He is called Father Frost or General Frost. He lives in Russia, and he could be very cruel, especially to those who do not show proper respect to him. He has defeated many invaders, from the khans, to Napoleon, to Nazi Germany. He likes to decorate fields and forests, covering them in pristine snow and sparkling ice. And he is not gentle to those who have no means to keep warm and eat well.
Marc Chagal’s painting Over Vitebsk depicts just such a person, a wondering Jew, poorly equipped to travel on foot through towns and villages covered in snow. He is disproportionally huge, symbolizing the entire Jewish population of 19th century Russia, persecuted and destitute, with no place to call their own. Yet, in the middle of merciless Russian winter, the warmth of Chanukkah lights gives them a glimmer of hope.
Hanukkah, by Arthur Szyk 1948, collection of Yeshiva University Museum
They did their best to dress up and rejoice on a holiday commemorating a great miracle of Chanukkah, but to prepare a festive meal, most of them needed yet another miracle – finding food. Latkes were made, of course, and mostly potato latkes, as potatoes were cheap and plentiful, but a seuda (a festive meal) should not consist of latkes alone!
With typical ingenuity, they would gather the most easily obtainable root vegetables and beans, add either pickles or sauerkraut stored in cellars since summer, chop them up and dress them with some vinegar and maybe a little bit of vegetable oil, if they were lucky. In 19th century Russia, this nourishing and colorful winter salad became very popular not only among the poor, but also in the higher, even aristocratic circles. French was the language of the Russian nobility (the classic Russian poet Pushkin didn’t know Russian and spoke only French until the age of five), thus the salad acquired a name, Vinaigrette, from the French vinaigre (vinegar).
What I start with, though, is mixing some olive oil with diced onion. My grandmother did it, and when I asked her for a reason, she explained that “it turns onions from angry to sweet.” Angry onions? But of course! They make you cry, don’t they? While your onions are improving their disposition, you can boil potatoes (unpeeled), carrots, and beets. There are many different variations of Vinaigrette, with red beans or green peas, with pickles or sauerkraut, and, most importantly, with or without vinegar that has given it the name. I prefer to include both red beans and green peas as they create a more complex combination of flavors and, at the same time, lend a color accent. I always use pickles (homemade, for recipe please click here), but sauerkraut is optional. This time, I just didn’t have it ready yet, and I find store bought variety overdone. And I do not use vinegar at all as I consider the taste of pickle quite sufficient to produce the same effect.
Dice your veggies up, add your “not angry, but sweet” onion and olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and don’t forget fresh parsley. Mix and let it grace your festive table for a happy and joyful holiday meal.
- 2 medium or 1 large potato
- 1 large carrot
- 2 medium or 1 large beetroot
- 1 cup cooked red beans
- 1 cup green peas
- 3 -4 medium pickles
- 1/2 onion, diced
- Optional: 1 cup sauerkraut
- 2 -3 tablespoons olive oil
- A large handful of fresh parsley, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Mixed diced onion with olive oil, put aside.
- Boil unpeeled potatoes, together with peeled carrot and beets. Let cool.
- Peel and dice potatoes, dice carrot and beets. Dice pickles. Add red beans and green peas. Add onions and olive oil. Add sauerkraut, if desired. Add parsley.
- Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Serve garnished with parsley sprigs or salad greens.
Happy Chanukkah – enjoy!