Visions of Hanukkah Zeppole Dance in Our Heads

Review of The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook by Pamela Hensley Vincent (The Overlook Press)

Janet, my mom’s best friend, didn’t know how to boil water–though I suspect she could make a pot of coffee on occasion. But the other members of her Italian family were excellent cooks. From them my mother learned to prepare stuffed escarole and to use anchovies as a seasoning for everything from tomato sauce to matzoh meal. The two families, like countless other Italians and Jews, spoke often of how similar both groups were.

So I was intrigued when I came across The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook, by Pamela Hensley Vincent. According to the flap copy, the book was born of the culinary traditions of the author’s “Jewish-American family and her husband Duke Vincent’s Italian-American background.” A marriage of two warm traditions and delicious, homey Sicilian food? Visions of Hanukkah zeppole–luscious fried dough dusted with sugar–danced in my head.

Unfortunately, such visions are nowhere to be found here. Readers looking for an interfaith, intercultural perspective will not find one. Vincent’s family is not, despite what the book says, “very much like any of our own.”

This is not because Vincent is a TV actress whose credits include major roles in Marcus Welby, M.D., Buck Rogers, and Matt Houston, and whose husband produced Melrose Place, Dynasty, and some seventy-odd other TV series. No, what distinguishes this family is that, for the most part, their lives do not seem to intersect: each of the different cultural traditions is relegated to a separate, discrete chapter, never to meet one another at a family celebration. We have a loving recollection of Vincent’s Jewish maternal grandparents, with signature recipes from both Yetta and Manny’s repertoire. The chapter called “Duke” provides simple southern Italian favorites (including several pastas and a very nice chicken cutlet dipped in egg, then sauteed with shallots, capers, and lemon), along with images of the Vincent dinner table today. Where two traditions did meet–in the home of her glamorous Jewish mom Gail and veterinarian dad Jack, a WASP of English-Scottish ancestry–the result was ethnic assimilation: none of the foods or customs from either background survived. In fact, holidays–the stuff of so many family cookbook memories–are not mentioned anywhere in the book at all. We read about Grandma Yetta’s latkes (potato pancakes), made with the unusual addition of sour cream to the batter–without any mention of Hanukkah. There are matzoh-and-butter crumbs, but no Passover. And Duke’s childhood celebrations bring no Christmas or Easter dishes, but only the distinctly secular Pasta Night, observed every Sunday and Thursday now in the Vincent household.

But if the book omits group holiday portraits, it does offer some intimate personal snapshots, both literally and figuratively. Arranged as a family scrapbook combining sixty-four recipes with nostalgic memories, it is chockablock with black-and-white shots of Vincent’s photogenic family. (Some of the pictures–especially the few food ones–are overly dark and grainy, a device, perhaps, intended to evoke a cousin’s familiar album, rather than a celebrity cookbook.) Among the stories: a predawn breakfast with Grandpa brings a secret kept from Grandma–Vincent’s first taste of steaming coffee mixed with warm milk. A “thick tang of ether” envelops her as she watches her father perform surgery in his pet hospital.

A sentimental paean to her family, Vincent’s book is best when sharply focused on the details of cooking and family. Shared tips, like adding white bread to make meatballs fluffy, along with glimpses of Manny, dressed in Yetta’s pink and white apron, grilling his special hamburgers in the backyard, are appealing.

At other times, however, the book reads more like a community cookbook. Some may find Vincent’s affection and unbridled enthusiasm–which all too often explode in a sea of exclamation points and cliches (“delicious,” “heavenly,” “enjoy!”)–somewhat jarring. But other readers just may fulfill what the author says is her fondest wish: inspired by her casual, chummy style, simple, tasty recipes, and scrapbooking approach, they will then “create their own family cookbook-scrapbook”–hopefully, with holidays included.

All recipes from The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook

Yetta’s Potato Pancakes
Yield: about 12 pancakes

4 potatoes
1 large white onion
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbsp matzoh meal
1 tsp salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 Tbsp sour cream
safflower oil or olive oil for the frying pan

Peel the potatoes and grate them on a medium grater into a large bowl. Then, grate the onion into the bowl. You can use your Cuisinart for this task, but I prefer to do it by hand, as Yetta did, because I prefer the consistency of the grating. Water will form in the bowl from the onion and potato. Drain this. Yetta used to actually squeeze the potato and onion, as you would squeeze a sponge, to rid it of excess moisture. After that, add the eggs, matzoh, salt, and pepper. Then, add the sour cream. Mix well.

Put a little oil in the frying pan and heat. When the pan is hot, use a Tbsp and drop a dollop of the mixture into the pan (as if you are cooking dollar-size pancakes). They turn out better if they are small and not too thick. Turn them when they are golden brown on one side. When they are golden on the other side, and cooked all the way through, remove them from the pan and drain them on paper towels for a minute. Then serve them immediately!

Wonderful peasant food to be eaten with the fingers!

Rappini Pasta
Serves 2

1 bunch of rappini [broccoli rabe]
Coarse salt to taste
1 tsp red pepper flakes
6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 cups chicken broth
¾ cup olive oil (or more)
½ lb. of penne pasta (or ziti)
1 whole lemon, cut in half
Pecorino cheese, for grating

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. While waiting, rinse the bunch of rappini under cold water. Place it on a paper towel and pat dry. Cut off the thick coarse stems of the rappini and discard them. Cut the bunch of rappini in half, width-wise. This is simply to make it easier when tossing the stalks of rappini with the pasta after it has been cooked.

Put the rappini in a pot, sprinkle with coarse salt, red pepper, and chopped garlic cloves, and pour the chicken broth over it. Drizzle the olive oil over the rappini as well, and then bring it to a simmer. Cover with a lid and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Make sure you have the lid on properly so you don’t lose too much liquid as the steam escapes. Test for tenderness with a fork. It should be as soft as just-steamed spinach.

When the pasta water boils, put in the penne and boil until al dente. Drain in a colander, and pour the pasta into a bowl. Pour the rappini and its broth over the pasta and toss. Then, squeeze the lemon over the rappini pasta, and at the last minute, grate a generous amount of Pecorino over the top.

My Chicken Cutlet
Serves 2

Flour for dusting
Garlic salt to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1 egg, well beaten
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 garlic clove, quartered
1 shallot, minced finely
½ lemon
2 Tbsp capers and caper juice (1 Tbsp)
2 sprigs parsley, chopped

Place some flour on a wood or plastic chopping board, and lightly season it with the garlic salt and cayenne. Add a pinch of garlic salt and cayenne pepper to the beaten egg.

Now, place a large frying pan on the stove with the olive oil. Heat slowly. You want the oil to be hot, but not so hot that it smokes.

Place the chicken breast halves on a large sheet of wax paper. Place another sheet of wax paper on top of the chicken breasts. Space them so that they have some room to grow as you pound them. The light pounding will make the cutlets wider in circumference, and thinner. By the way, the whole point of this is to make the chicken fork-tender.

Now, lightly and slowly, pound the chicken cutlets with a wooden rolling pin or a small wooden mallet, 1 minute for each breast. Then flip over the wax paper and do the same thing, 1 minute for each breast.

Now, put the garlic and shallots into the pan and stir them for about a minute. Be careful not to burn them. If necessary, turn the heat down.

Then, remove the wax paper from the pounded cutlets, being careful not to leave any on the chicken as it will be a bit sticky. Dust the thin cutlets in the seasoned flour, on both sides. Now, turn up the heat in the pan once again and dip the chicken into the beaten egg. Place the dripping cutlets into the hot pan of garlic and shallots and cook for 1 minute on medium-high heat. Then flip them over with a spatula, and cook for 30 seconds on medium-high heat. Now, turn off the heat, and quickly, before the heat dissipates, squeeze the lemon over the cutlets, and add the capers and caper juice, and sprinkle the parsley over them. Put a tight lid on top of the pan and allow the cutlets to cook themselves in the steam and juice. Serve 10 minutes later. The cutlets will be golden! No knife will be required.

Jayne Cohen

Jayne Cohen’s newest book is Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations, published by John Wiley and Sons in February 2008.


Author: Jayne Cohen