Making meal together is family’s long-standing Hanukkah tradition

In 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin Jr. walked on the moon and “Sesame Street” took to the airways for the very first time.

In December that year, the Atlanta Journal ran a photo of young sisters Lisa and Amy Zier wearing matching plaid dresses and lighting a candle for the first night of Hanukkah. When they sat down to dinner that night with their parents Ilene and Steve Zier, the centerpiece of the meal was their mom’s baked chicken and her potato-onion latkes.

Many things have changed since 1969. But 46 years later, when the Zier family gathers for Hanukkah, the centerpiece of the meal will look remarkably the same. The family and guests will sit down to baked chicken and latkes.

Although those centerpiece dishes remain the same, the side dishes and noshes have changed with the times. Amy’s teenage son, Alec Rosenthal, is one of the family’s rising cooking stars. He enjoys hanging out in the kitchen and contributing an appetizer or two to the family meal. His Aunt Julie, not yet born when her older sisters made their newspaper appearance, goes the foodie route, taking green beans from lackluster to blockbuster with ingredients such as smoked salt, goat cheese and pomegranate seeds.

“‘La dor va dor’ is Hebrew for ‘from generation to generation’,” says Ilene Zier, family matriarch and chief cook as she looks around her kitchen with three generations cooking, nibbling and chatting.

“For our major holidays, we’ll have 20 people here, both family and friends,” Ilene Zier says. “For Hanukkah, it’s a smaller group.”

Given the amount of work that goes into latkes for even 10 people, perhaps it’s reasonable to cut back on the number of hungry diners.

The baked chicken recipe is almost sacred, cooked as Zier remembers her mother making the recipe. It’s now a family tradition for at least four generations including her almost 14-year-old grandson Alec. And although her daughters watch and ask questions as the chicken is prepared and baked, they swear theirs never turn out the same as their mother’s.

“I butterfly the chicken so it cooks more evenly and add chicken parts to be sure there’s plenty to go around. I cut up vegetables and put them around the chicken and dot the whole thing with non-dairy butter,” Ilene Zier says. “It’s what many Jewish women do when they bake a chicken.” This same baked chicken not only stars at Hanukkah, but is the highlight of many a Zier Shabbat dinner.

As for the latkes, she says Hanukkah is the only time she serves them. “They’re fattening and take a long time to make. But we want to have them.”

Ilene Zier has streamlined her latke making process over the years. So her house doesn’t smell of frying when her guests arrive, she fries the latkes ahead of time and stores them away in the freezer. When it’s time for everyone to gather, the frozen latkes go directly into a 450 degree oven just long enough to thaw and crisp.

“One year, I tried to cook latkes outside on the patio so the house wouldn’t smell like grease and I blew a fuse,” says Ilene Zier. “So now I stick to making them in the kitchen and doing it ahead of time.”

She offers sour cream with her latkes, but she prefers to eat them with her homemade applesauce alongside. It’s a simple recipe that calls for a mix of apple varieties cooked with a little water to start the juices flowing and then flavored with a little cinnamon. Once the apples have broken down, she puts them through a food mill and the applesauce is ready to enjoy. No added sugar, lemon or the cinnamon red hots she knows others like to add to their own versions.

While everyone gathers, they enjoy a glass of wine while the cooking is finishing. "Wine is pretty much a part of every Jewish festival and I like to have a glass of white wine before dinner. But I don't like a lot of appetizers because then people fill up and I don't think they enjoy the meal as much. But we often put out hummus for everyone to snack on, and this year, Alec's guacamole."

The Ziers generally don’t drink kosher wines which they find can be too sweet. This year, though, they tried a new vineyard, Baron Rothschild, and they enjoy the chardonnay and merlot.

As the sisters watch their mother basting the chicken, it’s natural to wonder if the ritual will continue. “All the daughters want to carry on the tradition of making our mom’s excellent chicken. And I hope that my sister Amy’s two sons, Myles, 15, and Alec carry the tradition further. Alec seems to already be on the path,” said Julie Zier.

Enjoy a Hanukkah dinner this year of both traditional and newly created dishes.

Alec Rosenthal’s Guacamole

Like many recipes, this one is tweaked a little each time it’s made. Rosenthal first learned to make guacamole at summer camp and liked it so much he re-creates it for family meals at home. Now it’s a new addition to the Zier family Hanukkah dinner.

3 avocados

1/2 cup diced tomato

1/2 cup diced red onion

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 teaspoon olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Corn chips, for serving

In a large bowl, combine peeled avocado with tomato and onion. Mash with a spoon until the avocado is smooth. Stir in lime juice and olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes: 3 cups

Per 1-tablespoon serving: 23 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace fiber, 2 grams fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium.

Ilene Zier’s Baked Chicken

Zier bakes this chicken every Friday for Shabbat and it is the traditional main course for at least one night of Hanukkah. She has the recipe down pat, but her daughters insist when they try to re-create it, it never turns out as well as hers.

Zier lines her baking dish with foil to make for easy clean-up and uses a bulb baster for her frequent basting. And she buys the largest fryer she can find. “We like to have leftovers!”

1 (4 1/2-pound) fryer

6 chicken drumsticks

1/2 pound large button mushrooms, cut in half

4 carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces

4 celery ribs, cut into 2-inch pieces

1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch dice

2 minced garlic cloves

Seasoned salt and ground black pepper

1/4 cup Smart Balance or other non-hydrogenated spread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with foil.

Using kitchen scissors, cut the backbone from the fryer and splay it flat in the roasting dish. Discard backbone or save for making chicken stock. Arrange drumsticks around the splayed chicken.

In a large bowl, toss together mushrooms, carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Arrange around chicken. Sprinkle everything with seasoned salt and pepper to taste. Dot chicken pieces with Smart Balance. Bake chicken one hour or until juices run clear when the drumstick of the fryer is pierced with a fork. Use a bulb baster to baste chicken often during baking. When ready to serve, remove fryer from roasting pan and cut into 10 pieces. Arrange pieces and extra drumsticks on a serving platter and arrange cooked vegetables around the chicken. Pour a little of the baking liquid over the chicken and serve. Discard remaining baking liquid. Serves: 10

Per serving: 245 calories (percent of calories from fat, 43), 29 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 12 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 86 milligrams cholesterol, 148 milligrams sodium.

Julie Zier’s Haricot Vert with Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Julie Zier was charged with creating a green vegetable dish this year. She chose haricot vert, modernized the dish with smoked salt and garnished it with pomegranate seeds, a symbol of righteousness in Jewish tradition where each seed corresponds with one of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, of the Torah. She buys her smoked salt at the Buford Highway Farmers Market but it’s becoming more available at mainstream grocery stores and specialty food markets.

1 1/2 pounds haricot vert, ends trimmed

1/2 cup walnuts

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 minced garlic cloves

Smoked salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup goat cheese crumbles

1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

Blanch the haricot vert: Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Have a bowl of ice water ready nearby. When water is boiling, add haricot vert and cook just until the color brightens, about 1 minute. Remove from saucepan and immediately put into ice water to cool. After a few minutes, remove haricot vert from ice bath and pat dry.

In a dry skillet, toast walnuts until they become fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

In a large skillet, gently heat olive oil and garlic until garlic is fragrant. Remove half the minced garlic and add the blanched haricot vert. Toss to coat with olive oil and season with smoked salt and black pepper. Heat the haricot vert until they are warm but still crisp. Remove and arrange on a platter, leaving remaining oil behind. Discard oil. Garnish haricot vert with goat cheese, reserved walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Serve at room temperature: Serves: 6

Per serving: 191 calories (percent of calories from fat, 66), 7 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 15 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 5 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium.

Ilene Zier’s Potato-Onion Latkes

Zier’s latkes are crisp and light, and that requires attention to the details. She prefers the texture of potatoes that have been grated with a hand grater rather than a food processor because hand grated potatoes have smaller sized shreds. But she finds the food processor acceptable for grating onions.

Once the potatoes and onions are grated and mixed, the next key step is squeezing out all the moisture. Handfuls of the mixture are put into cotton or linen tea towels. Then she gathers the edges of the towel together and wrings out the mixture to release as much liquid as possible.

5 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled

2 medium onions

4 eggs

1/4 cup matzah meal

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Vegetable oil

Sour cream and/or applesauce, for serving

Using a hand grater, grate the potatoes into a large bowl. Using the hand grater or a food processor fitted with steel knife, grate the onions and add to the potato shreds. Toss mixture together and then move handfuls into a cotton or linen tea towel. Wring out all the moisture in each handful and put the squeezed mixture in a clean bowl. When all the potatoes and onions have been squeezed, stir in eggs, matzah meal, salt and pepper.

In a large frying pan or electric skillet, add just enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Heat to 350 degrees. Make a test latke, using a 1/3 cup measure to portion out the potato-onion mixture. Cook until crisp on both sides and drain. Taste and adjust salt and pepper in mixture if needed.

Proceed to cook the rest of the latkes, portioning out the mixture and flattening slightly in the skillet. Cook until golden on the first side, then turn and fry until golden on the second side. Do not crowd the pan. Remove from oil and drain. Keep warm and repeat with remaining latke mixture. Add more oil as needed. Serve with sour cream or applesauce, if desired.

To make ahead: make latkes, drain and allow to cool. Arrange on a cookie sheet and freeze. Then remove them and put in a sealable plastic bag. Freeze until needed. When ready to serve, arrange latkes on a baking sheet and place in 450 degree oven until hot. Makes: 30

Per latke: 122 calories (percent of calories from fat, 41), 3 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 28 milligrams cholesterol, 18 milligrams sodium.