And the winner of my ultimate Latke contest is…

A Menorah

A menorah is lit during Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights."

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.]

The box grater: my latke tool of choice.

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.

Pancake

Butternut squash and Honeycrisp pancake

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.

Beet, carrot and potato pancakes

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]

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Heirloom Beans: More Than A Hill of Beans

A hill of Rancho Gordo beans.

Until recently, if you’d asked me if I’d be willing to pay $7 or $8 a pound for a bag of dried beans, I’d have said, “Are you kidding? Why pay that much for something you can pick up at the supermarket for less than a dollar? Beans are beans.”

But—as I’ve learned–beans are not just beans.  If you go to the grocery store, you can usually find about a half-dozen kinds of beans for sale.  If you go to a natural food store, maybe you’ll find a dozen.  But there’s a planet full – literally – of different kinds of beans.  According to Wikipedia, over 4000 varieties of beans have been cultivated in the US alone.

Heirloom beans are pure, distinct varieties that have been cultivated for generations and can be regrown from seeds every year.  Like heirloom tomatoes, each heirloom bean has a distinct flavor profile and is suitable for specific recipes.

This fall, I attended a panel on Heirloom Beans at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, where my bean knowledge grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. (Chef’s Collaborative also has a nice little publication called Cooking with Heirloom Beans that you can download for free from their website.)

Panelist Mike Holleman, director of culinary development at Indian Harvest in Bemidji, Minnesota, passed around a basket of 20-year-old beans for us to look at.  He told us that, technically, the beans were still edible, but since the older a bean is, the longer it takes to cook, you wouldn’t want to use them.

Although maybe some of the chefs in the audience could tell, to be honest, I’d never have known that these beans were practically as old as some of the emails in my Inbox. My advice: Know Your Farmer.  Since you can’t tell how old your beans are just by looking at them, you need to find a reliable supplier whom you can ask.

Since beans are seldom served without lots of other ingredients, I don’t know what most of them taste like. Like coffee and vodka, the best way to learn about beans is to taste them straight up.

I went on an heirloom bean hunt.  While they haven’t made it to most supermarkets, you can find some varieties at natural foods stores and gourmet stores. In addition, you can order them online from companies like Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California.  (If you need instructions, Rancho Gordo has a very funny little video on how to cook beans on their website.)

Christmas Lima Beans that have been soaked overnight.

For my first experiment, I decided to buy a bag of Rancho Gordo’s Christmas Lima Beans at South End Formaggio in Boston. I wanted to try them first, because I like Lima beans and these ones supposedly taste like chestnuts.

Like other kinds of Lima beans, Christmas Lima Beans are flat and oval-shaped.  The beans are ivory-colored, with mottled reddish markings.  Although they did turn chestnut-brown when cooked, their rich, earthy flavor reminded me more of mushrooms than chestnuts.  With the addition of sautéed onions, carrot, fennel, mizuna, and a few herbs, the beans made a delicious stew that even my dinner guests who were not bean-lovers  enjoyed.

Although $6.99 still sounds like a lot for a bag of beans, when you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than most other forms of protein.  I fed four people and had leftovers for several more meals.  I’d say that amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

So, one bean-tasting down, 3,999 varieties to go.