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Hanukkah menu can be festive and fast

Traditional latkes and applesauce made easy, a citrus-ginger chicken, all in an hour

Andrea Abel
Try chicken with orange, lemon and ginger, along with latkes and homemade applesauce.

It's inevitable. With eight nights falling in the beginning of December this year, most Hanukkah evenings will be spent in the midst of weeknight bustle during the busiest entertaining month of the year.

Hanukkah, which starts tonight, recounts the brave Jewish Maccabees' victory over the Assyrian Greek armies who forcibly tried to convert the Jews. The Jewish holiday, which means "dedication," commemorates that victory and, as the story goes, the miracle of the menorah in the badly destroyed temple in Jerusalem burning for eight days after the battle, despite only having enough oil for one day. To celebrate, friends and families gather to light candles in a menorah, sing songs, spin dreidels — four-sided tops — and eat a lot of foods fried in oil to symbolize the menorah miracle.

While a multiday celebration takes the pressure off fitting all the festivities into a single night, juggling homework, carpools, extracurricular activities and band concerts while lighting the Hanukkah menorah and preparing a delicious home-cooked meal might be a feat not even Hanukkah hero Judah Maccabee could pull off.

Before giving in to carry-out and paper plates, consider this tasty menu that can be made in about an hour.

Of course, the highlight of a Hanukkah meal has got to be the potato latkes, crispy on the outside, savory and tender on the inside. Latke is Slavic for pancake but is used in Yiddish generally to mean a potato pancake. Though not necessarily of Jewish origin, the latke is a common Eastern European food adopted by the Jews who lived there. Most American Jews trace their roots to this region. Typically made with potatoes and onions, latke variations include recipes containing leeks, cheese, apple and sweet potatoes.

My sister taught me the best-ever time- (and knuckle-) saving tip for quick latkes: Simply Potatoes Shredded Hash Browns, found in the refrigerator case at most grocery stores. With the grating already done, mixing up the latkes is a snap. Our other family trick is to fry the latkes outside either on a camp stove or on the side burner of the gas grill. That keeps the house, clothes and hair from smelling like a fast-food restaurant.

Applesauce, sour cream or both are the standard accompaniment. Throw together this quick homemade applesauce, which can be made a day or two before and takes advantage of peak apple season. Vivian Ballard, a local food coach who specializes in food allergies, shared this recipe with me. Prepping the apples is a snap thanks to my handy old-fashioned apple peeler/corer. This low-tech kitchen tool is available at cooking stores, upscale hardware stores, or online.

Ballard advises, "Don't be tempted to cook the apples before peeling and coring — putting hot, cooked applesauce through a strainer or food mill takes far more time than peeling does in my experience."

Slow-cooked brisket is a popular main course to serve alongside latkes. It's perfect for a weekend party, when the heavenly, rich aroma can fill the whole house all day. But, for a quick, weeknight supper, poultry bakes faster. I like the bright flavors of Italian roast chicken with orange, lemon and ginger, which I've adapted for bone-in chicken pieces.

A steamed vegetable medley or simple tossed salad rounds out the dinner. And for dessert? Chocolate Hanukkah gelt, of course! Good thing, too, because there still should be time for a few rounds of dreidel and singing Hanukkah songs before bedtime.

Potato Latkes

2 20 oz. bags Simply Potatoes hashbrowns

2 medium onion, peeled

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4-1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1-2 tablespoons salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Canola, safflower, peanut or olive oil for frying

Grate onions using the largest holes on a 4-sided grater or in a food processor. Place grated onions in a wire sieve. Press with a wooden spoon to drain as much moisture as possible.

Place potatoes and onions into a large bowl. Stir eggs into the potato-onion mixture. Then stir in just enough flour to make a light batter. Add salt and pepper.

Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a large heavy skillet. For each pancake, drop 1 heaping tablespoon of batter into the oil and flatten with the back of a wooden spoon; the flatter you make the pancakes, the crisper they will be. Fry for about 2 minutes on one side or until golden brown. Then, turn and fry on the other side until golden brown. Don't crowd the pan with too many pancakes, or else they will become soggy. Remove the finished pancakes with a spatula, drain them over the skillet and place on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels or on wire racks set on a cookie sheet.

Keep the pancakes warm in a 200 degree oven while frying the rest. Serve as soon as possible with chunky applesauce.

Makes about 40 2-inch latkes

— Adapted from 'The Jewish-American Kitchen' by Raymond Sokolov

Chunky Applesauce

3 lb. apples, peeled, cored and quartered

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

1/8 tsp. ground cardamom

1 cup apple cider (can substitute 1 cup water plus some honey)

grated zest of 1/2 to 1 lemon

lemon juice to taste

honey (optional)

Place apples, cinnamon, cardamom and cider in large pot. Cover. Cook on medium low until the apples fall apart, about 20-30 minutes. Remove cinnamon. Mash with a potato masher to desired consistency. Add lemon zest, lemon juice, and honey (if desired) to taste. For smoother applesauce, purée with an immersion blender or in batches in a standard blender or food processor.

Pressure cooker variation: Place apples, cinnamon, cardamom and cider in pressure cooker. Lock lid in place and over high heat bring to high pressure. As soon as high pressure is reached, turn off heat and allow pressure to drop naturally. Don't use quick pressure release or the applesauce might sputter through the vent. Follow remaining instructions above.

Can be made 1-2 days in advance

Makes about 4 cups

— Adapted by Vivian Ballard from Lorna Sass' 'Cooking Under Pressure'

Roast Chicken with Orange, Lemon and Ginger

(Pollo Arrosto all'Arancia, Limone, e Zenzero)

2 chickens, each cut into 8 pieces or equivalent amount of bone-in breasts and/or bone-in thighs

2 lemons, zested and then cut into quarters

2 oranges, zested and then cut into quarters

6 Tbsp. peeled and grated fresh ginger root

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

5 Tbsp. olive oil

4 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

3 Tbsp. honey

Orange slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Rinse chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels.

Rub the outside of the chicken pieces with two of the lemons quarters, then discard. Place chicken in a roasting pan large enough to accommodate the chicken pieces without overlapping. In a small bowl, stir together the lemon and orange zests and 2 tablespoons grated ginger. Rub zest mixture evenly on the chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. In the small bowl, combine olive oil, lemon and orange juices, honey and remaining ginger. Pour the mixture over the chicken. Arrange the lemon and oranges wedges over the chicken.

Reduce oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Roast chicken, basting with pan juices occasionally until internal temperature reads 165 degrees and juices run clear, approximately 40 minutes. Breasts will cook faster than thighs. Serve chicken drizzled with pan juices.

Serves 8

— Adapted from Joyce Goldstein's 'Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen'