Holiday Foods for Everyone

This season of festivity and family embraces cultural diversity

Story by Corbie Hill

As we near year’s end, everyone has something to celebrate—yet we don’t all celebrate the same. There’s Christmas and Thanksgiving, yes, but also Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. There are people slow-roasting brisket or turkey, and others who haven’t eaten meat in years—and won’t have it in their kitchens. Yet, what binds all these traditions together is the desire to see friends and family, to feast, and to celebrate.

Hanukkah Gets Healthy

In a Hanukkah meal, oil is the star of the show.

It’s symbolic of the Hanukkah Miracle, in which a tiny quantity of oil kept the menorah alight in the Temple of Jerusalem for eight days. Today, it’s more commonly incorporated into Hanukkah meals as frying oil. Add to that the other traditional Hanukkah foods—dairy and brisket—and you have a holiday feast that tastes great, but isn’t always super healthy.

“Growing up, we always had my dad’s macaroni and cheese and tuna salad and latkes, so not the healthiest approach,” says Rachael Weisman.

She’s a health coach, a healthy-cooking teacher, and a personal chef, and she recently ran a special program—the Holiday Classic Side Makeover: Healthy Holiday Foods You Can Really Celebrate—at the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center. This course wasn’t specific to Hanukkah, she points out, but could be applied to any holiday in the season.

Weisman’s idea wasn’t to deprive feasters of the foods they love (she’s not going to force everyone to eat carrots, she jokes), but instead to find healthier ways to achieve beloved familiar tastes.

“Traditionally, the two main things fried for Hanukkah are latkes, which are potato pancakes, and sufganiyot, which are jelly-filled donuts,” Weisman says.

One way to make latkes healthier is to cut back on the potatoes: Fried latkes can be made with any root vegetable or even cauliflower, which can either be mixed with white potatoes or used instead of white potatoes. Or, you can keep the potatoes and dial down the oil, as Weisman does with her oven-fried latkes. The result still tastes like childhood memories, she says. “I didn’t want to take that away entirely, so I’ve got a lighter oil version that’s baked in the oven,” Weisman says.

Oil isn’t bad for you, in and of itself, and Weisman has suggestions to bring it into Hanukkah meals in healthy quantities. She recommends getting a really nice bottle of extra virgin olive oil to make a vinaigrette. Brisket, a traditional main course, pairs well with a side salad topped with vinaigrette.

The side salad can also bring dairy into the meal, and Weisman’s suggestion for that is similar to her suggestion for oil: Splurge on a small amount of really nice cheese, she says, as you get more taste per bite from the good stuff. You can put crumbled feta or goat cheese on the salad with your vinaigrette.

Roasted vegetables serve the same purpose, she adds. They need oil, but not much of it, and then you can sprinkle a nice cheese on top once they’re out of the oven.

For ingredients that will be used in moderation, she suggests making an indulgent purchase to a higher quality. “I splurge on them because I’m not going to eat a lot of them,” Weisman says. “It’s in there and it honors the stories that are being celebrated without necessarily being the only thing on the plate.”

Visit the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Community Center site at


Rachel weisman's baked latkes with applesauce toppping

Rachel weisman's baked latkes with applesauce toppping

Rachael Weisman’s Baked Latkes with Applesauce Topping



1 pound russet potatoes
   (approximately 2 medium potatoes)
1 egg
½ small yellow onion
2 T potato starch
1 T olive oil
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt



Preheat oven to 400°.

Wash and dry the potatoes, leaving the skin on.

Shred the potatoes in a food processor or with a grater.

Place shredded potatoes in a colander. One handful at a time, squeeze extra moisture out of the shredded potatoes over a bowl, then put the potatoes into a separate mixing bowl.

Allow the liquid from the potatoes to sit for a couple of minutes, then pour off the liquid. You will have some potato starch left at the bottom of the bowl.

Shred the onion in the food processor or with a grater. Put the shredded onion into a fine mesh sieve and press out as much extra liquid as you can. Add the potatoes.

Add the egg to the bowl with the leftover potato starch and beat. Add egg mixture to the potatoes.

Add the potato starch, baking powder, and salt; mix all ingredients thoroughly.

Grease one cookie sheet with the olive oil and put it in the oven for a couple of minutes to heat. Remove from the oven.

Using a heaping tablespoon as a guide for size, quickly form 10 latkes and place on the cookie sheet while it’s still hot.

Bake for 10 minutes, then flip them and bake another 15 minutes. (You may want to flip them one more time for another 5 minutes to get even more golden brown and crispy.)

Serve immediately.

For a healthier version: Skip the oil altogether and bake on parchment paper or a Silpat. You can even get a little extra crunch by putting them under the broiler for a couple of minutes on each side after baking.


Scratch-made Applesauce Topping

Peel and core three apples. Chop them into half-inch sized pieces and put in a pot with a couple tablespoons of water.

Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the apple pieces are soft and start to fall apart.

Using a potato masher, mash the apples. I like a slightly chunkier applesauce for topping latkes, but you can get it extra-smooth with a blender or food processor.

Out of Africa

Food is also central to Kwanzaa, the African-American and Pan-African holiday celebrated from December 26th to January 1st. Locally, there are public Kwanzaa celebrations in Cary and Durham, most notably the African American Dance Ensemble’s long-running KwanzaaFest, which is celebrating its 34th year.

Raleigh resident Gina Pehot will be a vendor at this year’s event, and she is intimately familiar with the foods of Kwanzaa. Her family is from central Africa and her husband, Blaise, was born there. Growing up, she ate a lot of African dishes. In fact, she hopes to share the food she loves and open an African-inspired restaurant in the Raleigh area by mid-2019.

“Kwanzaa is a celebration of faith and love,” she says. “A lot of it is inspired from our Swahili language in Congo, which is an international language in Africa.”

The holiday is all about love, family, and togetherness, Pehot says, and many of its traditions are expressed through food. One of her favorites is Mikate. These African doughnuts, also called Puff-Puff, are traditionally served during Kwanzaa as well as other celebrations in south, west, and central Africa. However, as Pehot points out, anyone can enjoy a doughnut—no matter what holidays they celebrate.




Mikate (mee-ka-tay)



2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup self-rising flour
1 package of instant yeast
½ T salt
½ cup water*
1 cup milk*
¾ cup sugar
1½ T vanilla extract
Vegetable oil (for frying)
      *Milk & water should be at room temperature



In a small bowl, add yeast and water. Stir until yeast dissolves. Set aside.

In mixing bowl, combine both flours and salt.

Add sugar, vanilla extract, milk, and yeast mixture. Mix batter until smooth (small lumps may appear).

Cover mixture tightly with aluminum foil, place kitchen towel over covered bowl, and set aside for 1 hour. After 1 hour, mixture will have doubled in size, with air bubbles.

In a medium pot, pour oil about halfway. Heat oil to 325°. Using a tablespoon, spoon mixture into a round form and drop into oil (drop 8 at a time).

With a slotted spoon, turn doughnuts frequently for even browning.

Fry doughnuts for about 5 minutes, or until they are a nice golden brown. Set doughnuts on a paper towel to absorb oil. Let stand 10 to 15 minutes.

Recipe provided courtesy of Gina Pehot and Yaya’s Fusion, opening soon in Raleigh.



When Julie LaFalce got her first dog, she quit eating meat because it got her thinking, “Why do we love some animals and bring them into our homes as pets, but eat others?” She couldn’t reconcile this quandary, so she quit meat entirely.

Then, a few years later, she saw a TV segment where Ellen DeGeneres interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer, who is best known for his novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but who also authored the nonfiction book Eating Animals. 

DeGeneres and Foer talked about the conditions dairy cows and egg-laying hens live in. As LaFalce pictured the inside of a factory farm, she decided she couldn’t support
hat industry, so she went vegan. That was seven years ago.

The absence of meat doesn’t mean the absence of feasting, though. “A vegan meal can look just like a
traditional holiday!” LaFalce says. “The only difference is that no animals had to suffer or be killed in order to make
the meal happen.”

There are vegan products commonly stocked in grocery stores, such as Gardein Holiday Roast, Field Roast Celebration Roast, and Tofurky, but it’s also possible to make your own vegan holiday roast, and LaFalce says recipes are easily found online.

For side dishes, vegan substitutes exist for many common ingredients—with alternatives like vegan “butter” from Earth Balance and soy, almond, or flax milk in place of dairy. Instead of eggs, there are replacement products for cooking and baking, while ground flax or aquafaba, which is the liquid from legumes, can be used as well.

Since moving from New York in 2012, LaFalce has maintained, a guide to vegan-friendly Triangle restaurants. “I was amazed at how many vegan options there are here and I wanted to create one thorough, sortable, easy-to-use guide.”  


stuffed tofu

stuffed tofu

Stuffed Tofu


1  block of water-packed, extra-firm tofu, drained
3  shiitake mushroom caps, diced
4  walnut halves, chopped
2  cloves of garlic, finely minced
1  cm chunk of ginger, finely minced
1  tsp of flavor-neutral cooking oil, such as  
   canola or sunflower
¼ cup tamari, plus more for drizzling
¼ cup water
1 tsp maple syrup
1 tsp rice flour (or ¼ tsp cornstarch)



Preheat oven to 425°.

Cut the drained tofu in half horizontally to yield two flat slices, similar to thick sheets of paper.

Cut oval centers out of each sheet, leaving enough margin that you can handle the remainder of the sheet without it breaking. Retain the excised centers.

Bake the hollowed tofu sheets for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking time. (Tofu should be firmer, and yellowing or browning, when done.)

While the tofu bakes, make the stuffing. Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat.

Mince the excised tofu centers and toss them into the pan.

Add the diced shiitakes and cook for about 5 minutes, tossing and stirring to brown evenly.

Add chopped walnuts and half of the minced garlic and minced ginger.

Cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, then drizzle with tamari. Toss to coat evenly and remove from heat.



In a saucepan, combine tamari, water, maple syrup, and the remaining garlic and ginger. Bring to a boil and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes. Add rice flour (or cornstarch) to thicken. Remove from heat.


To Serve:

When the tofu sheets are done baking, remove from the oven and place on individual plates. Fill the hollowed-out centers with half of the stuffing. Drizzle with the sauce and serve.