Cooking for Hanukkah
The Treat of Fried Potatoes and a Lesson About Independence
The story is of a single flask of oil that burned for eight nights, rekindling the Temple menorah at the time of the Maccabee rebellion. As children welcome the bounty of eight nights of gelt as the eight lights on the menorah are sequentially lit, the Hanukkah meal is often planned around oil fried favorites like fruit-filled doughnuts.
With Irish ancestors and a Jewish husband, I think the traditional Hanukkah dish of fried potato pancakes called latkes is a perfect food. If I didn't worry about calories from oil and carbs I'd probably eat them weekly but nutrition being as it is, I save the splurge for this joyous holiday which begins next week on December 5th.
Over the years I've learned a few tips to make latkes crisp on the outside, tender inside, and completely delicious:
- Use starchy, rather than waxy, potatoes. Large Idaho russet baking potatoes are ideal. Their long, large size also makes them easier to grate by hand. Absent russet potatoes, you can also use Yukon Golds as an almost-as-good alternative.
- Grate the peeled potatoes on the large hole of a box grater, or with a food processor, and transfer the pieces to an immaculately clean kitchen towel and holding the potato-filled towel over the sink, wring out the excess water from the potatoes. As the potatoes sit before being cooked, they'll turn a bit brown. This is not a problem because the unappealing color will disappear when the potato shreds are cooked.
- Unless there's a nut allergy problem in your household, use peanut oil to fry the latkes. Peanut oil has a high burn temperature so you can make the oil very, very hot without causing a fire. Vegetable or canola oils are good alternatives.
- Some like to combine melted schmaltz -- this is rendered poultry fat -- to the oil to add flavor. If that's your preference, you can find chicken fat (Empire, which is a brand of kosher meat products, is a good choice) or duck or goose fat (look for D'Artagnan). If you are observant and want to keep this dish Pareve, leave out the schmaltz.
- Use a combination of a little flour and eggs to bind the shredded potato together as they cook. For 4 large baking potatoes use about 1/4 cup flour and 2 eggs. If you want your latkes more cake-like, you can substitute matzo meal for the flour. But I like mine to be potato-y, with a very crisp surface and tender interior and don't mind that the pancakes fall apart a bit when cooked.
- Some like onions added to their latkes and maybe it's the Irish in me, but I like them all potato. If you want to add onions, cook thinly sliced yellow onions until caramelized in the same hot oil (or oil/schmaltz combination) in which you'll be frying the latkes. Add the caramelized onions to the mixture of shredded potatoes, flour and eggs. Season generously with salt and pepper and form patties in your hand.
- Fry in very hot oil in a cast iron or other heavy skillet until golden brown. Do not use a non-stick because you shouldn't get a non-stick pan blazing hot as it can damage the surface, plus you want the latkes to get brown, a challenge with Teflon. Besides, if you're using all this fat, what is the point of using a non-stick pan?
- Fry in small batches so that the oil stays hot. If you're making more than a pan-full, you can place the finished latkes in a warm 200ºF oven while you cook the rest.
- Serve with sour cream and applesauce. Try to make your own applesauce to get the best flavor and to honor the quality of this special holiday dish.
- A non-traditional detail to add at the end is a snip of fresh chives. The dark green is a pretty garnish on sour cream and the onion-like flavor is a tasty compliment.
A plate of latkes served with a simple cooked fish, or a pan-grilled steak (as a substitute for frites), or just a vibrant chopped salad is a satisfying winter meal. But because we cook for many reasons -- comfort, creative expression, nostalgia, community -- we can also cook these potato pancakes as a holiday celebration, appreciating the inspiring story behind this traditional dish: that we can succeed despite enormous challenges and that we can conserve a precious resource and still be independent. Isn't it wonderful what cooking can mean?