I look forward to Hanukkah every year because it gives me a free pass to eat fried food without guilt. During the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” Jews are practically commanded to eat fried foods to commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE.
Although Jews have probably been making some form of fried pancakes for a couple of millennia, the first latkes certainly didn’t contain potatoes, since the potato is a product of the New World–specifically Peru–and has only been available in “the old country” for about five hundred years. [The Peruvians are still really serious about potatoes – they grow hundreds of varieties, and they even have an International Potato Center, which I hope to visit someday.]
My grandmother Frieda made latkes, but, unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a latke recipe from her. She grated the potatoes by hand, and my father told me she used to joke that her ingredients included a bit of scraped knuckles. In her memory, I always use a box grater when I make latkes. Even though it’s more work, I prefer the texture of hand-grated potatoes.
Since I don’t have a recipe that’s been handed down for generations, every year I hold a contest in my kitchen seeking out the ultimate latke recipe. The recipes are all pretty similar: they call for potatoes (or other root vegetables), some type of starch (usually flour or matzoh meal), eggs, onions, and, of course, oil. If you use enough oil, they’re pretty easy to make. The trickiest thing about making latkes is making sure you drain the liquid out of the grated potatoes before frying, since they are actually quite watery.
This year, I decided to commemorate the origin of the latke by trying out some non-potato recipes. At the Boston Vegetarian Society vegan cooking class that Michelle and I attended last month, Chef Didi Emmons demonstrated her “Root Vegetable Latke” recipe. She says you can use any root vegetable, but she favors parsnips and beets, so that’s what I made when I cooked them at home to kick off the first night of Hanukkah. Since this was a vegan recipe, there were no eggs, and she used arrowroot powder instead of floor. Add minced onion, salt and pepper, and fry! The resulting pancakes were thin and colorful, full of long lacy edges that picked up the oil while frying, which made them a delicious vehicle for sour cream. But I missed the potato flavor.
In late November, I was delighted to find an article in the Wall Street Journal in which Katy McLaughlin asked five noted chefs to share their pancake recipes. I tried out the Butternut Squash and Honeycrisp Apple Pancakes recipe from Chef Jake Martin of Fenouil in Portland, Oregon. I was surprised at how hard it was to grate butternut squash by hand, since you can peel it with an ordinary kitchen peeler. If I ever need to grate butternut squash again, I’ll break tradition and use a food processor! It was also hard to find Honeycrisp apples, although eventually I spotted them lurking in the organic apple bin in the grocery store. The grated squash and apple get sautéed, along with chopped yellow onion and minced shallots. Martin uses Panko bread crumbs as the starch, which makes the pancakes more substantial, like a burger. Although I liked the consistency of these pancakes, Michelle and I agreed they were too sweet to serve as an entrée.
For my final contestant, I decided to bring some potato back into the mix, so I made another Wall Street Journal recipe: “Beet, Carrot and Potato” from Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry in Los Angeles. It combines beets, carrots and Yukon gold potatoes with red onions (half are sautéed, half are grated and added raw), along with the traditional flour and eggs. Not surprisingly, these tasted the most like the traditional latkes I love, since they contained actual potatoes.
And the winner of the ultimate latke contest is…none of the above!
My standby is still the traditional, 100 percent potato latke (although I may walk on the wild side and make sweet potato pancakes). I enjoyed making the recipes, however, and will definitely try some of the techniques again, such as sautéing some or all of the onions, or using Panko bread crumbs.
I suspect the recipes I tried are a bit healthier than the potato ones, since they contain vegetables. But in the end, anything you fry in oil is not a health food, and, after all, isn’t that the point? During Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil.
[Box grater image credit: CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator Box grater.jpg|thumb|description]