Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is a time to recall the miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago, and celebrate the discovery of the small amount of oil that burned for eight days, the amount of time needed to prepare pure oil from the local olive trees to rekindle the flame. That miracle is the focus of the Chanukah celebration that begins at sundown Friday, Nov. 29. Was it also a miracle that this event occurred at this time, since the months of November and December are the usual time for the olive harvest?
In early November this year, we joined Faith Willinger, our Florence-based food-journalist friend, on a trip to Naples and the Campania area of Italy. One of the highlights of our trip was spending several days at the hotel-restaurant La Caveja, located in the small village of Pietravairano, just a one-hour drive north of Naples.
At our first meal, La Caveja's owner, Berardino Lombardo, placed a bottle of olive oil on the table and directed us to use it on almost every dish. The olive oil was bright green, fruity and delicious. When we asked him when the olive oil had been pressed, his answer was "early this morning." The next day, he invited us to join him to pick olives and watch the crush at the local frantoio (olive oil mill). We were delighted and accepted his offer.
This small olive mill custom crushes olives from the nearby area for small local growers. Families had brought their olives and were waiting with their children, huddled in the cold, while their olives were pressed into oil.
Then every shape container possible was filled with this liquid gold. It was exciting to see all the activity.
When we arrived at the olive oil mill, our olives were in a large wooden container ready to be processed. The olives were first washed, then crushed into a paste. The paste was then pressed to produce organic extra virgin olive oil. As the flow of newly pressed olive oil began to glow, a small amount was poured into a pitcher, and Berardino brought out fresh bread to dip into the oil. It was the first time we had ever tasted olive oil that was only minutes old and it was absolutely delicious!
On my return from Italy, I was inspired, during Chanukah, to serve our family several of the dishes that were introduced to us by Berardino. They are perfect for the holiday as all these dishes use either olives or foods fried in olive oil. Included are Potato Gnocchetti, Olive Fritte, Fried Zucchini Sticks and Frittelle.
One of our family Chanukah traditions is to exchange gifts, and this year we are giving each of our guests a bottle of fresh Italian olive oil to take home.
Olive Fritte (Cicchetti)
36 pitted green olives
1 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs (try mixed with Parmesan)
Olive oil for deep frying
1. Place the olives in a bowl, cover with cold water and allow them to soak for at least 15 minutes to remove some of the salt. Rinse the olives and dry them well.
2. Roll the olives lightly in flour, then dip in beaten egg, and roll them in bread crumbs to coat. Transfer to a paper towel- lined plate and refrigerate one hour.
3. In a skillet or deep fryer, heat 2-to 3-inches of oil over medium heat. Place the olives in the oil and fry them, rolling them around to brown evenly.
4. Remove the olives with a slotted spoon and spread on paper towels to drain. Serve while still warm. They can be held for a few hours, then reheated in a 250 F oven. Makes 36.
Fried Potato Gnocchetti
1 large potato (about 1 pound)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 cup fine dried bread crumbs
Olive oil for frying
1. Peel potatoes and cut in cubes. Place on steam rack over boiling water. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer to a large glass bowl, mash with a potato masher and let cool slightly. Add butter, cheese, egg, salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Add additional grated Parmesan or bread crumbs if potato mixture is too moist.
2. To shape potato mixture, oil the palm of your hands and roll a tablespoon of the mixture between your palms into an egg shape. Spread crumbs on a shallow dish and coat gnocchetti lightly with crumbs. Place on a paper towel-lined platter and refrigerate until ready to fry.
3. Heat about 1-2 inches of oil in a medium skillet. When oil is hot, fry a few gnocchetti until they are golden brown on all sides, about two minutes. Remove with the slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Transfer to a large dish and serve hot.
Fried Zucchini Sticks
4 medium zucchini, unpeeled
1 cup flour
1 cup bread crumbs
2 garlic cloves, peeled
6 fresh basil leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried basil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 to 3 eggs
Vegetable oil for frying
Grated Parmesan cheese
1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into quarters; cut in half, crosswise, and set aside.
In a small, brown paper bag, place the flour and set aside. In the bowl of a processor or blender, blend the bread crumbs, garlic and basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place this mixture in another small, brown paper bag and set aside. Place the eggs in a bowl and beat well.
2. Drop four to six zucchini sticks into the bag containing the flour, shaking the bag to coat. Transfer to a metal strainer and shake off the excess flour. Dip the flour-coated zucchini into the beaten egg and then coat with the bread-crumb mixture. Place on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. (You can hold them at this point for at least one hour.)
3. Preheat the oil in a deep-fryer or wok to 375 F.
4. Drop the coated zucchini sticks into the heated oil and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Transfer them to a napkin-covered basket or platter; sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.
Frittelle (Fried Ribbons)
11Â¼2 cups flour
11Â¼2 tablespoons sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
11Â¼2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1 large egg
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
Olive oil for frying
Powdered sugar for garnish
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, salt and orange zest. Add the butter and blend until crumbly.
In a small bowl, beat the milk, egg, orange juice and vanilla together. Pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture all at once and blend until the dough comes away from the bowl. Place wax paper on work surface and sprinkle with flour. Knead the dough into a ball, and divide in half. Using a rolling pin, roll each half of the dough out very fine on the prepared work surface until it is 1Â¼8-1Â¼4-inch thick. Using a scalloped ravioli cutter or a knife, cut the dough into ribbons about 4-inches long and 1-inch wide.
Heat oil in a heavy deep-sided frying pan to 350 F, and fry a few of the ribbons at a time very quickly -- 20 seconds -- until golden. Drain on plates lined with paper towels, cool slightly and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.
Variations: Twist the ribbon twice and pinch it closed in the center. Or cut the dough into rectangles and make two parallel small cuts in the center.
Judy Zeidler is the author of "The Gourmet Jewish Cook" (William Morrow & Co, 1999), "The 30-Minute Kosher Cook" (William Morrow & Co, 1999) and the "International Deli Cookbook" which is available at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica. Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.