Food was not usually a highlight of the Hanukkah parties of my youth (it was the presents). Never the biggest fan of greasy, leaden latkes, I’d just consume several dollars’ worth of chocolate gelt, winning as many of the foil-wrapped coins as I could in games of dreidel.
Recently, Chef Julian Medina has completely transformed my idea of “Hanukkah food” with a preview of the Mexican Hanukkah menu he serves at his New York City restaurants [Toloache 50, Toloache 82, Yerba Buena and Yerba Buena Perry] throughout the eight-day Festival of Lights. Lucky for us, he’s shared a couple of his most popular Hanukkah recipes so we can all jazz up our own holiday festivities with a little Mexican flair.
Chef Medina’s Hanukkah menu kicks off with a tribute to my favorite guilty pleasure, gelt — he serves a margarita infused with Mexican chocolate and rimmed with gold leaf. As weird as a chocolate margarita may sound, it completely works. I loved the spicy notes from chipotle-spiked Mexican chocolate.
Next up, another eyebrow-raising dish that ended with us licking our plates: Whitefish Guacamole (it sounds better in Spanish: Guacamole de Pescado Ahumado). Chef Medina smokes the whitefish in-house and it’s nothing like what you find on your average deli platter. The salty and smoky fish pairs ingeniously with creamy avocado. Check out this video of the chef preparing his whitefish guac with an adorable sous chef — his four-year-old daughter.
Latkes, of course, can’t be overlooked at this holiday meal. Chef Medina ups the ante and serves a trio of potato-jalapeno, zucchini, and Mexican ricotta varieties. The potato-jalapeno and zucchini resemble the fried patties we are used to, but Chef Medina insists on taking the time to grate the vegetables on a mandolin in lieu of a box grater or food processor to ensure maximum crispiness. As a result, they are super-crispy and greaseless, but we made the Potato-Jalapeno Latkes at home using the fine side of a box grater and they turned out great too. The ricotta latkes are another thing entirely, more like a bite-sized ricotta doughnut that melts in the mouth.
Another small plate option is the Tacos de Brisket, a Mexican spin on the braised meat that’s the centerpiece of all Jewish holidays. Fresh tomatillo salsa is an ideal accompaniment to cut the richness of the meat. I wonder what my grandma would think if I spooned some over her brisket?
Next to latkes, doughnuts are the food most associated with Hanukkah. Fried foods symbolize the oil that burned for eight days in the story of Hanukkah. Chef Medina serves Mexican Sufganiyot filled with dulce de leche instead of the traditional jelly.
Now that’s how you make the food the star of Hanukkah.
Sample Chef Medina’s Recipes: