This year, Hanukkah from Mexico City


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At sundown on the night of Wednesday, Nov. 27, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins, directly followed on Nov. 28 by the turkey-centric all-American holiday of Thanksgiving. Not surprisingly, there are ideas about what to name this convergence of holidays.

Thanksgivukkah (now trademarked) is what I've heard most. Pretty hard to say and exceptionally difficult to spell. The next time it happens will be about 77,798 years from now. Or sooner.

According to the Chabad.org Date Converter, Thankgivukkah also could happen in 2070 and in 2165. If calendars are not modified. It seems also to have occurred in 1888. Not sure what they called it.

We who celebrate Hanukkah can do so for eight days and nights! Thanksgiving and its bountiful leftovers fit in perfectly.

Because this year is different from all other years, I wanted to spice things up. I asked Pati Jinich -- the author of "Pati's Mexican Table" and host of a PBS cooking show and chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, D.C. -- for some Hanukkah ideas. She shared her Russet, Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes with crunchy, citrusy Fennel and Lime Crema. Welcome at any Thankgivukkah table. But on the first night, before turkey takes the focus, pair them with Sweet and Salty Salmon, an irresistible recipe from her new book.

Pati Jinich was raised Jewish in Mexico City, which boasts a large Jewish community within a very Catholic country. Pati felt lucky that she got to celebrate all the holidays growing up. "Treading between two worlds," she said.

Her extended family maintained a more Jewish identity, especially her paternal grandparents, who emigrated from Poland prior to the Mexican Revolution. At their house, they hosted Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and worshiped in temple on the High Holy Days.

"In my grandmother Bobe's kitchen, her most treasured item was a big jar of schmaltz," she said. "She made gribenes [chicken-skin cracklings] every Friday. On Passover, she'd cook matzoh brei in the schmaltz." Her food was Ashkenazi-Jewish: Prune and carrot tzimmes, cholent, potato kugel, chicken soup with knaidlach (matzoh balls).

Her maternal grandmother, whom they called Lali, emigrated from Austria at the start of World War II. "At Lali's house," she said, "it was more about the food than the religion." She served elegant, sophisticated dishes: Roasted duck with crispy potatoes, chopped liver, sweet-and-sour zucchini in cream and European-style pastries.

Both sets of grandparents adapted and transformed the dishes from their home countries, adding Mexican touches, layered flavors, spices. "Building bridges between their new country and their past."

Pati didn't cook much at home. She considered herself an intellectual, an academic. Yet while she had her nose in the books, most everyone else in the family was passionately involved with food. Her Austrian great-aunt, Annie Junek, survived the concentration camps and reunited with family in Mexico. "She almost died, she was in horrible shape," said Pati. Luckily, she recovered. As a self-taught pastry chef, she opened the first Viennese pastry shop in Acapulco.

Pati's mother, an art dealer, worked during the day but in the evenings she poured over cookbooks. She'd describe the recipes she planned to make over the weekend. Elaborate, laborious dishes, recalled Pati. "She cooked with an extraordinary sense of taste; nothing was ever too spicy."

Two of Pati's sisters became food professionals. One owns a restaurant in Mexico City; the other has a bakery in Miami.

After marrying, Pati and her husband moved to the U.S., living for a time in Texas. She was studying political science. Had her first baby. The couple now have three sons. Pati cooked only for them. She missed Mexico.

"I was lonely and homesick. I was insanely nostalgic for Mexico. For my family."

To deal with her feelings, she began making the Mexican food that she remembered. Then adapting it according to things she learned from people she was meeting.

"There are so many Mexicans in Texas. I started asking them for recipes. 'How do you make your red rice? How do you make your beans?' " Her repertoire of dishes grew.

While finishing her undergraduate thesis, she interned at the Dallas public television station. As a production assistant, she began helping with cooking shows, pitching stories. She traveled to Mexico with Chef Stephen Pyles to film segments for "New Tastes from Texas."

"I loved seeing Mexico again," she said, "traveling, studying the history." For the first time, she was looking at her home country through its cuisine.

Her academic career continued after the family moved to Washington, D.C. She earned a graduate degree in Latin-American Studies at Georgetown University. She was hired at a prestigious policy think tank. She was miserable.

"So I kept working harder," she said. It didn't help.

"Pati, get in the kitchen," her husband told her. As she explained: "My dear husband seemed to have turned out to be a macho man. I told him, 'No. I'm going to keep on studying and working.' "

After a year of agonizing, she made her break. A radical career change is how she describes it.

She quit her job and began attending cooking school in Maryland. Pretty quickly, her new career took off. She started writing about food, teaching cooking classes, and now there's her cookbook and her show on PBS, "Pati's Mexican Table." Season three begins in January.

In her book, she talks about being an obsessive food professional. Which comes easily to her, she writes "as a Jewish-Mexican mother of three sons."

Her goal is to show how Mexican home cooking can be fresher, healthier and more delicious than the dishes in restaurants. Not all spicy, meaty or paved with heavy cheese.

What makes Jewish-Mexican food special and unique? I asked.

"In Mexico, Jewish cooking is blessed with all the richness of our diverse ingredients and sauces."

Brighter flavors, more brilliant colors. Blintzes filled with queso fresco instead of farmers' cheese. Graced with jams from juicy-sweet Mexican fruits, such as blackberries, quinces and mangoes. At Hanukkah, shops sell sufganiyot, the Israeli fried jelly doughnuts, but filled instead with dulce de leche.

What about Thanksgivikkuh? How will they celebrate this year?

As immigrants, like her grandparents, she said, she and her family embrace Thanksgiving. She may have just started cooking in Dallas, but she's come to understand the meaning of food in a culture.

Her menu will include her Mexican Thanksgiving Turkey with Chorizo, Pecan, Apple and Corn Bread Stuffing from her book. Her latkes. Maybe the Citrus Sweet Potatoes with Chili de Arbol that her friends love. The boys will get Hanukkah gelt (foil-wrapped chocolate coins). They're expecting 30 to 40 people.

She said, "We're grateful to be here."

Russet, Sweet Potato and Apple Latkes

These tender, lightly spiced latkes are even good cold, snuck from the fridge. Don't skip the Fennel and Lime Crema (recipe below) as it makes the dish.

I grated the russet and sweet potatoes and apple in my food processor with the shredding disk but Pati prefers to do it by hand, shredding them on the large holes of a box grater. Definitely grate the onion by hand so it's fine enough. White onions are used in Mexican cooking in almost every meal, writes Pati. Don't substitute Vidalia or another sweet onion. "They're too sweet for the Mexican kitchen." Pati's grandfather enjoyed munching whole white onions raw, alternating with bites of buttered bread.

1½ pounds russet baking potatoes (about 2 large)

1½ pounds sweet potatoes (about 2 medium sweet potatoes)

1 large Granny Smith apple (about ½ pound)

1/2 cup grated white onion (about 1 medium onion)

2 large eggs, well beaten

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1½ teaspoons kosher or sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder (or substitute another ground chile that you have handy)

Pinch ground cinnamon (Pati uses Ceylon or "true" cinnamon, preferred for Mexican cooking)

Vegetable oil for frying

Fennel and Lime Crema, for serving

Peel russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, apple and onion and shred them, placing them as you go into a large bowl filled halfway with cold water. Let mixture sit a few minutes then drain well. Place in several layers of cheesecloth or a cotton dish towel and wring "energetically," removing as much liquid as you can.

Rinse and dry bowl. Return latke mixture to it, adding eggs, flour, baking powder, salt, ancho chile and cinnamon. Mix well with your hands. (I added another egg at this point to make it more cohesive.)

In large, heavy skillet (I used cast-iron), heat about ½ inch oil over medium-high heat. After 3 to 4 minutes, test the oil; add a teaspoon of the mix, if it bubbles happily all around the edges, it is ready. Working so as not to crowd the pan, spoon in latkes of about 3 tablespoons each, pressing mixture firmly. Pati uses a large serving spoon or her hands to shape and firmly press them into flattened ovals.

Cook until first side is crisp and golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Flip to the other side, let it crisp and brown as well, 3 to 4 minutes, reducing heat if necessary. Add oil to pan as needed.

Drain latkes on paper towels then transfer to a wire rack on a baking sheet. Keep warm in a 250-degree oven, or cover and reheat later on. Serve with Fennel and Lime Crema.

Makes about 18 to 20.

-- Pati Jinich

Fennel and Lime Crema

1 cup Mexican crema or sour cream (I used sour cream)

1/2 cup finely diced fennel bulb

1 tablespoon chopped fennel fronds

Zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste

In a small mixing bowl, combine all the ingredients. Done!

Keeps several days in the fridge. Makes about 1½ cups.

-- Pati Jinich

Sweet and Salty Salmon

"Chiles marry so well with soy sauce and ginger that you find that flavor trio not only in Mexico but also in the Far East, where Mexican chiles were introduced."

1 cup packed grated piloncillo or dark brown sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons minced jalapeno or Serrano chile (seeded, if desired)

2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

6 6-ounce salmon fillets, rinsed and patted dry

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro leaves for garnish

2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions (white and light green parts) for garnish

In medium saucepan, combine piloncillo or brown sugar, soy sauce, lime juice, chile, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring, a couple minutes, just until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool.

Place salmon in a baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Pour marinade on top. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to 2 hours, spooning marinade over 1 or 2 times.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove salmon from fridge at least 10 minutes before cooking. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, depending on thickness, until fish flakes easily with fork. Place salmon on a platter or plates, garnish with cilantro and scallions and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

-- Adapted from "Pati's Mexican Table" by Pati Jinich (Houghton Mifflin, 2013, $30)


Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com and on Twitter @mmmrubin.

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