Channukah in Tuscany Chef Jeff Thickman blends Russian and Italian cuisines for a holiday menu

When we were invited for a Tuscan Chanukah dinner at the home of our friends chef Jeff Thickman and musician Igor Polesitsky, who live in a wonderful villa in the wooded hills of Roveta, just outside Florence, the menu included Italian Potato Latkes, Vegetarian Borshch and Stuffed Cabbage, all made with traditional Italian ingredients.

Thickman, a concert pianist, studied at Juilliard and played with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under Zubin Mehta until he decided that he loved to cook more than play the piano. This American cook graduated from the Cordon Bleu School in Paris and has been Mehta’s private chef since 1992, cooking for celebrities Luciano Pavarotti, Itzhak Perlman, Shimon Peres, Hillary Clinton and many others.

As we sat in their big open kitchen and discussed music, politics and Jewish holiday foods, Thickman performed at the stove and explained why he chose this meal.

“These are Igor’s favorite Chanukah dishes that he remembers from his childhood in Russia,” he said.
We began with the Vegetarian Borshch (he uses the Russian spelling for his recipe), a delicious thick soup that can be served hot or cold.

Then Jeff grated the potatoes by hand into a large bowl, tossed them with eggs, Italian parsley and chives, and gently placed small batches of the mixture into a large frying pan with hot olive oil. He served these very crisp latkes with his melt-in-your-mouth cabbage rolls, stuffed with meat and rice.

Thickman, in addition to his catering and private dinners, also teaches Italian cooking in his villa, where he has transformed the kitchen area into a state-of-the-art demonstration classroom.

Vegetarian Borshch
When serving with a dairy meal, spoon a dollop of sour cream on top of each serving.
2 quarts vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 leek, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 stalk celery, chopped
3 large beets, peeled and grated
2 boiling potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 pounds cabbage, coarsely shredded
1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon sour salt (citric acid)
1/2 cup sugar
Fresh dill, chopped for garnish

In a large pot, bring the stock and bay leaf to a boil. Add the leek, onion, carrot, celery, beets, potatoes, cabbage and canned tomatoes. Cover and simmer over low heat for 1 hour. Season to taste with salt, pepper, sour salt and sugar. Cover and continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Allow to cool and refrigerate overnight. Serve hot or cold.
Makes 8 servings.

Tuscan Potato Latkes
2 pounds potatoes
1 large onion or 3 shallots
1 extra-large egg, beaten
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 cup chopped chives
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Olive oil for frying

Peel the potatoes and grate them coarsely along with the onions. Place in a strainer over a bowl and squeeze the potatoes well to remove their water. Let the potato water stand for five minutes. Carefully pour off the liquid and keep the starch that settles to the bottom of the bowl.
Mix the egg, salt, pepper, potatoes, onion or shallots, chives and parsley into the potato starch.
Heat a nonstick pan or cast-iron skillet and coat with a thin layer of oil. Take about 2 tablespoons of the mixture and flatten into thin pancakes with the back of a fork against the bottom of the frying pan. Fry until golden, turning once.
Serve with applesauce if desired.
Makes 8 servings.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
1 large cabbage
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 1/2 pounds ground beef (80 percent lean)
3/4 cup cooked rice
1 cup finely grated carrots
1 egg
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1-2 beef bones
3 cups (24 ounces) canned tomatoes
2 carrots, cut into 1/2-inch thick rounds
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup sugar, to taste
3/4 teaspoons sour salt (citric acid)

Boil the cabbage in a large pot of water until leaves can be removed easily without breaking. Remove and place the leaves on a dish towel to wait while preparing the filling.
In a large pot, heat olive oil, brown the onions and cool. In a large bowl, mix the ground beef, rice, grated carrots, egg, dill, 1 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stuff and roll cabbage leaves. Place them in a large pot along with the beef bones. Cover and cook over low heat until most of the liquid has left the cabbage rolls, about 30 minutes.
Add tomatoes, carrots, remaining salt and pepper, sugar and sour salt. Cook for about 1 hour, covered. Taste and adjust for salt, sugar and sour salt.
Makes 8 servings.

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