Savor the Flavors

Celebrating Holidays with Food
By Margo Stitch
Photography by

As the end of the calendar year draws near, a variety of holidays and celebrations serve to nourish body, mind and soul. as days get shorter and weather gets colder, we seek ways to light the darkness, and we typically gather together to share meals and warmth.  


“Any time people get together, food is involved,” says Deb Altchuler, of Rochester.

Foods traditionally eaten during Hanukkah focus on things fried in oil as a symbol of the miracle when the oil of the menorah, in the ransacked Second Temple of Jerusalem, stayed aflame for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one day. Favorites include latkes (fried potato pancakes, recipe follows) and sufganiyot (a deep-fried doughnut filled with jam or jelly and sprinkled with sugar).

When serving these, Altchuler strives “to make the rest of the meal healthy.” Often, she serves beef tenderloin or beef steak as well
as brisket, which is commonly served in Jewish households during Hanukkah.

During Kwanzaa, there appears to be few “rules” about what to serve. Soul food and coastal dishes of the Atlantic rim, with traceable roots to Africa or African-Americans, are prepared, often including groundnut or chicken stews and bean or spiced rice dishes. Fruits and vegetables, symbolizing the bounty of the harvest, are common including okra, yams, squash, sweet potatoes and bananas.

As I reflect on the main dishes my mother would serve on Christmas Day, beef roast or ham with sweet potato-based side dishes were well liked in our household. My mother’s Sherried Sweet Potato Casserole was one such recipe (recipe follows).


Hosting a holiday open house isn’t complete without a beverage, especially for those “adult-only” evening gatherings. To this day I remember, as a minor, taking a glass of Mom’s famous Mock Pink Champagne (recipe follows) up to my bedroom, lighting a candle and relaxing to music. To offer a non-alcoholic beverage, she often served this tableside as well, particularly when the holiday meal was centered around ham.

Note: When pairing wine with ham, consider a dry Riesling, dry or off-dry Rose, Beaujolais or young Zinfandel.

Whether it is a meal shared, food to nourish the body, or rituals and the warmth of candlelight to support mind and soul, may the love between family and friends be with all this holiday season. 

Altchuler Family Latkes
5 medium Russet potatoes, thoroughly scrubbed
6 scallions, chopped, white and part of the green
3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. dried parsley flakes,
or 1-2 Tbsp. fresh, as desired
Neutral oil for frying, such as canola

Finely grate the potatoes (a food processor with the fine shredding blade is recommended). Place the shredded potatoes in a towel, then twist both ends to extract as much liquid as you can. This is best done with two people, over the sink! Once dry, place the potatoes in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients.

Stir by hand until all ingredients are well mixed through. (The potatoes may darken a little bit but this does not affect the flavor, or once fried, the appearance.) Pour about ½-inch of oil in a large skillet. Heat this until the oil is shimmering. Carefully drop rounded tablespoons of the mixture, or fuller measure as desired, into the oil (Be careful; the oil is hot!). Flatten the latkes slightly using a spatula or a large spoon. Brown on both sides then place on a rack, which has been set onto a sheet pan, or place onto paper towels laid atop sheets of newspaper. Allow latkes to drain thoroughly. Move the cooked warm latkes over to an oven-safe platter or cookie sheet and keep warm in a 175-degree oven. Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream. For an adult taste, garnish with smoked salmon. 

Sherried Sweet Potato Casserole
8 medium sweet potatoes or
3 (18-oz.) cans sweet potatoes
1 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. shredded orange peel
2 cups orange juice
½ cup raisins
6 Tbsp. butter
½ cup dry sherry
¼ cup chopped walnuts

For fresh potatoes, cook whole potatoes in boiling salted water just until tender. Drain. Once cool enough to handle, peel and cut potatoes lengthwise into ½-inch thick slices. For canned potatoes, cut large ones in half. Arrange potatoes in a buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish. (Sprinkle a little salt over if using fresh potatoes.)

Combine the brown sugar, cornstarch and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Blend in the orange peel and juice; add raisins. Cook over medium heat until thick and bubbly; cook 1 minute more while stirring. Add remaining ingredients, stirring until butter is melted. Pour sauce over the potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until potatoes are well glazed, basting occasionally. Note: For saucier potatoes, make half again as much glaze. Serves 8.

Mock Pink Champagne
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cup grapefruit juice
½ cup orange juice
⅓ cup grenadine syrup
1-quart chilled ginger ale

Heat sugar and water together, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves and mixture reaches boiling. Turn back to low boil and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Add the juices then place in refrigerator to chill completely. At serving time add the grenadine and ginger ale. Stir slightly to incorporate all. Serve in champagne glasses, goblets or stemmed wine glasses. Makes about 3 pints.


I was raised in a Christian family within a Jewish community, and when my family took drives during the holidays to look at holiday lights, we saw many houses with lit menorahs in the front windows. Most year-end holidays use some sort of candle lighting practice. 

Altchuler has an impressive collection of menorahs, from those purchased on travels in the Middle East to one that she and her husband commissioned (it’s a Canada goose!). Each has eight candle holders with an additional spot for a ninth candle which is used to light the others as blessings are said or sung. On the first night one candle is lit, on the second night, two are lit, and so on, until all are lit on the eighth and final night of Hannukah

Kwanzaa is an African-based seven-day holiday. The word itself is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” During this time various colored candles are lit and placed in a kinara (candleholder). There is one black candle, representing the African people, three red, representing their struggle and three green representing the future and the hope that comes from their struggle. 

It has been noted that this holiday has a more spiritual basis than religious. Kwanzaa’s origins began in 1966 when Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, first created it in response to the “Watts Riots” in Los Angeles the year before. His hope was that this celebration, with its underlying principles, would prove a way to bring African Americans together as a community. Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration, always observed December 26 through January 1.