Sunday, December 9, 2012

SEASONAL EATS: Latkes for Hanukkah

Sometimes the simplest things are the best. For me, this holds true for the classic potato latke. It's a Hanukkah staple; all fried foods are (8 days of dieting this is not). And while I love fried chicken and fried rice balls and fried doughnuts in which many indulge during the Jewish Festival of Lights, I will take the lovely latke over all of them, any day.

Socca street vendor in Nice, France
The latke (the word is Yiddish) is a basic pancake or fritter, something most cuisine cultures share -- think Swiss rosti, French pommes anna, and German kartoffelpuffer. On a larger scale, savory pancakes and fritters are found all over the world, from Chinese scallion pancakes to South American corn arepas, from Russian blini to chickpea pancakes in Sicily (called panelle) and Nice (socca)
Chinese scallion pancakes
And we haven't even crossed over into sweet versions. 

But back to the latke. The potato pancake seems to have originated in Eastern and Central Europe, where basically every country has its own version, though versions can be found north to the UK and Scandinavia as well. It's even considered the national dish of Belarus! Before the potato -- a New World food item -- arrived in the Old World, these pancakes were made with various other types of legumes, vegetables, and tubers. But once the lowly, most basic of ingredients was introduced, the potato brought fame to this fritter and put it on the map, so to speak.  And on Hanukkah menus the world over.

I had a cooking instructor in culinary school who once called potato-salt-fat "the holy trinity of food" (thanks, Erica). And it's true: as long as the proportions are right, there's nothing better. My straightforward, classic potato latkes are damned good. But I think it's best not to put this into recipe form...I'd rather tell you as a grandmother might explain how to prepare a favorite dish. Then you can decide on quantity.

So. You're going to want to make a pretty big batch of these babies. No one goes through the process to make a couple of latkes, mostly because no one can eat just a couple of latkes. To start, let's say for every 3 large russet potatoes, you want one medium onion. Both need to be peeled and grated on a box grater, into the same bowl. 

Once this is done (and work swiftly, to keep the potatoes from turning dark), squeeze the potato-onion mixture either in a dish towel or with just your hands, to get the water content out. Once the mixture is fairly dry, add 2 eggs and about 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup of a half-flour-half-matzoh meal mixture. Add plenty of salt and pepper to taste.

Use a good skillet -- cast iron is always great, but any seasoned skillet will do, even non-stick. I like a combination of vegetable and olive oil mixed (that Italian influence again) with a little shmaltz (chicken fat), though you can use anything from all-veggie oil to duck fat or lard, or whatever your little heart desires. Obviously, if you're using lard, kosher eating is not your lifestyle choice. But hey, everyone loves latkes.

So, fry the latkes in patties by dropping the mixture by spoonfuls into the hot oil (it should sizzle when it hits the skillet). A couple of minutes each side, drain on paper towel-lined plates, and you're done. The best way to see if they're seasoned to taste is to make one, fry it, then taste and adjust accordingly. Once you've logged some latke-making time, it will become instinctual.

These are traditionally eaten with sour cream and some scallions, and apple sauce. But I make all kinds of toppings for my latkes. (for an elegant party app, try creme fraiche, smoked salmon, and caviar). I also make a sweet potato version that's kick-ass. But that version's recipe is for next year...