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While vacationing with my family at a working farm in Nova Scotia one August evening years ago, we were served corn for dinner.
As in…just corn.
Piles and piles of fresh-picked, fresh-cooked ears, our only side the streams of melting sweet butter.
It was a perfect meal.
In spring, I could happily devour a complete dinner of the asparagus newly arrived at my greenmarket. Or make a summer supper of dead-ripe local tomatoes by the platterful.
But potatoes are different—even in that glorious apotheosis of the spud, the latke (potato pancake).
Don’t get me wrong: I adore crisply fried latkes rich with earthy potato flavor. Come Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that begins in 2009 at sundown on Friday, December 11, potato latkes are my family’s eagerly awaited food of choice: Jews traditionally eat foods fried in oil during the holiday to symbolize the single tiny cruse of ritual oil that miraculously burned for eight days when the Maccabees rededicated the defiled Temple. Classic potato latkes, garlic-rosemary latkes, crispy shallot ones with a light sugar dusting, even scallion potato latkes complete with scallion brushes to apply a soy-ginger dipping sauce —we love them all.
But potato latkes do not a meal make. Besides, even with the best latkes, a luscious greasiness comes with the territory, so that a surfeit of potato pancakes served solo would seem less like a treat than a heartburn on hold.
Which is why I like to include an easy main dish alongside. The rare nights when I am really organized, that might mean a brisket prepared a few days in advance, so all I have to do is skim off the fat, boil down the gravy and simmer the sliced meat in it until heated through. Other times I simply serve carry-out roast chicken or else include toppings that would amplify the latkes into a main: smoked whitefish salad or smoked salmon accompanied by sour cream flavored with fresh dill, chives, and lemon zest.
One holiday I created a hybrid: fish fillets dipped in a potato latke batter then fried, and served with horseradish sour cream.
I balance fried latkes with fresh salad: grapefruit, avocado, and romaine with a cumin vinaigrette; sliced fennel and oranges with black olives; or just tart greens with a robust anchovy or garlicky dressing.
And since I am usually hunkered down in the kitchen on fry duty, I like to have something virtuous on the table ready for guests to start with: a nibble like chickpeas tossed with coarse black pepper or roasted winter vegetables dusted with za’atar, or something more substantial, such as a lemony red lentil soup.
By the way, I don’t spend too much time in the kitchen. Hanukkah is a home-centered holiday and families and friends traditionally set aside some time for old-fashioned fun. If the evening is running late, you can eat dessert while playing games, collaborating on a huge jigsaw puzzle, singing, telling stories or jokes. Or end the evening dancing—an upbeat antidote to the winter blues.
All recipes excerpted/adapted from: Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (Wiley 2008)
Garlic-Rosemary Potato Latkes
Yield: About 4 servings
The food processor ended the grater Reign of Terror that marked the Festival of Latkes.
But the four-sided grater offered one advantage (aside from the bits of torn knuckles so many grandmothers swore made their latkes that much more delicious): part of the potatoes could be shredded on the coarse side, to make a crispy crust, and the rest grated rather fine, to ensure a little creamy layer within. All coarse would mean all crunch--texture without an intense potato taste--while completely fine made latkes with too much mush beneath their thin crisp coat, causing them to absorb huge amounts of oil.
The solution is simple: grate the potatoes, using the shredding disk, then process about one third of them to a coarse puree. Result: crisp, crunchy, and creamy, all at once.
These fragrant potato pancakes require no topping or sauce as adornment, except, perhaps, a light sprinkle of coarse salt. They are perfect as is, ready to accompany any roasted or grilled chicken or meat.
About 1 1/2 pounds Yukon gold or 3 large russet (baking) potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon matzoh meal or unbleached all-purpose flour
About 3/4 teaspoon salt
About 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Olive oil, for frying
Sea salt (optional)
Shred the potatoes, using the shredding disk in a food processor. (Don’t wash out the food processor--you’ll be using it again right away.) Transfer the potatoes to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible.
Remove the shredding disk from the processor and replace with the steel blade. Return about one third of the shredded potatoes to the food processor. Add the garlic and rosemary and process, using the pulse motion, until roughly pureed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Add the remaining potatoes, the egg, matzoh meal or flour, salt and pepper to taste, and the baking powder to the bowl. Mix until thoroughly combined. Let stand for 10 minutes to mingle the flavors.
In a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet (cast-iron is ideal), heat about 1/4 inch of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Drop 1/4 cup of the potato latke batter into the pan and flatten with a spatula. Repeat with more batter, cooking no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will give you soggy latkes.
Regulate the heat carefully, reducing it to medium as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent oil from splattering, use two spatulas (or a spatula and a large spoon) to turn the latkes carefully. Fry until crisp and golden on the other side.
It’s best to flip the latkes only once, so that they don’t absorb too much oil. So, before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.
As the latkes are done, transfer them to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain.
Continue making latkes in the same manner until all the batter is used. If necessary, add more oil to the pan, but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch.
Serve straightaway, sprinkled with a little coarse salt, if you’d like. Or if necessary, keep the latkes warm in a 200 degree F oven (arrange them in a single layer on a rack placed over an oven-proof platter or baking sheet) and serve when they are all ready to be brought to the table.
Scallion Latkes with Scallion Dipping Brushes
Yield: 4 servings
These scallion latkes, reminiscent of those savory little pancakes served as dim sum, make use of ancient Chinese wisdom. The bracing, clean flavors of ginger, vinegar, and soy provide a sparkling antidote to the oily richness, as well as welcome respite from the ubiquitous sour cream.
For the Scallion Brushes
10 to 12 thin scallions
For the Dipping Sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon rice, Chinese black, or cider vinegar
2 teaspoons Asian toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
Chili oil (optional)
For the Latkes
2 to 2 1/2 bunches of scallions, white and light green parts, trimmed and thinly sliced (2 ½ cups)
2 tablespoons mild olive or canola oil, plus additional for frying
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
About 1 1/2 pounds russet (baking) or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons matzoh meal or unbleached all-purpose flour
Make the scallion brushes: Cut off and discard the roots and all but 3 inches of the green part of the scallions. Using scissors or small paring knife, cut slits about ½-inch deep into both green sections of each scallion stalk, creating a fringe. Carefully fan out the fringed edges. Place the scallions in a bowl of ice water, and refrigerate for 2 hours or until the fringed edges curl up.
Prepare the dipping sauce: stir together all the ingredients and let the flavors mingle for at least 30 minutes.
Start the latkes: in a large skillet, saute the scallions over moderately high heat in the oil until tender and just beginning to brown at the edges. Stir in the ginger, garlic, and soy sauce, and cook, lifting and tossing, for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to cool briefly.
Shred the potatoes, using the shredding disk in a food processor. Transfer the potatoes to a colander or strainer and use your hands or a wooden spoon to press out as much moisture as possible. (Don’t bother washing out food processor.)
Remove the shredding disk from the processor and replace with the steel blade. Return about one third of the shredded potatoes to the food processor and roughly puree, using the pulse motion. Transfer the puree to a large bowl, add the remaining potatoes and the egg, salt and pepper to taste, the baking powder, and matzoh meal or flour. (You will need salt here--the soy sauce merely flavors the scallions. Putting in enough soy sauce would make the latkes too wet. Figure about 1 teaspoon of salt.) Stir in the sauteed scallions. Mix until thoroughly combined.
In a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet (cast-iron is ideal), heat about 1/4 inch of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Using a 1/4-cup measure, drop the latke batter into the pan and flatten the latkes with a spatula. Cook no more than 4 or 5 latkes at a time; crowding the pan will make the latkes soggy.
Regulate the heat carefully as the latkes fry until golden and crisp on the bottom, about 4 minutes. To prevent the oil from splattering, use two spatulas (or a spatula and a large spoon) to turn the latkes carefully. Fry until crisp and golden on the other side. (Avoid turning the latkes more than once or they will absorb too much oil. Before turning, lift the latkes slightly with the spatula to make sure the underside is crisp and brown.)
Transfer the cooked latkes to paper towels or untreated brown paper bags to drain. Continue frying latkes in the same way until all the batter is used. If necessary, add more oil to the pan, but always allow the oil to get hot before frying a new batch.
If you must, keep the latkes warm arranged in a single layer on a rack set over a baking sheet in a slow oven (200 degrees F) until they are all ready to be brought to the table. But they are at their best served as soon as possible.
When ready to serve, pat the scallions brushes dry. Guests should use the brushes to coat each latke with dipping sauce, then top the latke with the brush.
Esau’s Pottage (Red Lentil Soup)
Yield: 8 servings
This soup is full of nuanced flavors and very simple to make. Sauteed vegetables and tomato provide the flavor base, so no stock is needed. Pareve and vegan, it is great for meals with or without meat.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound onions, coarsely chopped (4 cups)
1/2 cup scraped and coarsely chopped carrots
1/2 cup coarsely chopped celery
4 chopped garlic cloves plus 4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
3 cups red lentils, picked over carefully and rinsed well in cold water
3 canned plum tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 tablespoon ground cumin, preferably freshly toasted and ground
Freshly ground black pepper or Aleppo pepper
1 tablespoon dried mint
About 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Accompaniment: best-quality extra virgin olive oil for drizzling; lemon wedges
In a very large, wide, heavy saucepan or 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Add the onions, salt lightly, and saute until soft, about 15 minutes. Stir in the carrots, celery, and chopped garlic, and raise the heat to moderately high. Saute, stirring, until the vegetables are softened and edged with gold. Add the lentils and stir to coat them with the oil. Add the tomatoes, 9 cups cold water, and the bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes, or until the lentils are very soft. Remove the pot from the heat, and let the soup cool for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf.
Puree the soup, in batches, in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Or puree it in the pot, using an immersion blender.
Return the soup to the pot and add the cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, crush the whole garlic cloves into a paste with the mint and a little salt. Saute the garlic paste in the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet over medium heat until it is just tinged with gold.
Stir the garlic paste and the lemon juice into the soup, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes to blend the flavors. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Ladle the soup into bowls, and drizzle a thread of fine olive oil on top of each serving. Serve with lemon wedges.
Cook’s Note: Leftover soup is delicious, though it will thicken considerably. Just thin it with water before reheating and add a splash of fresh lemon juice before serving.