Vegetarian Black Beans Worth Crowing About

The Black Beans with the Secret Ingredient

Felicia Sanchez's Centre Street Cafe black beans have a smoky flavor and a mysterious ingredient.

For many years, I’ve been enjoying the black beans at one of my favorite restaurants, Centre Street Café.  They have a wonderful smoky flavor, but there was a certain something—a little kick—that I just couldn’t place. Recently, I learned the secret behind these delicious black beans.

A little while back, video producer Kate Raisz of 42°N Films and I asked Centre Street Café chef/owner Felicia Sanchez if we could shoot a video of her making a dish featuring fresh and local foods for a project we were working on.  The project’s on hold, but we got a sweet little video out of it that just screams “fresh and local.”  We’ll post the video of Felicia making her delectable Mexicali Composed Salad soon.

Chili Garlic Sauce

Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

As if the video was not enough, Felicia also generously shared her black bean recipe, which is one of the components of her Mexicali Composed Salad.  I finally learned her secret: Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce, a blend of ground chilies and garlic. When I tracked down the Tuong Ot Toi sauce at my local grocery store, I saw it was bright red with a familiar rooster logo.  I discovered that Huy Fong Foods, the California company that makes Tuong Ot Toi sauce, also makes Tuong Ot Sriracha, which is also a bright red Asian hot sauce with the same rooster logo.

Sriracha

Tuong Ot Sriracha

Tuong Ot Sriracha is a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt and is based on a sauce that originated in the city of Srirachai in Thailand. The company’s founder, David Tran, is an ethnic Chinese Vietnamese farmer who was born in the Year of the Rooster, hence the rooster logo.

Once you’ve bought some Liquid Smoke and your Tuong Ot Toi sauce, the recipe is quite simple.  You don’t even have to soak the beans before cooking them. According to Felicia, the real secret to making good beans is to not let the pot come to a boil, because boiling toughens beans.  But I think it’s the rooster.

Centre Street Café Black Beans

From Felicia Sanchez, Chef/Owner of Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Ingredients

1 lb. black beans (you don’t need to soak them)
1/2 onion, sliced thinly
1 TB Kosher salt
1 TB cumin
1 TB paprika
1 TB cider vinegar
1 TB canola oil
2 TB liquid smoke
2 ½ TB minced garlic
1 ½ TB Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

Preparation
Rinse and sort through the black beans to pick out any stones or dirt.

Put the beans into a large pot with all the other ingredients.  Cover with at least 2 inches of water.

Bring the beans almost to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. (Don’t boil the beans, because it will toughen them.)

Simmer the beans until soft (approximately 1 ½ hrs).

Keep beans covered with a little water; add water if necessary.

Makes approximately 6 ½ cups.

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“Lazy” Shoppers Guide to Sustainable Shrimp

ShrimpMy post, “Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?”, in which I confessed to feeling guilty about eating shrimp, prompted a lot of comments on the blog and Facebook.

Agrigirl Tammy, who’s based in Arizona and has a wonderful food blog, commented, “I have that farm raised = bad attitude and I love that you’re offering alternative opinions. As crazy as it sounds, we have a shrimp grower here in the desert.” And Jacquie from Dorchester wondered about buying shrimp from the local Asian markets in her neighborhood.

Hazel, who described herself as my “lazy cousin in Chicago,” but was energetic enough to write, said she hasn’t been buying much shrimp because they taste like iodine and asked for advice on where to buy it.  And Tibbs from Jamaica Plain said, “I’ve been ‘worrying’ and not doing anything, too,” and asked what questions I ask at the seafood counter and where I draw the line.

Figuring out how (and where) to buy good-tasting, healthy, sustainable shrimp is frustrating and time-consuming. While there’s tons of information about sustainable seafood out there–including downloadable wallet guides and free  smart phone apps–not everyone agrees on what’s sustainable and the information changes all the time! So while I encourage you to read up on this stuff, if you don’t have time to do it yourself, here’s my “lazy” shoppers guide to sustainable shrimp.

What to Ask/Find Out

The best way to buy shrimp is to ask questions and/or read the label to find  about what you’re getting.  Just the fact that you’re asking will let the store know that you care about getting sustainable seafood.   If you can’t get any information or don’t like the answer, consider buying something else (or finding another store). Here are a few questions to ask:

  1. What’s it called? (There may be more than one name for the same shrimp.)
  2. Where’s it from?
  3. Is it wild or farmed?
  4. How was it caught or farmed?

What to Buy

  1. Buy local shrimp whenever possible. There’s a lot more domestic shrimp than I realized. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get fresh local fish, support your local fishing community.
  2. Domestic, wild, trap-caught shrimp are considered a best choice. Most wild shrimp are caught using huge nets (trawls) that scoop up sea turtles, fish, and other marine life as well as the shrimp. They throw this “bycatch” overboard, but it’s generally dead by the time they dump it. While some shrimpers do use fishing gear that keep turtles and other species from getting caught or allow them to escape, it’s best to try to buy shrimp that are caught with traps, because they pick up less bycatch.
  3. Domestic farmed shrimp are usually a better option than imported farmed shrimp. Plus, most people say they prefer the taste of domestic shrimp. As the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch points out, however, it takes an average of two pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed shrimp, so shrimp farming often uses more fish than it produces. Domestic shrimp farms (and some international ones) are improving their practices by using natural enclosed ecosystems but most haven’t solved the feed problem, so domestic wild shrimp are still usually a better choice than domestic farmed shrimp.
  4. Avoid farmed shrimp from Asia and South America. 90 percent of the shrimp in the US is imported from these regions. These environmentally-destructive farms are disease-prone, so they pump the shrimp with antibiotics and pesticides. According to Food and Water Watch, less than 2 percent of US seafood imports are inspected for contamination. While many seafood products have country of origin labels, wholesale markets and processed seafood products aren’t required to provide them. So if you don’t see a label or can’t ask your fishmonger where the shrimp are from, you should probably assume they’re selling imported farmed shrimp. While the fish stores in my friend Jacquie’s neighborhood are probably selling plenty of local fish, it’s unlikely that any of their shrimp are domestic. Personally, I’m going to try to draw the line at buying imported shrimp.
  5. Look for third-party certified products. A growing numbers of groups certify shrimp and other seafood products as sustainable. Unfortunately, there aren’t any federal or universally-agreed upon standards for what this means. Some certifiers have been criticized for “greenwashing” products that aren’t truly environmentally or socially sustainable.  Even if some of these certifiers are not as discerning as I’d like them to be, I still think you look for  any “eco-label” or sustainably certified shrimp at the stores where you usually shop and read their labels (or research them online at home).  At the very least, you’ll be able to get some information about what you’re buying.

Where to Buy It

  1. Your local seafood supplier or community supported fishery. If you’re lucky enough to have a local source for shrimp, like a fishmonger or a community-supported fishery, you’ll be able to get your questions answered and feel great about supporting the local economy. Your local food coop or natural food store may also be able to provide sustainable sources. Go for it if you can!
  2. Your Supermarket. Greenpeace USA profiles 20 seafood retailers in its excellent annual sustainable seafood report, Carting Away the Oceans. While none of the 20 retailers achieved a green “Good” ranking from the activist organization, the report noted that unsustainable seafoods like orange roughy and Chilean sea bass are sold in fewer places now and stores are getting more serious about supporting sustainability. In my experience, most of the large supermarkets sometimes or always carry wild shrimp, but it can be hard to find amid the cheap, imported, farmed-raised shrimp.
  3. Surprisingly, Target’s grocery division, SuperTarget, ranked first on Greenpeace’s list because it has eliminated farmed salmon from all of its stores. Wegmen’s, a snazzy family-owned chain with stores in a handful of states on the East Coast, ranked #2 and earned high praise; they sell farmed Belizean shrimp that sounds pretty sustainable.  I can’t wait until they open their first Boston store! Whole Foods Market, or “Whole Paycheck,” as we call them in our household, came in #3; in my experience, Whole Foods reliably offers many good choices–if you can afford them.

    Most of the other chains, including #5 Safeway (Carr’s, Dominick’s, Genuardi’s, Pavilions, Randall’s, Safeway, Tom Thumb, VONS), #6 Ahold (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s Food Market, Ukrop’s), and Walmart (#9), are in the process of asking suppliers to provide sustainable products, but they’re still selling all or mostly all imported shrimp.

    I was happy to learn that after an intense Greenpeace campaign last year, Trader Joe’s (#10) announced that it will stop selling all unsustainable seafood products by December 31, 2012 and will be adding more information on its labels. When I go to Trader Joe’s, I almost always find wild seafood, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever see any sustainable shrimp there.

    Costco came in at #14 and rightly so. I don’t recall ever seeing wild shrimp there, and they’re not great as far as labeling. They are, however, selling sustainable seafood online (see below). Personally, I’ve never tried asking a staffer about their seafood; I think I’d be more inclined to email the corporate headquarters.

  4. Check Out Third-Party Certifiers. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organization that certifies fisheries and is well regarded by Seafood Watch, although slammed by others.  Look for their seal on the packages, or check out their website for a list of shops and restaurants that carry the products.
  5. Order it online. If you can’t find a reliable source of sustainable shrimp locally and you really want shrimp, you may need to order it online.  I hesitate to even suggest this, because it tends to be expensive, and anyway, how sustainable can it be to have food products shipped to you? If I couldn’t find another source, I could see ordering in bulk once in a while as a treat.A growing number of companies are selling domestic wild-caught or farm-raised shrimp online. For example, Contessa® Just Harvested® Sustainably Raised Shrimp are raised in a natural mangrove ecosystem in Southeast Asia, eat available food–primarily phytoplankton and zooplankton—instead of fish feed, and are not given any antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals. This brand is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and is the only imported farm-raised shrimp that Seafood Watch lists as a good alternative. The product is only available to consumers through the Costco website.Other places to order include I Love Blue Sea, which sells wild shrimp sustainably caught with turtle-free nets in the US and Mexico, and Marvesta Shrimp, which are farm-raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with no antiobiotics or preservatives and are shipped fresh.

Happy shopping, and please share your experiences finding sustainable shrimp!

Is There Such a Thing as Guilt-Free Shrimp?

Lots o' shrimp

The season for Northern Shrimp typically begins in December.

Shrimp is a staple in our household. It’s easy to cook, versatile, and, tastes good virtually any way you prepare it.

Although I’ve known for a long time that 90 percent of the shrimp that we eat in the US is farm-raised under unsavory conditions, I’ve never figured out what to do about it. Pretend I don’t know? Eat it, but feel guilty? Only eat wild shrimp? Stop eating shrimp altogether?

(For terrific reporting about the shrimp business, I recommend Jim Carrier’s piece, “All You Can Eat: A journey through a seafood fantasy” in the March/April 2009 issue of Orion and Barry Eastabrook’s article, “Do I Dare to Eat a Shrimp?” in the March 2007 Gourmet.)

Until recently, I’ve made an effort to purchase or order shrimp that was designated as wild,” whenever it looked good and/or I felt I could afford it.  I just assumed that “farm-raised = bad, wild shrimp = good.”

This week, I realized that it was time to ditch my simplistic approach to choosing shrimp and try to learn something about what I was buying. First, Legal Sea Foods Restaurant “stirred the pot” by hosting a well-publicized, $115-a-plate dinner in Boston on January 24 featuring Atlantic cod, haddock, and tiger shrimp—fish that sustainable seafood experts encourage consumers to avoid. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommends that consumers avoid purchasing black tiger shrimp because farming harms mangrove forests and artisanal fisheries.

The mainstream media, bloggers and many respected organizations have been buzzing about the dinner. According to the Boston Globe, Legal’s stated that “outdated scientific findings unfairly turn the public against certain species of fish,’’ so they are serving the “blacklisted fish” to counter “misinformation” about sustainability.

Since I eat at Legal’s fairly often and think of them as seafood experts, I decided to try to find out if they were justified in serving farm-raised shrimp. Although not everyone agrees, I learned that some people believe shrimp farming is here to stay and it can be done in a sustainable way.  I also found out that wild shrimp fishing isn’t problem-free.  The nets the shrimpers use can pick up anywhere from 2-10 pounds of unwanted seafood and junk (known as “by-catch”) for every pound of shrimp. Even though they sort through the haul, save the shrimp and throw the other fish back, it’s often already dead. So much for my simplistic farmed = bad, wild = good equation.

In my favorite article about the Legal’s brouhaha, titled “DON’T PANIC: Sustainable seafood and the American outlaw,” marine biologist and blogger Miriam started by confessing that despite what she knows about shrimp farming, she can’t resist eating a “Surf ‘n’Turf” burrito with shrimp now and then. She interviewed Rich Vellante, Executive Chef of Legal Sea Foods, about what he put on the menu for the famous dinner. Vellante said Legal’s had sent people to Vietnam to inspect the shrimp farming operations and there were “certain stipulations” that had to be followed, but he didn’t have the details of what that meant, and Miriam was unable to get hold of anyone else who did.

She was, however, able to locate the latest scientific findings (from  June, 2010), indicating that–despite massive mangrove restoration–shrimp farming continues to cause severe water pollution in Vietnam. So even if Legal’s has found some responsibly farmed Vietnamese shrimp, it’s certainly not all good.

Coincidentally, my Cape Ann Fresh Catch Community Supported Fishery (CSF) share this week consisted of featured 5 pounds of whole, head-on “Northern Shrimp” (Pandalus Borealis).  The Northern Shrimp fishermen have virtually eliminated the bycatch by using nets with a mesh size that minimizes unwanted fish and by not using mechanical devises to sort the fish that could damage the ones that are thrown back in the sea. Seafood Watch rates Northern Shrimp “a good alternative,” and the Blue Ocean Institute gives it its highest (Green) ranking.

A plate of pasta

Northern Shrimp are easy to peel, but small.

I took the shrimp home and immediately washed them and removed the heads, as instructed. It was surprisingly easy to remove the heads—just a little twist and they were separated from the bodies–but because these are small shrimp, it took an hour to go through all five pounds. I made shrimp linguine with sautéed onion, garlic, olive, tomato, and pea pods. Many people rave about the sweet flavor of Northern Shrimp; I can’t say I noticed any special taste, but I really enjoyed eating my meal, guilt-free!

Unfortunately, I can’t get all the fish I need from my CSF, but I’ve resolved to do my best to “know my fish” by asking questions at the fish counter and at restaurants. Despite Legal Sea Foods’ skepticism, I believe that the lists of which sea foods to choose and which ones to avoid are a wonderful starting point, so I’ve downloaded the free iPhone apps for both Seafood Watch and Blue Ocean Institute. (Blue Ocean also offers a FishPhone texting service to receive ocean alerts with info on new rankings or breaking ocean news.  To opt in, text BLUE to 30644).

While I know I won’t be able to resist the occasional shrimp taco, in the future, I may smile at the person behind the counter and ask if she knows where they get their seafood.

Dinner at Alinea: Art, Theatre, and, of course, Food

A trio of edible cocktails

Our "artful" dinner began with a trio of edible cocktails

I’ve often heard people talk about food as art, but I’ve never seen it that way myself until I was treated to a fabulous experience last week involving food. Although it took place at a restaurant, I felt like I was sitting on an art museum stage, participating in a performance piece.

Alinea logoMy sister Louise was celebrating a special birthday and invited Michelle and me to celebrate with her at Alinea, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Alinea is located in its own two-story building. The décor is sophisticated and modern, befitting the temple of food created by chef/owner Grant Achatz.

The approximately twenty courses on the tasting menu feature marvels of molecular gastronomy as well as more traditional morsels. Although it may sound like more food than you could possibly eat in one sitting, the courses are small and are spaced out over a serene four hours.  Since each course is designed to surprise you, you don’t actually get to see the menu until the end, when you are given a souvenir paper listing what you’ve eaten.

You simply take your seat and let the chef and his army of cooks and servers begin the show. The waiters didn’t actually sing or dance, but they were definitely choreographed. In a space no bigger than my living room, a half-dozen waiters circled around the five tables in our area, setting up each dish, reciting the ingredients, and explaining how to eat it.  Although they didn’t go so far as to bang a gong each time they served us, each course was announced with the fanfare of a royal decree.

Earl Grey pillow

Louise discusses the dish placed on a pillow of Earl Grey-scented air.

The food is presented and served in or on an amazing array of implements and dishes, from doll-sized dishes and tiny pedestals to a lit branch of oak serving as a skewer and a bowl constructed out of metal puzzle pieces. One of the dishes was placed on a white pillow of Earl Grey-scented air, releasing the distinctive smoky smell of bergamot to complement the Earl Grey tea, lemon, pine nut, and carmelized white chocolate favors in the course.

Alinea offers wine pairings, but we decided to order by the glass as the spirit—so to speak—moved us.  The wait staff were helpful at making suggestions as to what type of beverage—alcoholic or not—would be most appropriate at any given stage in the meal.  We started out with a delicious champagne cocktail, mixed with bitters and spices, and progressed to wine, beer, and a home-made purple carrot soda.

Our second dish of the evening

Our second dish of the evening was "Golden Trout Roe"

The meal itself began with a trio of what the servers called “edible cocktails,” and that’s what they were – luscious little bites infused with bitters, brandy, rum, fruits and spices. Each was just a single tingling mouthful that left me craving more.  The Golden Trout Roe—one of my favorite dishes of the evening—followed beautifully.  It was a soupy orange bowl that zinged with Dijon mustard, rutabaga, grapefruit, and the roe.  I would have gladly made that my entire meal.

Puff pastry

Puff pastry with venison

Puff pastry

My vegetarian puff pastry with celery root.

One of the most delightful surprises of the evening was how well they catered to my pescovegetarian diet. Louise told them I didn’t eat meat when she made the reservation, and the kitchen rose to the challenge. Unlike some fine dining establishments I’ve been to where the chef gives little thought or creativity to vegetarian cooking, the kitchen created vegetarian or seafood simulations of the courses containing rabbit, short rib, duck, venison, foie gras, and bacon that were every bit as dazzling as the meat dishes.

Our final course

This chocolate extravaganza was our final course.

The final course was a chocolate, peanut, blueberry, cream, honey extravaganza that was literally painted on our tablecloth.  The servers deftly poured liquid chocolate and other substances in circles, dots and swirls all over the table, then cascaded mounds of peanut nougat, frozen chocolate mousse, and other delightful substances on top.  We were each given a large spoon to dive into this artistically arranged mess.  It made an extravagant finale to an unforgettable meal—or should I say performance?

How to Make a Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Black-Eyed Peas

These black-eyed peas have been soaked overnight.

When the clock stroke midnight on New Year’s Eve, did you dive a spoon into a pot of Hoppin’ John so you’d have good luck in 2011? Don’t worry, I didn’t  either. But I made up for it today by cooking up a pot of what I’ve dubbed  Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John, so hopefully I’ll be swimming in green this year.

Hoppin’ John is an African-American dish that is eaten on New Year’s for good luck.  The main ingredient is usually black-eyed peas (said to be brought to America by African slaves working on the rice plantations), served with rice.  To cinch the deal, people usually eat some kind of greens—the color of money–with their Hoppin’ John.

There seem to be as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are stories about how it got it that odd name or why it brings you good luck.  My theory is that it’s basically a pretty healthy dish, and, as they say, “Health is Wealth.”

Black-eyed peas take less time to cook than most other beans, but they don’t have much flavor. Hoppin’ John is usually made with bacon or a ham hock, but vegetarians have to find other ways to give it a kick.  Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to find new ways to encourage myself and others to eat healthy and local foods as much as possible, I was eager to create a cheap, healthy recipe that would please both vegetarians and meat-eaters. I hope this dish will help you enjoy a happy, healthy 2011.

Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Ingredients

Olive oil spray
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 hot green chili, cored and most or all of the seeds removed, depending on how hot you like your food
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained, and cooked until barely soft (you can substitute 2 packages frozen, thawed and rinsed or 2 15 oz. cans, rinsed)
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (regular paprika will work, but the smoked paprika adds a nice kick)
½ teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (adjust to taste)
1 12 fl. Oz. bottle dark beer
Tabasco sauce (to taste)

Coat a large sauté pan with a few sprays of olive oil and heat pan to medium.  Sauté the onion for a few minutes until it begins to soften.  Add the red pepper, celery, carrots, and hot pepper and stir occasionally for three minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes with their juice.

Drain the black-eyed peas and add to the pot. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and Liquid Smoke. Pour in the beer. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is reduced but there is still some sauce. Remove the bay leaf. Add Tabasco sauce and adjust seasonings to give it the kick you will need to get through 2011 in health and wealth!

Hoppin' John

Kickin' Vegan Hoppin' John over brown rice, served with a side of collard greens.

Serve over a bed of cooked brown rice with a side of collard greens for extra good luck.

8 Tips For What to Bring to a Potluck

Each dot represents a vote for a favorite dish in this cooking competition.

Trying to figure out what to bring to the next potluck?  Read on! The PescoVegetarian Times has conducted an experiment to determine which items at potlucks are most popular.

Elyse Cherry's "Happy Chriswanukah!" cake was a runner-up in the store-bought category.

Yes, Michelle and I turned our annual ChrisKwanukah holiday party into a friendly cooking competition this year. Everyone got a chance to vote on their favorite dish in four categories: best appetizer, best main dish, best dessert, and the popular wild card category, the best “Yes, I made it! I made my way to the store to buy it” store-bought item.

While not exactly a controlled lab test, the PescoVegetarian Times did allow meat dishes to compete–strictly in the interest of science, of course.  What’s more, the results were tabulated by my neighbor, Judy Glaven, who’s a PhD scientist, so hopefully some magic science dust got sprinkled over the data.

Here–in unscientific order of importance–are my tips:

1.      Come early. The first entrants got to put their dish in the best places on the table and more people got a chance to sample what they made.  I thought Jacquie Bishop’s “Celtic Cod and Veggie Soup” was one of the best dishes, but because she was a late arrival, hardly anyone tasted it. Several worthy chefs didn’t even make it into the contest because I accidentally missed their entries (sorry, folks!)

2.      Make it a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The winning appetizer, which we unfortunately did not photograph, was Amelie Ratliff’s beautiful “Stuffed Endive.” She made three different dips, which she spread in individual endive leaves and fanned out on a large round platter.  In addition to looking good, you could kind of guess what you were about to eat. It was also light and healthy, which enabled our guests to feel entitled to eat at least one extra dessert. (This dieting tip only works if you don’t look at the scale the next day.)

Phoebe O'Mara won in the main dish category for her sweet and sour meatballs.

3.      Old favorites (especially with a twist) are always a hit. Our neighbor, Phoebe O’Mara, brought sweet and sour meat balls, the main course winner. As a pescovegetarian, I was unable to taste her entrée, but I heard it was great.  Of course, she had a bit of an advantage, as she lives next door and was able to bring her own crock pot with her.

4.      Shrimp sells. All of the shrimp dishes, including Evelynn Hammonds’ “Shrimp Pesto Pizza,” which she assembled and baked at our house, went fast.  Of course, she was one of the first people to arrive, proving tip #1.  Kate Raisz and Stephanie Stewart’s “Shrimp with Feta” also got eaten, along with the shrimp cocktail that Michelle and I provided.  (As hosts, Michelle and I were not allowed to enter the contest, although I’m proud to say quite a few people wanted to vote for the Moroccan (Kwanzaa) Chicken, Lemon Couscous, Spinach and Chickpea Curry, and the three kinds of latkes we made.)

5.      Any kind of meat is a winner. Evan Williams made a “Helvetican Pot Roast,” which was also a hit, as were the aforementioned meatballs and chicken.  I’ve always associated Helvetica with a typeface rather than food, but apparently Helvetica is also the Latin name for Switzerland, and this was a Swiss-inspired dish. Who knew?

6.      Don’t apologize for what you made. Quite a few of our guests, including one of our winners, looked sadly at their dishes and said, “It didn’t come out as good as I hoped. Don’t put it in the contest,” yet I heard many of these same dishes praised.  Chin up. Think about the crap that people eat McDonald’s every day.  Whatever you brought it is bound to be tastier.

This fabulous array of desserts included the winner, Dick Lehr's Mocha Cake, in the top left.

7.      There’s always room for dessert. Between the home-made and the store-bought ones, there were at least ten desserts, and our guests almost managed to eat them all. The hands-down winner in the home-made dessert category was Dick Lehr’s delicious Mocha Cake.  It was so good that people didn’t believe he made it.

8.      If you can’t cook, bring something fabulous. There was lots of competition in the store-bought category, from the fabulous platter of sushi from JP Seafood that Glenda Buell had delivered to some wonderful wine.  The winner, Jon “Satch” Satriale, not only worked the crowd, asking them to vote for him, but hedged his bets by bringing cannolis from both Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry in the North End.  My personal favorite was the “Happy Chriswanukah!” cake pictured above, which was “brung” by Elyse Cherry. She was embarrassed that Chriskwanukah was misspelled, but I say, see tip #6!

And the winner of my ultimate Latke contest is…

A Menorah

A menorah is lit during Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights."

I look forward to Hanukkah every year because it gives me a free pass to eat fried food without guilt. During the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” Jews are practically commanded to eat fried foods to commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE.

Although Jews have probably been making some form of fried pancakes for a couple of millennia, the first latkes certainly didn’t contain potatoes, since the potato is a product of the New World–specifically Peru–and has only been available in “the old country” for about five hundred years.  [The Peruvians are still really serious about potatoes – they grow hundreds of varieties, and they even have an International Potato Center, which I hope to visit someday.]

The box grater: my latke tool of choice.

My grandmother Frieda made latkes, but, unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a latke recipe from her.  She grated the potatoes by hand, and my father told me she used to joke that her ingredients included a bit of scraped knuckles.  In her memory, I always use a box grater when I make latkes.  Even though it’s more work, I prefer the texture of hand-grated potatoes.

Since I don’t have a recipe that’s been handed down for generations, every year I hold a contest in my kitchen seeking out the ultimate latke recipe.  The recipes are all pretty similar: they call for potatoes (or other root vegetables), some type of starch (usually flour or matzoh meal), eggs, onions, and, of course, oil.  If you use enough oil, they’re pretty easy to make.  The trickiest thing about making latkes is making sure you drain the liquid out of the grated potatoes before frying, since they are actually quite watery.

This year, I decided to commemorate the origin of the latke by trying out some non-potato recipes.  At the Boston Vegetarian Society vegan cooking class that Michelle and I attended last month, Chef Didi Emmons demonstrated her “Root Vegetable Latke” recipe.  She says you can use any root vegetable, but she favors parsnips and beets, so that’s what I made when I cooked them at home to kick off the first night of Hanukkah.  Since this was a vegan recipe, there were no eggs, and she used arrowroot powder instead of floor.  Add minced onion, salt and pepper, and fry! The resulting pancakes were thin and colorful, full of long lacy edges that picked up the oil while frying, which made them a delicious vehicle for sour cream. But I missed the potato flavor.

Pancake

Butternut squash and Honeycrisp pancake

In late November, I was delighted to find an article in the Wall Street Journal in which Katy McLaughlin asked five noted chefs to share their pancake recipes.  I tried out the Butternut Squash and Honeycrisp Apple Pancakes recipe from Chef Jake Martin of Fenouil in Portland, Oregon.  I was surprised at how hard it was to grate butternut squash by hand, since you can peel it with an ordinary kitchen peeler. If I ever need to grate butternut squash again, I’ll break tradition and use a food processor! It was also hard to find Honeycrisp apples, although eventually I spotted them lurking in the organic apple bin in the grocery store.  The grated squash and apple get sautéed, along with chopped yellow onion and minced shallots.  Martin uses Panko bread crumbs as the starch, which makes the pancakes more substantial, like a burger. Although I liked the consistency of these pancakes, Michelle and I agreed they were too sweet to serve as an entrée.

Beet, carrot and potato pancakes

For my final contestant, I decided to bring some potato back into the mix, so I made another Wall Street Journal recipe:  “Beet, Carrot and Potato” from Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry in Los Angeles.  It combines beets, carrots and Yukon gold potatoes with red onions (half are sautéed, half are grated and added raw), along with the traditional flour and eggs.  Not surprisingly, these tasted the most like the traditional latkes I love, since they contained actual potatoes.

And the winner of the ultimate latke contest is…none of the above!

My standby is still the traditional, 100 percent potato latke (although I may walk on the wild side and make sweet potato pancakes). I enjoyed making the recipes, however, and will definitely try some of the techniques again, such as sautéing some or all of the onions, or using Panko bread crumbs.

I suspect the recipes I tried are a bit healthier than the potato ones, since they contain vegetables. But in the end, anything you fry in oil is not a health food, and, after all, isn’t that the point? During Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil.

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