We’re taught at an early age that Chanukah is not the “Jewish version of Christmas,” and besides, the presents aren’t the point anyway. This always seemed a bit of a stretch even when I was young. Think about it: For small children, what else is there, really?
As a 6-year-old, I remember a Chanukah dream so vivid that I got out of bed the next morning expecting to find a model X-Wing Fighter in my closet. What a disappointment that was.
Now that I have young children of my own, it’s up to me to sell them on the idea that they’re not missing out on anything. We may barely notice how everything becomes awash in red and green the moment the turkey is cleared from the Thanksgiving table. But for them, it’s as if the rest of the world is all in black and white.
There’s plenty of material to work with. Although perhaps a minor holiday Jewishly, Chanukah has a lot going for it. It has all the classic elements of a great story — an evil king, brave heroes prevailing against overwhelming odds and divine intervention.
My 3-year-old daughter already tells a rousing version of the Chanukah story, including the one-day supply of oil that miraculously lasted 10 (sic) days. And the “bad king who wouldn’t let the Jewish people do their mitzvot.”
“He fired the Torahs and smashed the big shuuuul!” (Thank you, Center City Jewish Preschool.)
So who needs presents? Well, my 5-year-old, for one, at least as long as Lego is still in business.
Time to bring out the big guns: latkes. I mean, is there anything objectively better than well-salted potatoes fried in copious amounts of olive oil? Only latkes could make sufganiyot play second fiddle in a holiday food battle.
I learned how to make latkes from my mother. Every year, she would drag out the electric frying pan — did every Jewish household have one of these? —and open the back door to keep the smoke alarm from going off.
My mother had rigid standards for latkes, crispiness being the most important one. I was taught to regard people who believed that latkes were some sort of fried mashed potatoes with suspicion. Over the years, I think she got more dogmatic.
More recently, her latkes got to be the thickness of a credit card but crispier and a lot more tasty.
Now that I’m older and less of a hothead, I’ve come to accept that there are other styles of latkes. In fact, we serve a potato chremsli at Citron and Rose that is little more than chunky mashed potatoes seasoned with prepared horseradish and deep fried into golden brown submission.
We always do latkes for Chanukah at Zahav as well. This year we’re frying shredded potatoes that are formed using a falafel baller. They’re sort of a cross between a tater tot and Waffle House hash browns. In other words, the best Chanukah gift ever.
Adapted from Citron and Rose
4-5 lbs. potatoes (Idaho or Yukon Gold)
1⁄2 cup olive oil
2 tsps. kosher salt
2 Tbsps. chopped parsley
1 Tbsp. chopped chives
1 Tbsp. minced shallot
1⁄2 cup prepared white horseradish
2⁄3 cup dehydrated potato flakes (instant mashed potatoes)
4 large eggs, beaten
oil for deep frying
Bake the potatoes in the oven until tender. Scoop the flesh from the potatoes and discard the skins. Weigh out 31⁄2 lbs. of potato and combine in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients.
Heat the frying oil to 350˚ in a large saucepot. Form the potato mixture into ping-pong-sized balls. Fry the chremsli for approximately 2 minutes or until golden brown and heated through.
Drain the chremsli on paper towels and sprinkle with additional kosher salt if desired.
Makes approximately 60 chremsli.
Adapted from Zahav
1 and 3⁄4 lbs. potatoes, peeled and grated (Idaho or Yukon Gold)
1⁄2 lb. carrots, peeled and grated
1⁄4 lb. Spanish onion, peeled and grated
9 Tbsps. breadcrumbs
4 Tbsps. kosher salt
oil for deep frying
Combine all of the ingredients and mix well.
Using a clean kitchen towel, squeeze out as much water as possible from the potatoes.
Heat the frying oil to 350˚ in a large saucepot.
Shape the latkes into small balls and deep fry until golden brown, approximately 2 minutes. Alternatively, warm some olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
Drop spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the frying pan and flatten with a spatula to form pancakes. Fry until golden brown, approximately 2 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels.
Makes approximately 30 latkes.
Steve Cook is co-creator with Michael Solomonov of Citron and Rose. They also own Zahav.