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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Chef’s favorite words:

‘This can’t be kosher’

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | November 27, 2002

You won’t find the same old latkes and jelly doughnuts on Jeffrey Nathan’s Chanukah table.

New Jersey’s own chef-star of the acclaimed PBS cooking series New Jewish Cuisine, and author of a new cookbook, “Adventures in Jewish Cooking” (Clarkson N. Potter, $32.50), is widely known for breathing new life into the art of Jewish cooking, specifically in the area of kosher cuisine.

If you’re looking to shake things up at Chanukah, look no further than the Livingston home of one of the most noted kosher chefs in America.

Nathan’s innovative new cookbook, as well as a line of frozen foods coming in January, seals his role as an innovative kosher authority. Not only is Nathan executive chef and owner of the largest glatt- kosher restaurant in the world, Abigael’s on Broadway in New York, he is a source of inventive modern American cooking that just happens to be kosher.

Before writing his cookbook, Nathan researched other kosher Jewish cookbooks, finding that most were dedicated in their first few chapters to instruction on how to keep kosher, followed by the same tired recipes for “pastrami and blintzes.”

“I’m not a rabbi. It’s not my job to tell people how to keep kosher,” says Nathan. “I wanted to update the traditional with a fresh take.”

At Nathan’s house during Chanukah, which begins Friday at sundown, latkes — fried potato pancakes — might still be served, but you can be sure this traditional Chanukah dish will be dressed in delectable new accessories.

Famous for infusing traditional Jewish recipes with exotic influences, Nathan may serve his latkes with an “Asian twist” — a pea shoot salad and wasabi dressing spooned over each latke for an exciting flavor combination.

Or he may tinge them with a Latin beat, topping the pancakes with shredded beef cooked in a spicy Argentinian sauce.

Nathan could also combine fresh tomatoes, extra-virgin olive oil and fresh herbs and ladle the fragrant salad on top of the latke.

Or, in a nod to his heritage, Nathan might even consider serving latkes with their traditional holiday companions, sour cream and apple sauce. But Nathan’s sauce is made with caramelized apples and pears, and a sprinkling of jewel-like crimson pomegranate seed. “Jewish food doesn’t exist — I don’t believe in Jewish food,” says Nathan. “When the Jews were scattered to the Diaspora (Italy, Morocco, Spain, France) they lived and cooked dishes that were indigenous to their areas. They didn’t cook Jewish food.”

And as far as jelly doughnuts — known as sufganiot in Hebrew — Nathan won’t even entertain the idea. In all honesty, he believes, there is really nothing special about Chanukah’s jelly doughnuts — they are the familiar powdered, jelly-filled doughnuts that can be found in every corner doughnut shop.

What Nathan may come up with instead of doughnuts is a banana sufganiot bread pudding. This creamy, luscious dessert alternative ends the Chanukah meal on a perfect holiday note, he says.

Unlike other Jewish holidays, Chanukah has few culinary requirements. Passover’s ritual foods, in contrast, are the centerpiece of the holiday meal. Rosh Hashanah’s emphasis on honey and sweetness dictates much of the menu. And on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, the prohibition against cooking has resulted in celebrated crockpot dinners such as chulent.

But Chanukah, says Nathan, isn’t a holiday with a food fetish. The only requirement at Chanukah is to serve one or two dishes that are fried in oil. Thus the emphasis on latkes and doughnuts.

Nathan, however, believes Jews can substitute anything they wish for the oil directive. “You could fry veal chops in oil. You could fry lamb. Or chicken. You can do anything you want,” he says. “Any dish is right for Chanukah.”

Nathan’s Chanukah menu might include apple cider brisket — brisket being a staple of Jewish celebrations, apple cider being an indispensable ingredient of autumn.

To present an oil-centered dish on the table, Nathan might serve the aforementioned dressed-up latkes, or a fried potato variation, his double-cooked honey potatoes. This tasty potato dish is prepared with sprigs of rosemary and sweet lavender honey.

The holiday’s accent on oil comes directly from the Chanukah story. As the story goes, during ancient times, Syrian King Antiochos introduced Greek culture to the kingdom he ruled in the Middle East. Jews were forced to convert to the new Hellenized religion, which included sacrificing animals such as pigs (which are not kosher) upon the holy altar of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

A group of rebels who did not wish to convert, known as the Maccabees, began to wage a war against the king’s forces. After four years of fighting, they finally succeeded in driving the Greeks from Jerusalem in 165 BC

The Maccabees decided to celebrate their victory by rededicating the Temple and lighting its eternal flame, known as the Ner Tamid, which means “Always Candle” in Hebrew. But only one flask of oil that the Greeks hadn’t spoiled could be found. The precious flask would only last one day, while eight days were needed in order to press new oil.

The Maccabees decided to go ahead and light the flame anyway. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, just until new oil could be prepared.

Today, Jews celebrate the holiday, sometimes called the Festival of Lights, by lighting a menorah, or chanukkiah, for eight consecutive nights. Most Jews use candles, though some Jews use oil.

Nathan’s own immersion in Judaism has grown by leaps and bounds since his foray into the world of mashgiachs and kashrut. (A mashgiach is a person who oversees kashrut laws in kosher restaurants.)

Nathan can no longer describe himself as a Reform Jew. He keeps a kosher home now. "I don tefilin every day," he says. (Tefilin are spe­ cial leather boxes worn by religious Jews during prayer every morning.) "I'm becoming more and more reli­gious."

Nathan toiled in kitchens for years in obscurity. It was only when he made the decision to place his fate with the kosher world that his career skyrocketed.

"There is a reason for this," he says. "I think it means that my role is to bring kosher food out, to make people aware of kosher food."

Nathan grew up in Howard Beach, Queens, the only Jew in his ethnic Italian neighborhood. He became enamored of the culinary arts when he took a job as a teen as a lowly dishwasher at Villa Russo, an Italian restaurant near his Queens home (it's still there). "I was envious. I loved their passion, their excitement over food. It looked fun. It looked great," he re­members.

Over the next two decades, his culinary career would take him from a job as a Navy cook to the owner of several New York restaurants. It was when he opened Abigael's that he started getting notices.

The PBS series - which is broadcast nationwide and in Israel - soon followed and it draws a viewing audience like the best on Food Network. Ultimately, Nathan sees as his mission the reinvention of the word "kosher."

"I get an absolute thrill when an Orthodox person comes into Abigael's and says, 'This can't be kosher,'" he says. "That's what I live for."