The Power of Potatoes

What is the Chanukah-latke link? Although Chanukah is not one of the ancient holidays of the Old Testament, it is more than 2,000 years old. Yet potato latkes — the food most identified with the celebration of Chanukah — have been around for barely a few centuries.

No one really knows why potato latkes (Yiddish for "pancakes") have become so identified with Jewish cooking and, in particular, the cooking associated with Chanukah.

Potatoes were unknown in the regions of Jewish settlement until well into the 16th century and weren't a common food in Europe until 100 years later. Even then, potatoes were considered the poorest of ingredients, and it was only the poorest of populations — which the Jews certainly were — who considered them edible. It is likely, then, that the Jews of the Ukraine, forced into a diet of potatoes and bread, used what they had to embrace their holiday traditions.

The traditions of Chanukah cooking have always centered around one ingredient: oil. Cooking in oil connects Jews in each generation to the mystical fuel that lit the lamp in the temple of Jerusalem when a day's worth sustained the light for eight days.

Each culture interprets the oil symbolism using the common ingredients and techniques of its cuisine. Greek Jews traditionally eat fried cakes, called loukamades, at Chanukah that are dipped in honey or swathed with powdered sugar. Persian Jews eat zelebi, a spiral of dough and syrup that is deep-fried, and Israeli Jews eat jelly doughnuts, sufganiyot.

Potato latkes were the item that Eastern and Northern European Jews came up with, and because it is largely these Jews who make up the Jewish population of the United States, it's no wonder that latkes have become as American as the bagel.

Latkes are part of a long tradition of savory pancakes eaten in most European peasant cuisines, and potatoes are only one of the possibilities. Any vegetable or meat that can be shredded and bound together — or boiled into a pliable paste — is suitable for making a latke.

Latkes can be constructed in one of two forms. Many are similar in structure to sweet, breakfast-style pancakes, except that the sugar is replaced by aromatic vegetables, spices and herbs. These pancakes tend to be cake-like in texture, and are filling enough to serve as a cool-weather appetizer or a main course.

Potato latkes made in this style call for very finely shredded raw potatoes or puréed cooked potatoes mixed with a large amount of egg, and a high proportion of matzah meal or flour.

The other style binds thin shreds of vegetable or meat just enough to hold them together, and then browns the pancakes in fat until they set. These pancakes are a bit trickier to cook than the previous style, but are often more varied in texture and flavor.

Any hard vegetable — from beets to zucchini — can be used. Potato latkes of this type use coarsely shredded russet potatoes, soaked and wrung dry, and mixed with a bare amount of egg and just enough meal to mop up the excess moisture.

Regardless of style, latkes can be dolloped with sour cream, cheese, applesauce, chutney, preserves or relishes. Serve potato pancakes under a melted cap of cheddar cheese, or for dessert gilded with a glaze of sweetened sour cherries.

Crown a rice latke with a ladle of mushroom ragout, and use a sweet-potato latke as a nest for a roasted game hen or a grilled chicken breast. Beet and carrot latkes are great with a gilding of orange butter, and kasha latkes are the perfect bed for a hearty helping of beef stew.

There are fried kugels, which are nothing more than noodle latkes bound with eggs, and Pashtida, a Russian dish made from leftover latke batter, sweetened with dried fruit, sugar and cinnamon.

Before you start, a word about potatoes. Once cut, enzymes in the potato cause the flesh to oxidize, turning them from pink to purple to gray. The finer the potato is chopped or shredded, the faster this deterioration occurs. When making latkes, it happens right before your eyes.

One trick to avoid discoloration is to shred the potatoes directly into a large bowl of cold water, which limits the potato's exposure to oxygen. The shreds of potato are then wrung out in a towel, draining away some of the offending enzyme and most of the potato's starch. The loss of enzyme retards the batter from darkening, and the reduction in starch makes the finished latkes crisper.

Potato Leek Latke
(Dairy or Pareve)

2 large baking potatoes, scrubbed or peeled
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbsps. flour
1 to 11/2 tsps. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 leek, washed and finely chopped
oil for frying
1/2 cup sour cream or nondairy substitute

Grate the potatoes (you should have about 2 cups) directly into a large bowl filled with cold water. Swish the potato around in the water to wash away the starch. Then drain and turn the potatoes into a clean dish towel. Wring out any moisture. Rinse out the bowl and return the wrung potatoes to it.

Add the eggs, flour, salt, pepper and leek. Mix till well-blended.

Pour a thin film of oil into a deep sided skillet. Heat over medium-high heat until hot enough to make the latke batter sizzle on contact.

Place heaping spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot fat and flatten so that pancakes are formed, 1/4-inch thick and 3 inches in diameter. Brown well on one side, for about 3 minutes, flip and brown on the other, about 2 minutes.

Drain on paper towel.

Serve hot with sour cream, if serving as a dairy dish.

Makes 12 pancakes.

Carrot-and-Beet Latkes

1/2 lb. (about 3) carrots, peeled and coarsely shredded
1/4 lb. (1 large) beets, peeled and finely shredded
1/4 lb. (1 small) baking potatoes, peeled and coarsely shredded
3 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. lemon juice
3 Tbsps. flour
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
3 Tbsps. finely chopped onion
olive oil for frying

Mix the carrots, beets, potatoes, eggs, lemon juice, flour, salt, pepper and onion together.

Heat 1/8 -inch of oil in the bottom of a large skillet.

Place heaping soup-spoonfuls of the batter in the hot oil, flattening the mounds so that they form pancakes of about 3 inches in diameter.

Brown well, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with applesauce.

Serves 4 to 6.

Sweet Potato-and-Apple Latkes

1 lb. sweet potatoes, scrubbed
3 eggs, beaten
3 Tbsps. flour
1 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
3 Tbsps. finely chopped onion
1 cup coarsely shredded tart apple
oil for frying

Grate the sweet potatoes, and mix with the eggs, flour, salt, pepper, onion and apple.

Heat 1/8 -inch of oil in the bottom of a large skillet.

Place heaping soup-spoonfuls of the batter in the hot oil, flattening the mounds so that they form pancakes of about 3 inches in diameter.

Brown well, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6.

Zucchini Latkes

1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 lbs. shredded zucchini
1 red bell pepper, stemmed seeded and finely diced
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 Tbsps. flour
salt and pepper to taste
2-4 Tbsps. vegetable oil

In a skillet, cook the onion in the olive oil over medium heat until tender, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic and the zucchini, and cook until the zucchini is softened slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Transfer zucchini to a strainer and squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

Transfer to a mixing bowl and stir in red pepper, eggs, flour, and salt and pepper.

Wipe out the skillet and heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until it becomes very hot.

Fry heaping spoonfuls of the mixture in hot vegetable oil until browned on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes per side.

Drain on paper towels.

Serve with tomato sauce or applesauce.

Serves 4.

One Big Cheddar-Potato Latke

1 lb. scrubbed baking potatoes, grated
4 Tbsps. butter
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Wash the potatoes well in a large bowl of cold water. Drain and wring dry in a towel.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large nonstick skillet until foamy.

Add half the potatoes and press down into an even layer. Sprinkle with the garlic, Parmesan, salt and pepper. Place the rest of the potatoes on top and pack into an even layer. Season with more salt and pepper.

Cover the pan, and cook until the potatoes are well-browned across the bottom, about 15 minutes over medium-high heat.

Loosen the edges of the potatoes and flip onto a plate. Melt the remaining butter in the pan and slide the pancake, brown-side up, back into the pan. Cover and cook another 7 minutes.

Sprinkle the top with cheddar cheese, cover and cook for another 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted.

Transfer to a large platter.

Slice into wedges and serve.

Serves 4.

Andrew Schloss is a food-industry consultant and a cookbook author. His current book is Almost From Scratch: 600 Recipes for the New Convenience Cuisine.



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