenta balls into the oil and cook, gently stirring or flipping once if they are not quite fully submerged, until deep golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes per batch. Transfer fritters to the paper towel-lined plate to drain briefly. Sprinkle with a little more salt, and serve immediately.
A heads up for folks who just can’t get enough latkes. On November 22, I’m going to be part of an All About Latkes panel at the Streicker Center celebrating the iconic Hanukkah treat. Join me, food writers Jake Cohen, Jeff Yoskowitz, and Gabriella Gershenson, and artisanal latke maker Sophie Rand (of Luxe Latkes) in-person or online. Register here.
The Four Questions:
With Adam Roberts of The Amateur Gourmet
Adam Roberts (AKA “The Amateur Gourmet”) and I go way back. He just didn’t know that until recently. Adam started his blog in the early days of food blogging (2004!), and quickly rose to the top thanks to his engaging writing and his ability to bring readers along with him as he experimented (both successfully and not!) in the kitchen.
Over nearly two decades, he has parlayed his original blog into a career of writing cookbooks and television screenplays, launching his own successful Substack newsletter, and starting a popular podcast called Lunch Therapy that features lunchtime wisdom from today’s top food writers.
I don’t remember precisely when I first found out about Roberts’ work (likely somewhere around 2006 or 2007), but I was immediately hooked by his mensch-y personality, his humor, and his honesty. So I was thrilled to have an excuse to reach out and ask him to be a guest for my The Four Questions interview series. And I was even more thrilled when he agreed! Below, Roberts shares his favorite Boca Raton bagel shop, recounts the accidental gefilte fish joke that killed at summer camp, and passes along some great advice for anyone who has ever experienced imposter syndrome. (So…everyone.)
How would you describe your relationship with Jewish food (good/bad/ugly)?
I have a curiosity about it and a sentimental attachment to some of it — especially when I go visit my family in Florida — but in terms of what I cook at home, it’s not really top of the list. Funny enough, though, the cuisine that I most gravitate to, Italian food (pastas, braises, cakes) has a lot of crossover with the Jewish food that I ate growing up: especially the emphasis on garlic. And cakes over pies. So it’s probably more complex than just saying that I love it or hate it. Being as culturally Jewish as I am, I feel like all of the food that I make, in some way, is Jewish food.
What Jewish dishes from your childhood do you still crave?
Bagels, bagels, bagels. In Oceanside, Long Island, where I was born, there is an incredible bagel shop called Stuff n’Bagels where they would slather on the cream cheese — so much, that you wouldn’t believe it. They had a jukebox that always played Elvis, and it was across the street from the Oceanside dump, which you could sometimes smell on the way (in a good way?). My go-to was an onion bagel.
When when we moved to Florida (Boca Raton), I would go with my mother and grandmother to Bagelworks. They had something called “the works,” which was a bagel with your choice of THREE spreads. I felt like a king eating that! I’d do a lox spread, a scallion cream cheese, and a whitefish salad. Washed down with orange juice, it was as good as food gets.
I also have a real fondness for stuffed cabbage. Nobody in my family cooked, but my grandmother sometimes boiled cabbage and sprinkled it with Mrs. Dash when she was on a diet (which was often). So that smell of cooked cabbage, which is repugnant to some people, has a real place in my heart.
Is there a Jewish dish that you think is underrated (or overrated!) - or generally misunderstood?
The one that feels the most perplexing and fascinating to me is gefilte fish. I remember going to Jewish camp (Camp Kinder Ring in New York) in 4th grade and going fishing with the counselors. They asked what kind of fish I wanted to catch and I said, “gefilte” and they cracked up laughing. I honestly had no idea why! Now I think that was pretty funny of me.
My father-in-law Steve is an amazing cook, but not at all Jewish. When I first met him he told me that he’d once tried to make gefilte fish and couldn’t get over how disgusting it was. He asked me if it was supposed to be so gelatinous and flavorless. I said “I guess so, it’s good with horseradish?” And when I told my mom that story, she was offended and said, “He’s wrong… gefilte fish is delicious!”
What is one favorite piece of yenta-y advice (food related or otherwise) a guest has ever shared while recording an episode of Lunch Therapy?
One of my recent guests, Hetty McKinnon (author of To Asia, With Love) told me that there’s no such thing as an original recipe…that everything’s been done before, in some way. I found that super liberating, especially as I’m working now on my own cookbooks with original recipes. I often have imposter syndrome, that sense of: “Who am I to charge people money for my take on spaghetti with meatballs?” But Hetty calmed me down and said what they’re paying for is your voice, your perspective, your willingness to hold their hand and walk them through it. So that made me feel a lot better.